Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 20, No. 2, 2021
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Robert J. Lewis
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Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

a day in the life without the plumber




Former lead singer of the legendary 222s, arguably Montreal's first punk rock band, Chris is now a freelance writer based in Montreal. You can check out his writing at where he combines the sardonic humour of David Foster Wallace and the deliciously contrived irreverence of Anthony Bourdain.


Back when I was an adolescent, my two older sisters, who early on in the game had pegged me as mildly retarded, would occasionally sit me down at the kitchen table and feign concern over what I was going to do with my life. “You’re obviously too stupid to get into university and learn a profession,” they’d insist, “and far too lazy for manual labour.

We think you need a trade. But an easy trade even someone like you could learn, like plumbing. Plumbers make tons of money and so long as you’re comfortable rooting around in shit all day, its something you could probably do.”

Yet funny enough, in spite of these inspiring pep talks, I knew plumbing was never going to be for me. To begin with, I’ve never been too fond of fecal matter – or, at least, that of other people’s – and besides, to this day every time I try working with my hands I end up bleeding.

I’m telling all this to Murray Davis of NDG Plumbing, riding shotgun in his pick-up as we head out to his next job of the day. He’s just finished installing a new toilet at what can only be described as a mansion high in the hills of Westmount and now we’re off to a slum dwelling in Cote des Neiges to address a hot water system that stopped functioning the night before. Possibly annoyed -- I’m not quite sure how to read the man yet -- he turns down the Little Feat CD he’s got playing on the stereo to set me straight about his profession.

“Your sisters were way off about plumbing.” the big man looks at me and snorts. “For starters, in spite of what everybody thinks, we don’t make that much money. Okay, it’s true we charge $85 an hour but once you account for expenses . . .look, I bring home 40k a year -- does that make me rich?”

I tell him I agree that doesn’t really qualify him as a 1-percenter and then, almost as an afterthought, he blurts, “And be sure to tell your readers that so far as shit is concerned, I never deal with it directly. There are tools for those jobs. And yeah, another thing, even though plumbing isn’t that hard if you’re mechanically inclined, I know an awful lot of people who’ve tried but just can’t do it.”

I get the feeling Murray’s a little exasperated by my childhood anecdote, as though he’s dispelled these plumbing myths far too many times over the course of his 57 years on the planet and can’t get around how they continue to persist when they’re so obviously off the mark. I figure it’s probably a good time to change the subject and, while I’ve got plenty of plumbing-related questions for him, I just can’t seem to get over the fact that he’s listening to Little Feat. Lowell George era Little Feat. Really? Okay, I know they’re not that obscure but at the same time it’s not a band I’d expect a guy like Murray to even know about, let alone be into.

“Oh yeah, I fuckin’ love them!” He assures me, clearly impressed that I recognize one of his favourite bands. “Music’s a really important part of my life. I used to play in a group when I was a kid, you know? We were called Traces. You know how when you drop acid and move your hand, how sometimes you still see your hand moving when it really isn’t? Yeah, that’s traces. I still get together with some buddies and play every once in awhile.”

Being a major music fan myself we get to talking rock and roll and find out we actually have a fair amount in common -- although I can’t say I really share his enthusiasm for the History channel or ultimate fighting. “I know a lot of people think it’s violent, and it is, but I just find it relaxing,” he explains to me.

Since we’re starting to hit it off so well I decide it’s probably safe to change the subject back to plumbing again, and as we gradually make our way into the slums, I ask what attracted him to the trade in the first place.

Murray tells me that largely as a result of his prowess as a high school wrestler and with his coach’s assistance, he was able to sneak his way into Halifax’s somewhat prestigious Dalhousie University -- despite his mediocre grades. And while he managed to secure a Bachelor of Science degree and was training to become an engineer, “as soon as I realized I hated it, I dropped out to do what I really wanted to do, which was become a plumber.”

Apparently plumbing was a much easier thing to get into back in Murray’s day. He tells me that in the late ‘70s, when he went out to Alberta to learn the trade and was ready to apprentice, potential employers were falling all over themselves to sign him up. “There was a real shortage of plumbers out there then, but I always knew that once I had my training I’d come back to Montreal and start my own business. Being self-employed was a big attraction about plumbing for me.”

He says he can’t imagine how anyone in Montreal today could ever score a plumbing apprenticeship unless they were going into the family business. “It costs money to take on an apprentice,” he explains, “I can’t send a second year apprentice out to a client and charge $85 for him. He’s not going to know enough. Nor can I bring a kid along with me for a year and charge even $50 for him to stand around talking to me, learning what to do. I’ll do that with my son only, and it’s the same thing with all the other plumbers I know. You just can’t take a chance with a guy off the street who might, after three or four years of apprenticing under you, decide he wants to work for someone else because he doesn’t like you or something. There’s not many apprenticeships out there anymore.”

We finally arrive at the next job and everyone’s waiting around outside, happy to see Murray; the slumlord, the tenant, the buildings superintendent, you can tell they really like the guy, although I’m sure they’re also anxious to finally get the water going again. But their affection is understandable, he’s a little rough around the edges, sure, but you can tell Murray’s good people. I like him too.

He grabs his tools from the truck, we make our way up to the apartment in question and Murray gets down on his back to crawl under the sink and investigate the problem. It’s gross under there, much like the rest of the filthy apartment, the bathroom floor is covered in muck. There’s little room to move and you know he has to be pretty uncomfortable down there, searching for a good vantage point to address the issue at hand.

“You know”, he says, “from what I understand it’s a nation-wide problem. There’s going to be a shortage of plumbers in the years to come. Young people are told over and over, ‘get into computers, be a computer guy working on games’ or what have you. What I have to do is tough -- going into old buildings like this and wrestling with their plumbing. It’s hard work. This is something you really have to love cuz you sure as hell aren’t doing it for the money.”

My mind drifts as Murray stops talking to focus on his work. How could anyone possibly love what this man is doing right now, I wonder incredulously? All I have to say is praise sweet Jesus for the Murrays of this world. Long may they plumb.

Also by Chris Barry:
How To Mend a Broken Wang
Digital Pimp
Remembering Alex Soria
Cultivating Cannabis: The Way It Was
To Boots with Love
From Spring Fatness to Fitness
Coming Out: Is It Any Easier?
Head Trip Story: My Inner Idiot
Ballet Boxer: Milford Kemp
Like Young
Loving Hard Times
Feed Your Head
Talking 12-Tone with Patti Smith
Beauty Pageants: The Golden Years
Swingers' Clubs as Safe Zones
Bust a Move
Trapeze - Swinging Ad Extremis
Hells in Paradise
The Cannabis Cup
Colonic Hydrotheraphy


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