I take pictures of toilets. Intimate pictures of their innards. I carry the snapshots around and show them to guys in hardware stores.
"Ever seen anything like that?" I ask as I flash a candid of the plastic ball cock assembly of the second-floor toilet, the one that makes noises in the night.
"Never," the hardware guys say.
"Well," I ask, still waving the photo, "do you know somebody who might know this kind of thing?"
Sometimes the hardware guys just shrug and walk away.
Other times they send me to spots I didn't know existed. Like the plumber who has a shop in the 2200 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, or the plumbing supply store a few blocks up the street. Both places know about leather -- leather washers, that is.
The ball cock assembly of my basement toilet prefers leathewashers. I have taken a picture of it, too, as well as snapshots of the insides of our other two water closets.
I carry around the commode candids for the same reason that Kojak carried around mug shots of bad guys. I'm hoping to get lucky. I'm hoping to stumble across some plumbing-parts salesperson, or some illustration on the side of a box of plumbing parts, that tells me where I can find an identical replacement part for one that is broken.
Showing a guy a photo of an exotic toilet part is easier than describing it. I wasn't always a photographer of plumbing parts. It is a habit I picked up soon after I got a mortgage.
Until I owned a house I thought all toilets were the same. Now I know that toilets are like storm windows -- there are many subtle differences, most of them created by manufacturers who have long since gone out of business.
What this means is that when you start out to replace a little part, a leaking ball cock washer, for example, you are often pushed toward replacing the entire ball cock assembly. Your old ball cock, you are told, is out of style. Its replacement parts are hard to find. Rather than a minor change, your toilet tank needs an entire new look.
I once took this advice and replaced an entire ball cock assembly. That was years ago before we had kids and when my muscular brother-in-law, Dave, was visiting. Muscular brothers-in-law are an important element in any ball cock-assembly effort. Because the old ball cock, the device that controls the flow of water into the toilet tank, has probably been installed by a real plumber.
From my observation, there are two things that real plumbers have: an absolute fearlessness of knocking holes in walls, and absolutely powerful forearms. These guys are strong. And when they tightened the shank washer that held the old ball cock to the toilet tank, it stayed tight. Moreover, a few years of rust made removing the old ball cock even more difficult.
So my muscular brother-in-law got the job of crawling under the toilet and loosening the old metal ball cock. I supervised and helped put in the new plastic ball cock. It took two days.
The trouble with "playing plumber" as my brother-in-law and I were doing, is that you easily get carried away. When we tightened down the new plastic washer that held the new plastic ball cock in place, we tried to tighten things down like real plumbers. We took one twist too many. We stripped the plastic threads. Nothing leaked, but removing this stripped ball cock would be a terrible job.
I did what every right-minded home repairman should in this situation. I pretended it didn't happen. And a few years later, I sold the house.
Now when I have a toilet repair problem in this house, I go for the replacement part approach rather than toilet renovation.
Which means that before I make a run to the hardware store, I take out my Polaroid, I lift up my tank tops, and I start clicking.