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Smell Test

By Tina Traster

June 23, 2011 -- When I was young, three friends and I backpacked through Europe one summer. I don’t know who started the dare but someone wondered aloud, “How long could we go without taking a shower?”

We were on trains and in youth hostels and being grungy — it was part of the abandon of being young and free, I guess. I broke down on day four after hiking in the Austrian Alps. I couldn’t stand my own stench. I bathed. We all did.

This memory floated back to me as I entered day three without a shower on the Wednesday after Memorial Day weekend. But this time I wasn’t participating in a youthful “Survivor”-style escapade.

I had no hot water.

It all started Sunday night when the smoke/carbon monoxide detector on our bedroom ceiling sounded. It rang twice then stopped. My husband searched the house. There was no fire. Either we had a carbon monoxide leak or the detector was worn out and faulty.

We opened the windows and waited. Nothing happened for 20 minutes; then another high-pitched alarm. It stopped again. We called the fire department rather than wait until morning because I wasn’t sure how long it would take for carbon monoxide to put us under.

Standing at the open front door, we explained to the fire chief — while swatting at bat-sized mosquitoes entering the house — what had happened.

The firemen checked out the upstairs and the main floor. No problems there. They then wanted to go to the basement.

My husband and I braced ourselves. Six years ago, in a similar incident, the gas line for our hot water heater was turned off because of a carbon monoxide leak. The gas company had told us the vent was not pitched vertically enough to send gas up the chimney. We called in plumbers to fix the venting — admittedly a tough job in our basement with low ceilings.

By now the firefighters, accompanied by a gas company official who’d been called in, were tsk-tsking at the venting job. Their detectors said we had a high carbon monoxide reading.

The gas was turned off immediately.

It was Memorial Day. Temps rose to the mid-90s. Nothing much to do but plant our vegetable garden, as planned. We were sweaty and smelly by day’s end.

Discussions over what to do next became heated. My husband thought we should have a plumber try to fix the venting. I insisted on switching to an electric water heater.

My husband said it would be more expensive. I said we wouldn’t have to worry about carbon monoxide.

He said it would be more expensive. I said I didn’t trust plumbers anymore.

He said we would spend an extra $500 a year taking hot showers. I said we could cancel our New York Times subscription.

I can’t say whether it was my rising hysteria or the rancid smell emanating from my person, but he gave in.

For three days, though, we were trapped in a labyrinthine maze of what-ifs, unreturned phone calls and canceled appointments. In the throes of a post-Memorial Day weekend heat spell, it was impossible to get an electrician to run a line. Ten calls went nowhere. They asked if we’d like to make an appointment in mid-June. One said he’d come the next day, then called at 7 that morning and canceled.

“It’s too hot to work today,” he told us.

Finally, we dialed Franco — a referral from a friend. Our friend warned he was expensive. At this point, I was willing to pay extra to smell like a daisy again. Franco showed up moments later. He told us to order our hot water heater and he’d come back later that day.

Lowe’s promised to install and deliver the unit by 9 p.m. Thursday, and did. Franco also showed up and hooked up an electric line.

That night, after the sweat-drenched workmen left, I scurried upstairs to the bathroom. Hot water rained down. My middle-aged bones and muscles were soothed and grateful — though I felt nostalgic for that younger me who went without bathing for days just for the fun of it.

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