A few years ago, our bathroom—like our house, like me—was 51 years old. The bathroom needed to be updated.
So we were tearing out and replacing most everything, except the cast iron tub. After all, it's a cast iron tub, and I think with just re-glazing it will be as good as new, except the plumber and contractor—both men—tell me that the handles and faucet are corroded and need to be replaced.
I know that either man, fairly enough, will add the price of his time for getting the replacement parts for me, and the purchase will delay the work another day or so. I want to save time. I want to save money. So I ask for a list of the replacement parts, say I’ll get them at Lowe’s or Home Depot.
They laugh. Explain: these aren’t Lowe’s or Home Depot parts. These are plumbing contractor supply store parts.
OK, I say, where’s that store? These are nice men, gentlemen, who call me ma’am, and ask about my day, eat their sandwiches on the porch (though I tell them to bring their lunches inside; it’s chilly outside), and work efficiently and quietly. But suddenly, there’s a bit of a knowing look between them, a bit of a smirk… ladies can shop at Lowe’s or Home Depot, sure. But only real men can shop at a plumbing contractor’s supply store.
Now, I’m not a real man. In fact, I’m a real lady. Dressed in kitten heel ankle boots, cute with my tights and skirt, on the way out for real lady errands: lunch with other real ladies and picking up writers’ group white wine at the liquor store.
But in spite of being 51-years-old, I suddenly remember being told I couldn’t take woodshop in 6th grade, couldn’t learn the punch-card computer in 7th grade, and despite placing higher than every girl AND boy on the math placement test in 8th grade, being shooed away from taking higher math or science in 9th grade, and stopping with math or science all together after 10th grade.
Now, I’m sure not going to be held back from something so simple as buying parts at a plumbing contractor’s supply store because I am woman. Hear me roar.
So I demand the list, which the men give me, along with a bag of the old bathtub plumbing parts and directions to the plumbing contractor’s supply store, located in what remains of the warehouse and machine shop district of my industrial hometown.
After lunch and picking up the white wine, I find the plumbing contractor’s supply store. I walk in and am immediately confused, for indeed this is not a hardware store, a la Lowe’s or Home Depot or even a cozy Ace.
This is a bar.
A brightly lit room divided simply by a bar. Yes. An actual bar, behind which are men, and in front of which are men. There are no women in this bar and no drinks, white wine or otherwise. Then I realize that the men behind the bar (store employees) are taking orders from the men in front of the bar (plumbers.) These men are conversing across the plumbing bar in a foreign language. I hear words, which sound kind of like English words, and occasionally I make out words like “the” and “because.”
But most of the words are in a wholly different language. Plumbing language.
However, I've spent a lifetime working on feeling empowered, telling other women to fight for their rights, for God’s sake, demanding that my daughters take math and science throughout high school no matter what their counselors counseled, encouraging them in their pursuit of sports, including male dominated ones like Tae Kwon Do, and so I overcome the urge to turn on my cute kitten heel boots and run out and call my plumber on my cell phone and say, "Good God, man, just get the parts for me! I'll pay triple!"
Instead, I walk up to the bar trying to act like I know what the hell I'm doing. I sit down on a bar stool—it’s covered in slick red and silver plastic, sporting the logo of some plumbing parts brand or other--and tap my nails—they’re covered in a nail polish shade called Belligerent Burgundy--on the bar and wait for one of the men to stop looking at me as if they’re wolves and a lost lioness has just staggered in to demand white wine. Finally a man breaks from the stricken pack and comes over to wait on me. We’ll call the man Harry, since bartenders seem to so often be named Harry.
I appreciate that Harry doesn’t stare at me, just shrugs as if clearly middle class suburban women with shopping lists show up in his joint all the time. That he doesn’t call me Miss. Or Ma’am. Just grunts, whatcanIdoforyou, all one word, which thankfully, I do understand.
So I push the bag of old parts across the bar to Harry, lean forward and peer at my list, which my Belligerent Burgundy fingers have already plucked from my snazzy purse, and I read the list for the first time, and thus end up telling Harry—in a rather loud, shrill voice which seems to carry throughout the now silent Plumbing Bar—that I need a faucet. Two handles. And nipples.
You know, the PLUMBING nipples.
What? You didn't know there are actually plumbing parts called, honest to God, nipples?
Neither did I.
But there are. They are right there on the list. And it turns out that, of all the things on my list, nipples are the most problematic, and therefore require the most discussion.
So, there I sit astride a plumbing bar stool, conversing with Harry about how my nipples are 51-years-old. How they are a bit corroded. How they sorely need to be replaced.
Then we talk about nipple styles.
Oh, and also... nipple lengths. Harry dumps the bag of parts I’ve brought, and gets out a measuring tape, measures my old, corroded, out of date nipples.
"Your nipples," Harry says, without so much as batting an eyelash, "are 3/4 inches long."
Then he tells me that while the faucet is in stock, and the hot/cold handles can come in a few days, my nipples are rare, and must, therefore, be special ordered.
Next it's on to nipple brands. Oh, and the brand that will work with our 51-year-old cast iron tub?
Honest to God. Just like the baby food company. Which makes one think of formula, which leads to thinking of breast milk... and by this point—in spite of my liberated, I am woman, hear me roar, empowered self—I am quivering from the need to laugh so badly that I think I might pee my tights.
Harry completes the paperwork to order my new, shiny chrome nipples, which I pay for with a credit card designated for the bathroom project, and I leave with my faucet and my nipple paperwork.
I walk through the parking lot with my head held high, thinking how pleased I am that all the while I had this conversation, I looked Harry in the eyes, didn't turn bright red, didn’t laugh, didn’t pee.
But as soon as I hit the road, I start giggling. Then laughing. So loudly, that I almost don’t hear my cell ring, but I catch it at the last second.
It’s our older daughter, calling from college to tell me how her midterms—she’s majoring in math, minoring in chemistry—are going. I remember that she is only one of three women at her college majoring in math—not math education, but pure math. She has one female math professor. Yes, opportunities are—tentatively, fragilely—more abundant for women now than they were in my youth. But as my foray into the Plumbing Bar has just reminded me, there are plenty of places where women are, at the very least, unusual.
I am woman. Hear me roar. Yes, sometimes with laughter.
But in all seriousness, I am empowered enough to order my own nipples.