While Rome burns

Last summer, I decided to take 15 minutes out of a busy day to water some flowers. It was too hot and there were too many plants to use my watering can (made in Spain), so I opted for the hose (made in Malaysia).

Like an especially unclean black snake, its five sections — each with plastic “quick-snap” connectors at the ends — lay separate in a tangled heap of rubber knots so thick that it took 15 minutes just to straighten everything out. Then, too, all the sections were coated with liberal amounts of pine and oak pollen, mixed with dust — making this a messy job, indeed. Within 20 seconds, my clean pants were slashed with streaks of grime; not wanting to succumb to Type A violence, however, I patiently persevered, trying to uncoil the various sections and line up their male and female plastic couplers.

With 10 ends plus three separate faucets, the permutations became irksome, to say the least. In an embarrassing attempt at crossing sexual lines, I would match male to male, or female to female; finally (in a salute to Noel Coward’s “Let’s Fall in Love”), one coupling would not work with anything else.

It was then that I noticed that some of the couplers were German and the others came from Taiwan, the Germans being bright orange and their Chinese counterparts a pastel tangerine. Finally, all were connected and the broken pair replaced. But when I turned on the water, every connection leaked, because I had forgotten to change all the hose washers. Time was, such washers were made of rubber and came from someplace like Akron, Ohio, stacked up in well-made (and well-marked) boxes. The box was easily stored in the garden shed, along with all the other tools of the trade. But those days are long gone.

Now, hose washers come from Taiwan or Singapore or Macau, where they are stamped out of green or yellow plastic, arriving in flat sheets of about 20, each held to its fellows by small strands. These washers don’t store well, having a tendency to fall behind other things — I finally found mine beneath a stack of old plastic saucers.

So I began a routine of washer replacement that took another 20 minutes. Invariably, one of the little bits holding the washers together would not snap off — which meant the washer wouldn’t sit properly in the brass part of the hose.

By now, my pants (made in the Philippines) were wet and covered with dirt and grime from cuff to belt. My shirt (a classic acrylic number from somewhere in Asia Minor) was soaked with sweat and water. And, somehow, pollen bits had found their way in between my glasses and my nose, generating the kind of irritation that, in oysters, produces pearls. Still I held my temper, not even raising my voice.

Finally, I got the hose hooked to the faucet, carefully threaded around the various flower beds: All systems “Go!”

I turned on the water and waited. Ten seconds … 20 seconds. At 30 seconds, I realized that the sprinkler wasn’t sprinkling. It’s an old one, made in Mexico. I walked back to the faucet (it, too, was made in Mexico), and turned the water off. Then it was back to the garden, to check the sprinkler connection.

Of course, it was full of dirt. I cleaned the plastic filter, connected everything again, and turned on the water, whereupon the sprinkler sent out several streams of water, in graceful sprays — but in only one direction. The oscillation mechanism was apparently jammed with dirt. Now, in order to open and clean the sprinkler, I needed two small pliers and a large screwdriver (all made in Japan). That took another 15 minutes. So far, I had spent almost two hours, and I still wasn’t done. Like baking bread, my temper was rising.

Forty-five minutes later, the sprinkler was finally ready to move. I hooked it up carefully and, once again, placed it for the best water coverage. I walked back to turn on the water; I waited. It started to sprinkle but still refused to oscillate. Oh, well — I would simply note the time, come back later, and change the direction of the water. Again I walked back to the faucet and turned it on. Ten seconds, 20 seconds; nothing happened. Then I realized that there was no water pressure. I went next door. They didn’t have any water, either. It seems that the city had chosen that precise moment to fix a fire hydrant, three blocks away (it was made in Birmingham, Ala., some 50 years ago). I screamed and my wife came running out, thinking that, perhaps, an elephant had fallen on my foot.

After calming down and taking a seat beneath a shady tree, I wondered: Do they water flowers in Macau with a German hose? Do Germans water with Spanish nozzles? Do the folks in Taiwan ever use Portuguese washers? Do Mexican gardeners ever wear pants made in Peru? Do English gardeners use French boots? Would a French gardener even deign to use an English hose? Do Japanese gardeners use Chinese faucets?

I really don’t know the answers to any of the above questions — but already, in my garden, the Pacific Rim and the European Community are at war with what’s left of North American industry and, frankly, it appears that I’m losing.

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