Out of Order

A Story from Sydney

Have you ever seen an out of order sign on a toilet door and asked what that really means? Did the last person to go in the bathroom and take the toilet a part and put it back together in the wrong order just for a laugh? Or was the toilet taken to court as a witness and got sent out for not following the formal rules in order? Of course, in reality the toilet simply doesn’t work, most likely from being blocked or leaking, although on a rare occasion it may actually be in pieces. It is highly improbable that a toilet would ever be more than evidence in a court case.

I grew up in a house with one bathroom that included the only toilet in the entire three bedroom house that was home to six people, four of them being children. We lived with this situation for twelve years to be exact before we moved, for unrelated-to-the-lavatory-reasons supposedly… And yet, with that move came a second toilet, things were looking up! No more waiting in line for that sweet release, and the risks of a possible urine infection had dropped significantly.

Moving forward a bit into the future and the first lockdown of 2020 hits! And suddenly that magical second toilet springs a leak… not so magical after all. The usual pristine, dry and shiny bathroom floor drips with moisture, there is a stench and a growing puddle of effluent!

It was a mess, a stinking, smelly, soppy mess! However, it was a mess that was easily fixed, one phone call and a plumber came to the rescue with the obligatory fee, naturally.

A small hop, skip, and jump into the future and the first lockdown comes to an end and in Australia things are getting better or back to “business as usual” as is the normative phrasing, at least covid wise…

One final hop, skip, and jump into the future, or what in this case is the present and we’re slammed back into lockdown! And what should happen? Not one but both toilets fail! The first toilet has a case of the leaky pipes, casing the clean toilet water to drip, drip, drip constantly forming a puddle on the bathroom floor which grew after each consecutive flush…

Now as to the second toilet. Prior to the current lockdown we’d brought some new toilet paper, as a special treat, the real expensive Three Ply shit! THREE PLY! No more of that single ply crap! Not for this family. However three ply toilet paper tends to pack a punch, especially when the plumbing is on the rather fragile side of things… needless to say the second toilet got blocked and it was not an easy fix. It was so backed up, grabbing the nearest plunger and some good old fashion elbow grease did next to nothing.

However, the pipes of first toilet were an easy fix, and no longer leak. The plumber after fixing the first toilet attempted to unblock the second toilet without much luck and as you read this it remains out of order, plumbing fees are no joke.

As I am on the topic of toilet paper I thought I would talk a bit about another thing that happened over the course of lockdowns that turned into a disturbing pattern that is linked to my personal plumbing issues by at least a ply or lack thereof…

I am, of course, talking about the epidemic of panic buying, specifically The Toilet Paper Panic!
Heading to the shops would seem to be a very mundane errand that may involve anywhere from hourly, daily, weekly to monthly trips in order to stock up the home. The humble toilet paper packet, found lining the aisles in shops and supermarkets around the world, a household staple was soon to become the rarest and most sort after item in every store.

Australian shops desperately striped the aisles bare, down to the very last single ply in a mad dash! Charging in urgently like a pipe about to burst, onward and upward, in a race to be the first one to get to the loo after an extended road trip. Yet, there wasn’t a square to spare!

They incited brawls over packets and shops resorted to enforcing limits, of one square per person (not really, it was one packet) in order to stem the tide. Though, of course, the shoppers were resourceful and packed second and sometimes third disguises, I mean outfits to pull of quick changes and go back in as someone else for more (of course no one did that, or did they… you’ll never know). Some travelled in pairs or groups to hit up more shops and double their takings (I neither deny or confirm this fact). There are countless stories, articles, news reports about this new phenomenon.

It was panic and pandemonium, chaos in its purest form!

The reason for this panic buying was that the lockdowns were causing the shops to close, when in fact grocery stores, especially in large supermarkets didn’t close and as you read this they still remain open. Being essential services they were never going to close (as we were all told multiple times). This, of course, makes them prime targets for covid exposer sites. Many were mentioned on the list of exposer sites and yet remained open for business.

In addition to panic buying covid also expanded two industries. The first being hand sanitizers and the second being face masks. Both can now be found in nearly all stores from grocers to gift shops, lining whole aisles or just at the end and simply hanging on a rack. They come in all colours, styles and shapes and sizes.

Hand sanitizers were the first defence utilized to combat the rising tide of covid. In addition to social distancing both inside and outside, the big push to increase (what would seem rather obvious) the washing of hands, particularly after sneezing and going to the toilet, and the ban on hand shaking and other long standing greetings involving physical touching.

Not only are hand sanitizers available for purchase in the multitudes, but you can find them at the entrance to every available public space and in order to enter it is vital for public health and safety to squirt and rub some onto your hands. And it will be just at that moment that you realise you have a small cut where you lease expected it…

Thus, it comes as no surprise that masks on faces have proliferated in shops and public spaces from the surgical and fabric, to the industrial gas/chemical,/dust and plastic face sheets. Yet, the rate of infection whether spreading via droplets or air borne seemed to be continually increasing…

The masking of mouth and nose never seemed more important, considering that every breath you take the seemingly innocent air that you just sucked in has already been previously breathed in and out by somebody else. It will get shared around from lung to lung, with every human and animal in your nearest vicinity. The available fresh air appears to be on the decline especial indoors where the volume of necessary fresh air within a confined space per person per hour has been measured to between six and ten cubic meters!

With an excess of free time what better way to get a lung full of fresh air than exercising out of doors? Don’t forget to bring a mask for close encounters of the human kind. And if thinking of increasing the volume of fresh air, you can always plant a tree or two!

I will now return to the infrastructure, on which I began this post and blog, the sewerage. I recently came across an excellent podcast A Tale of Obelisks and Sewers by Alistair and Jed the team of Stories from Sydney: History of the Harbour City. That takes listeners on a deep dive into the history of Sydney’s sewers which coincides with colonisation (upon the “discovery” of fresh water being the deciding factor in white settlement sites) and the history of democracy within Sydney. The Hyde Park Obelisk, Sydney’s only sandstone sewer vent is mentioned, having played a key role in the sewerage system, although now it is regulated to venting storm water.

Sydney’s other sewer vents and the newer style of sewerage systems that allow for pumping up hill, rather than gravity feed are also mentioned, along with many more exciting facts about sewage! A must listen. They have a wonderful historical map from 1877, of Sydney’s original tank stream sewerage system, as well as a photo of the Hyde Park Obelisk on their instagram @storiesfromsydney.

They mention my vent trips from this blog, along with two key sources for their podcast, the first being an excellent PhD Thesis, From Pipe Dreams to Tunnel Vision by Sharon Beder in 1989 at the University of NSW. The second is @stukhan the twitter of water engineer Stuart Khan that has a great map of the original 18 sewage pumping stations from the original sewage system, in addition to other interesting water and sewage facts. I plan once lockdown is over to visit each of the 18 original sewerage pumping stations as I continue my exploration of Sydney’s Sewerage and hpe you’ll follow this blog along for the journey.
Stay tuned.

I want to congratulate you for making it through this blog post it was a long one, so you deserve an applause. Thank you for reading and I hope your keeping safe and healthy during these difficult times.

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