tunnel vision

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One of the common things people say when they look around our bookstore is ‘Bet you worry about having a fire, eh?’ Our response invariably is ‘Not as much as we worry about a flood.’

Over a week ago Monday, after another work day spent restoring the chaos from the flood that happened in our storage building up the street and feeling relief that after three relentless weeks we were finally making progress over there, I stepped down the winding stairs at 6pm to our bookshops basement and found a 20′ radius of water on the floor. I screamed. Roz, Darby and I frantically rescued boxes from the ground. We threw wet books into a box outside that is now also full of dirty fentanyl needles from the regulars that use our back steps to shoot up. We mopped but had no idea where the water had come from other than it must have something to do with the several construction projects directly across the laneway from us. That, or the abandoned building across the parkade. Our dad first opened this used book shop in 1974 and we moved into this building almost thirty years ago, we’d never had a problem with flooding, save for a couple down spout leaks until we had the roof replaced.

The next morning there was more water and I went to the D.P.A. They said they would contact the infrastructure project and the city engineer to investigate it as soon as possible. The Foreman from the infrastructure came within the hour. He had a thousand yard stare like he was as comfortable standing above an excavation pit with heavy machinery as he would be on a boat in the Bering Strait. I immediately liked him. He reckoned the water was coming from the laneway, being the high point and we suspected the mud sink and old drains in the floor maybe had something to do with it too. Our basement being a narrow maze of shelves, with every wall covered by books it was difficult to determine the point of entry and everyone had a different theory where the water had entered from. The next morning was dry and we hoped, even though it hadn’t rained in days, it was just a freak accident. By that afternoon we had water and the following morning more. My brother and I ripped a fifteen foot long bookshelf out of the north west corner revealing a false wall and a small opening to a three foot wide crawl space that ran the length of the parkade that split us from the neighboring building. There were pools of water around the old chimney. Being a small town built on creek beds between two lakes our worst fear was that with multiple construction projects happening downtown an under ground creek could get diverted.

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Eight days of speculation and a process of elimination with the infrastructure Foreman guiding and supporting me as best he could on his breaks from his own crew and despite my repeated requests no one from the city ever turned up. He said the tap to our service line was too close to the building and if it wasn’t fully open it could be over flowing underground. He went back to his shop and modified the tool. We tested this theory by shutting down the main and restarting it the next day with the knowledge it may take a while to drain out the rest of the reserve. My early mornings and late nights were spent surveying the water levels, digging out pits in the crawl space, mopping and wet vacing; all the while trying to keep the business running seven days of the week. Thinking we’d solved it only to find it had spilt over in the morning again. Alone in the basement sucking up water and silt and tears as my thoughts drifted to dad’s chemo. When dumping a ten gallon bucket into the windy lane, as far from the building as I could carry it a fork lift driver looked down at me grinning ‘Got a leak in your basement, eh?’ I had a complete melt down and slammed the back door. When I came back out minutes later with the next ten gallon bucket I found him out of the lift waiting for me; apologizing that he doesn’t know what’s going on, that he has only been on the job a week, and how can he help?

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Yesterday I came in at 6am to find more water in the basement than ever before, it reached out to the stairs and past the boiler. All my attempts to dig deeper and deeper pits only allowed more water to drain in. I splashed around with the wet vac and cursed myself for not getting a sump pump. My body ached in ways it hadn’t since concrete pours back when I worked construction. By 7am I met the Foreman outside in the fading twilight and a howling gale. He said he would bring a machine and crew right over, dig up the service line and get to the bottom of it ‘We’ll fix this, I promise.’ By 9am they’d uncovered the line and it was bone dry. He asked if I could expose the pipes running along the east wall and I started emptying the bookshelves to pull the cases back. The head of the infrastructure company came in to have a look and then left for a meeting with the city. The Foreman, who I now felt an intangible bond with, said there was a fight between his boss and the city as to who is to take responsibility for this. The east wall revealed nothing. He shook his head. I went home to take a quick shower and a sanity break. Meanwhile two suits from the city finally show up. After inspecting the basement they tell Roz ‘It’s ground water.’ The Foreman counters on our behalf that he’s dug deeper than that and found no ground water. It’s coming from a source but it’s not that. The city is pissed. City bureaucrats evading responsibility seems like a cliche until you actually watch it play out in a crisis.

I’m back at the shop when this awesome guy ‘Bob’ from the city comes in with his tool bag wearing high vis coveralls, tinted glasses and long Sylix braids. I take him to the basement. He tisks and whistles through his teeth in the crawl space. I answer all his questions; except I don’t really know how old the building is, 100 years at least. He finds the service meter under the basement stairs and says that’s a weird spot for it to be. He squats down and shines his flash light on it until the toilet a customer used above us stops flushing and says that the meter stabilizes when water isn’t running so the water is definitely not coming from here. I tell him about the derelict building across the parkade, how it’s been empty for seven years because the wealthy land lords wouldn’t fix the roof and the business moved out but held on to the lease all this time. I suspect, so it would sit empty and completely rot out just to spite them. And even though they’re on the down slope from us, how the roof has a wrecked downspout and pours water into the lane way. He says he’ll go out and look at their meter.

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I start texting my brother when into the basement steps patent leather shoes, an oxford coat and an immaculately groomed smile. I was about to tell him he’ll find the Pop Lit up at the front when behind him appears the liaison from the D.P.A wild eyed and clutching her phone, a notebook and several clip boards. I’m aghast that this kid is the city engineer, this is who I’ve been waiting for. He doesn’t stop smiling at me but his subtext reeks of ‘I only left the office to make sure this isn’t the city’s problem.’ I tell him Bob is out back looking at the neighbors meter. He practically clicks his heels in glee by the possibility this is a private property issue. He steps out the back door and exclaims he wore the wrong shoes for this.

Bob and the Foreman are out back. Bob says that the neighboring meter is running non stop and water is rushing through the sewer line, something must be broken inside. He said the building next to it, owned by the same landlord, is also leaking. The lease holder needs to be contacted to gain access. The Foreman shuts down the main service line to the abandoned building. Both the landlord and lease holder have so much money neither cares that services have been running all this time. A stand off where one is still collecting the rent while the other is watching the building implode. They both think they are winning. I point out the roof to the engineer and that soon it will become a wall of ice reaching all the way down to the street, his response ‘Well, that shouldn’t be happening. There’s a bylaw against that.’ The air is a mixture of bewilderment and exasperation.

My brother and I work late draining the pit, cleaning and reorganizing the basement. Discovering forgotten corners and old relics. Books on mythology, witchcraft and Asian art we didn’t even know we had. Unlike all new and most modernized used bookstores we don’t keep a computerized data base of our stock. It’s just our collective memory. I checked the basement early this morning and for the first time in nine days, it was dry.

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2 comments
  1. Jenny said:

    Eeesh, what a horrible adventure :/ I used to work for an arthouse cinema here in Manchester that leased a building from a rail company. The city’s plumbing on a major road outside was about 100+ years old and there were leaks and floods into the basement cinemas regularly. There was a constant battle between the landlord, city council, and rail company over who was actually responsible. Doubly no fun when it’s your family’s livelihood! Fingers crossed for continued dryness for you.

    • lysette said:

      Thanks Jenny! So far so good since they shut down the main to the derelict building but that in itself has opened another Pandora’s box in trying to contact the lease holders, who turns out are now a consortium in Texas :/ There are a bunch of buildings owned and operated here by American companies, who have zero interest in the vitality of this tiny Canadian community, creepy really. A second run, arthouse cinema in this town is an ongoing dream of mine!

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