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What a flood of unneighbourly silence taught me

shannon drew The Globe and Mail

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It has been said that cities are better communities than small towns, due in part to the proximity of services and neighbours. As a born and bred city-dweller, I can confirm the accessibility of services, and friends. Proximity, yes. But closeness? Maybe not.

It was time to bleed the radiator in my aging, midtown Toronto apartment. I knew what I was doing. I unscrewed the screw on the rad so that a little residue of guck could seep out, clearing the way for a stream of air. The rad would fill up again with water – hot water, that is – so I would be warm and toasty for the winter. I put a pot under the valve where I'd loosened the screw to catch the first drippings of sludge.

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I should have quit when I was ahead. Instead, I kept turning the screw until it reached a point where it became as delicate as a loose tooth. I forgot about the water pressure. Suddenly, the screw popped off, sailed across the room and was quickly followed by a gushing stream of warm water.

I began catching water with every container in my possession – pots, pans, cups – all the time eyeing the rest of my apartment, looking for the screw that had gone flying.

I didn't like to admit I needed help, but I did. After swallowing my pride, I called the superintendent. It was 11 on a weeknight. I woke him up and explained my predicament. He responded that all he would be able to do was help me look for the screw. I said that would be help enough because I could not search and catch the stream of water at the same time. He said it was too late, and he would not come up to help me.

I hung up and went back to catching water. By that point, I had gotten creative and discovered I could cover the valve with a garbage bag, which I could keep there by putting a pot on it. Then I was free to look for the missing screw.

It was nowhere. Not on the rug, not on the couch or under it, not in a potted plant.

I phoned the super again. I asked him if he had an extra screw. He said no, they didn't make them any more, it was such an old building. I suggested calling a 24-hour plumber. "Do what you want," he said.

I changed garbage bags on the rad, emptied the first one into the tub and looked up 24-hour plumbers in the phone book. An operator took my phone number and said a plumber with a beeper would call me back momentarily. When I told her my situation, she was not optimistic.

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I moved the couch away from the wall again in hopes of seeing the screw. The plumber soon rang. I told him my story as fast as possible, and he said he did not have a replacement screw for radiators; I would need to find the original one. I said I knew that, but could not catch water and search for the screw at the same time.

It was at this point that a level of useless panic began to overtake me. Useless because, up until now, I had been running on purposeful adrenalin. I needed assistance.

I had neighbours on one side: Our balconies touched in the L of the building. I had never laid eyes on them. I knocked on their door. After a few silent minutes, a tentative female voice said, "Yes?" on the other side.

I introduced myself as calmly as I could, explained the situation and begged for aid. She said that she had never met me, and that even though I needed help she was not going over to some strange man's apartment at midnight. Besides, all she would be able to do was help me look for the you-know-what.

Realizing how crazed I must have sounded on the other side of the door, I thanked her for hearing me out and ran back to the scene of the flood.

I phoned a friend who lived a 15-minute streetcar ride away. Her answering machine was on.

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I looked out my window. I looked at the water flowing into my apartment. I looked at the mess this small, stupid accident had caused.

When you're desperate for help, who ya gonna call?

The operator at 911 listened to my tale, and without laughing told me that even though she was sure I had an emergency, it was not a matter of life and death. She could not, in good conscience, send a police officer to help me look for the screw.

Without any particular logic in mind, I phoned the super for the fourth time that night. I described my various attempts to reach out, swore at him and demanded he come up and help me because the garbage bag was almost full and about to burst more water onto my already floating floor (never mind my neighbour's ceiling below me).

When the super finally arrived, we (or rather, he) switched the screw from the radiator in the bathroom to the one in the living room. The stream of water in the bathroom went right into the tub. He plugged the valve in the bathroom with a wood screw and electric tape. It was 2 a.m., and for the first time since I had gotten home that night, the water had stopped.

And the missing screw? It had landed in one of the very first pots I'd used to catch the water.

I remained in that apartment for 14 years, with a permanent water stain to mark the spot. I have since moved on from apartment rental to condominium ownership. My status has changed, but my need for human kindness hasn't.

There is no radiator; the heat is electric. Some of my neighbours even say hello in the elevator.

Norm Reynolds lives in Toronto.

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