New book explores gross stories, gender disparity in plumbing

An Edmonton-based plumber is featured in a new book that delves into the dirty work and memorable moments of the trade, and explores what it’s like to work as a woman in a trade that’s still male-dominated.

Poop Diaries by Chicago writer Abby Ross, was published in February and features Edmonton’s Carissa Smith. The book compiles stories from plumbers around the United States and Canada, including some of the awkward interactions and gross situations they find themselves in.

In one story, Smith was accused of breaking up a marriage. She was asked to unclog a toilet in someone’s home, and after removing it, found several condoms. The next day, her boss received an angry call from a woman who claimed Smith had ruined her marriage. Smith now figures the customer knew the condoms in the pipes weren’t his and confronted his wife about whether she’d cheated on him.

“Basically, I just ratted her out and she wasn’t too happy about that. She got busted by plugging up her toilet,” Smith said.

‘A man’s world’

Aside from tales about the disgusting situations some plumbers have had to work in, the book looks into how different the industry can be for women. Smith has been in situations she thinks her male counterparts seldom, if ever, have to deal with; like being hugged by customers, stared at or asked on a date while repairing a bar’s public washroom.

But she’s also worked for men who weren’t happy to find the plumber coming to their home is a woman.

“I think that sometimes they don’t like that a woman can fix it, especially if they did try to fix it first,” said Smith, who spoke with CBC’s Radio Active this week.

“Usually when I start at a new company or have somebody who isn’t a big fan of a woman in the trades, it takes me a little bit to prove myself and that I’m good at my job.” 

Poop Diaries is a 2020 book by Chicago writer Abby Ross about some of the dirty jobs and awkward experiences plumbers face. (Black Rose Writing)

Ross got the idea to write the book after her toilet clogged one night. She hired a plumber to fix it and they got to talking after the job was complete. Ross asked for the plumber’s best stories, his ‘greatest hits.’

After conducting interviews with other plumbers, Ross soon had enough stories for a book. She heard from plumbers who had to complete their jobs while lying on top of customers or while customers were wrapped in a shower curtain in the very shower they were unclogging.

In another story, a plumber was called to look at a sewage line in the basement of a Chicago restaurant. The floor, and some food containers, were covered in rat feces. But when an employee came downstairs to say the restaurant had run out of take-out containers, the owner brushed feces off of the basement’s containers and gave them to her employee to use. When the owner didn’t have money to pay the plumber, she offered to pay him in food instead.

But the stories she heard are also about awkward personal encounters with customers, and in Smith’s case, they’re also about how women are treated in a male-dominated industry.

“In the plumbing industry, it’s still very much a man’s world. And in that way, it’s very antiquated,” said Ross, who’s a former journalist who now works in public relations. 

“It doesn’t have to be a man’s world. Plumbing is a very lucrative career. Both of the women who I interviewed love what they do and they both own their own companies.”

Ross said she has heard how Alberta’s job market is struggling, and thinks that more people should consider working in plumbing.

“Some [plumbers] didn’t even want to go into plumbing or know anything about it, and they just fell into it because they had no other options, they didn’t go to school for example,” Ross said. “And yet they were able to build really lucrative, good, stable careers.”

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