“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

(Originally published June 3, 2010)

THE FINAL LINE from Chinatown is spoken right after J.J. “Jake” Gittes – played by Jack Nicholson – bears witness to an unfathomable injustice and is powerless to stop it.

Chinatown, directed by superstar pedophile Roman Polanski during his mid ‘70s heyday, features a brilliant screenplay by Robert Towne. So brilliant, in fact, it’s rare to find any book on screenwriting that doesn’t at least mention it in passing. I bought the film based on these recommendations and watched it recently. Like Andrew W.K., it’s everything I was led to believe and more.

The film is set in Los Angeles, 1937. The central plot focuses on a citywide water shortage and is based on true events from the early 20th century.

Los Angeles, 2010, is again facing a water shortage.

Without cable TV or newspapers, and given how I use the Internet – sports, music, porn – it’s a wonder I know about it at all. But LA’s Only Modern Rock radio station airs PSAs constantly about it. I catch between two and four of them on the way to and from work. By now, we’re all aware there’s a problem – as there should be in a major city built in a desert – and we’re all trying to be sensible with our water use.

Yesterday, my shower broke. Not in any obvious way, at least none I could find; I simply tried to turn it off after showering and it wouldn’t. I could turn it down, but the water still flowed even in the “off” position. I’m not talking about the drip-drip-drip of a leaky faucet, I’m talking about when you’re washing dishes, get interrupted but leave the sink running, then return ten minutes later kicking yourself for forgetting about it. As the ladies say, “a heavy flow.”

After fiddling with it awhile, I called over the building manager.

He took a look and asked to borrow my hammer. Knowing probably less about plumbing than I did, he banged and moved things around in ways that would prove to be unhelpful.

“I think these parts will need to be replaced,” he said. Was this before or after you hit them with a hammer?

Still, progress had been made. Before the building manager showed up, the shower was broken but it didn’t look like there was anything wrong with it. Now it looked like there were things wrong with it.

“I can call a plumber, maybe get him here tonight. Probably tomorrow.”

“That sounds great,” I said.

On the way to work, I heard a cheeky PSA with an irresponsible dad getting lectured by his kid: “The water basin that feeds LA is at 50% capacity. You need to sweep the driveway clean instead of spraying it with a hose.” “But, Son…” “No ‘buts,’ Dad. I mean it, Mister!”

I drove home from work late, around 8:00. On the way back, LA’s Only Modern Rock said, “Water, giver of life. Our most precious natural resource…”

I returned to my apartment. Everything was the same, except moister.

I called the building manager. He said, “Yeah, we couldn’t get a guy out today. He’ll be here tomorrow, around 10:00.”
“Okay,” I said. “It might be tough to sleep with the water running all night. But I guess I can close the bathroom door, put on some music, and turn on a fan to make extra noise and leave it pointed at my face while I sleep.”
“All right,” he said, and hung up.

I went into the bathroom and noticed the walls were sweating. Also, since the water seemed to flow slightly less when it was set to “warm” rather than “cold,” I’d left it that way and it had become a sauna. I thought about inviting some overweight old men with grey chest hair to sit on the tub’s edge and ladle the extra water onto a pit of smoldering coals, but decided against it.

I got up the next morning – today – worked out, came back sweaty, then realized my shower was still broken. Moreso, in fact. Thanks to the building manager’s (stop!) hammer time, the piece that changes the setting from “bath” to “shower” had snapped off. It was stuck on “bath.”

I stubbornly refused the bath, making breakfast and surfing the internet – sports, music, porn – until suddenly there was a knock at the door. The plumber! Early! I let him in and he took a look at the broken shower.

“Oh,” he said, “this is broken.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’m going to need to get some parts.” He looked at me with sad eyes. “I need to get permission from the landlord. Might take another day or so.” Were you not aware that you might need parts to fix something? Why were you told to show up initially without tools or spare parts? Did you believe you could fix anything with nothing but your bare hands and bushy mustache?

Those were not questions I asked. Instead, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “That sounds great.”

The plumber left. I locked eyes with the tub. There was no way out.

In the timeline of the world’s inventions, bathtubs may have come before showers (unless you count waterfalls), but they’re most definitely the showers’ bastard children. They don’t get you clean and they take an eternity to do properly: you need to wait for the tub to fill up, light candles, slip in, let the bubbles caress you, crack open a Danielle Steele novel, read a chapter, get bored, flip to the cover photo of a hunky guy, massage yourself to climax, etc.

It’s a colossal waste of time, especially in a hurry.

I also imagine most people use a tub larger than mine; mine was made for someone the length of my legs. (Good luck reaching climax!) I had to push off the wall with my arms to get my knees bent far enough to get my head under.

I could only take so much. My bath lasted shorter than a shower. Some kind of record.

Later, on the way to work, LA’s Only Modern Rock said, “Please think about others, and the future of Los Angeles. Conserve water.”

I started to get angry.

Make no mistake, I’m not an environmentalist – I’ve even done things with the express reason that I “hate the Earth” – but this was too much. I wanted to turn the car around and go yell at the landlord, the building manager, and the plumber, “How can you allow this to happen? And during a water shortage no less!”

Then a thought popped into my head, “Forget it, Mike. It’s Chinatown.” (Though it was actually Burbank.)

Moments later, I got a call from the building manager. “The plumber will be back tomorrow. With parts.”

“That sounds great,” I said.

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