(Or, a memoir to endorse my friend Laurie’s gut instinct NOT to host a backyard wedding for her son when they are not served by a municipal sewer system…)
We could begin at the moment about 4 hours into a festive December evening in 1988 — a wedding reception/house-warming/”trim the tree” party — when over 150 people were informed the fun was suddenly over because of the unexpected flooding of (ahem) waste-water into the brand new basement.
It’s useful, however, to start with some context 19 months earlier: when the future groom brought a tantalizing roll of architectural drawings to his third or fourth date with the future bride.
Maybe it’s best to further back-up (you should pardon the expression) to the youth of the future-groom, growing up in a popular family restaurant/bar on a roadside in rural New Jersey, where the ladies’ and men’s rooms were released into occasionally-unreliable cesspools out in the woods. Not that there were options.
The restaurant was called “The Country House” with no cutesy intent. It was just that. And future groom — who we will now identify as Steve Mushinski — was born into a family of food entrepreneurs who were willing to accept the unintended consequences of occasional plumbing emergencies that happen in the hospitality industry. Yes, if you had a full bar of folks watching the region’s only color tv with a special antenna that could bring in the signal for the New York Yankees in an air conditioned joint in the Jersey pinewoods, plus you served lunches and dinners six nights a week, there was going to be the occasional “event.” And Steve, as the eldest son, was often called on to manage such emergencies.
It was around that time that Steve promised himself he would
- never own a restaurant himself (which he did, operating The Country House while establishing his law career) and
- never have a house without municipal sewer service.
He broke both vows to himself before he was 40.
And it was at his wedding reception/house-warming/”trim the tree” party at the age of 40 that this highly successful lawyer — in fact, named 19 months earlier as one of “Burlington County, New Jersey’s Most Eligible Bachelors”— and his new bride, the 37 year old broadcaster Liz Matt (with the ironic stage name of Lizabeth Starr) discovered together that it’s best to have a sense of humor about sewage systems. Or it would be a terrible metaphor for launching a long and happy marriage.
House stuff — as Liz and Steve call it when lumping together everything from architectural engineering, options in HVAC systems and plumbing, the features in appliances, the subtle finishes in paint and the qualities of a good grout — has been a key topic of shared interest for a couple whose wedding reception was abruptly shuttered by a failed septic system.
Many months before Steve and Liz started dating in March of 1987, Steve and some partners developed a residential subdivision on a former soybean field bordering the 18th hole and the driving range of Burlington Country Club, a private golf course in the county seat of Mount Holly and the center of social life for the county’s business owners and professional class in a rapidly transitioning section of Philadelphia’s exurbia.
Steve reserved for himself a prime private acre near the top of the hill, with a soft tree line — a patch of former woods with wild dogwood, oaks and pines — separating his future house from the driving range. It was the plans for that future house that Steve brought in a tempting roll on the third or fourth date with Liz and asked if she was interested to see. He had no idea that house-stuff was a kind of pornography to Liz.
She herself lived in a 14-wide row house built around 1910 for the lunch-pail workers who walked to their jobs at the the Baldwin railroad works in the city of Philadelphia. Her house was recently rehabbed with modern appliances, a gleaming black refrigerator and black stove, fresh laminate in a modern color and a gorgeous light gray and mauve bathroom. Liz had no expectations of living any more grandly at any future date.
But she loved watching houses being framed, could hold intelligent conversations about fixtures and finishes and loved watching other people spend on their houses. Even when those houses were characterized by wretched excess (for example, the time she did an interview in the gilded Trump apartment on Fifth Avenue), she reminded herself that if everybody was getting paid properly for such construction, then it was at least good for the economy and with that as a given, how bad could it be?
So Liz spread out the plans for Steve’s future house on the coffee table of her row-house — a heavy tile-topped table she had bought second hand from a fourth floor walk-up in an industrial loft and had somehow lugged down many flights … a used table with a back-story and cool in a shabby chic way, like much of Liz’s furniture — and looked at this marvel of horizontal suburbia that her new boyfriend was about to build.
Liz had zero thoughts she would someday live in this house, that was as long as half of her city row-house block. She just enjoyed looking at the blue ink on the gray curly paper and thinking this guy was going to spend a ton of dough. Steve was excited about every detail of the flow of the rooms, the active and passive solar light, the subtle change of levels in the sunken living room, and above all the Jenn-Air range set up so he could cook while watching golf, football, basketball and baseball on a large built-in TV in his combination kitchen and family room.
It was a huge house for one man. And it was designed as a huge house for this SPECIFIC one man with no wife or children. The first floor master bedroom and office were separated from the two guest rooms by a span of over forty-five feet of living room and dining room and the guests would be further isolated up a flight of carpeted stairs. Whoever those future guests might be was not important. It was designed so they could have their privacy. And Steve, the homeowner, would definitely have his. It was also designed so those special guests could be invited into the kitchen designed to showcase the considerable culinary talents of this “grill man,” who grew up cooking in his family-owned restaurant.
Sometime after the date showing Liz the architectural plans, Steve drove her into the countryside, 25 miles from Center City Philadelphia, to show her the lot where he would build this great house bordering the driving range.
Liz, who had grown up in a post-war split level with many quirks and limitations but which typically had working toilets, never gave a thought to the compacted soil, covered with weeds, where this future house was now staked-out for the bulldozers.
Liz fell in love with many aspects of this most “Eligible Bachelor of Burlington County” to the point that — though she was a determined urbanite who adored her 14-foot-wide house with no parking — she chose the man and a long commute over her little plot of row-house heaven. And 19 months after first seeing those plans, Liz married Steve and moved into his fully-furnished brand new house in exurbia on the clay-compacted hill, now perfectly sodded to look pretty darn green and lush.
The wedding was held privately over Thanksgiving weekend in an Episcopal church on the Penn campus and the breakfast afterward was only for immediate family. The grand reception was planned as a “trim the tree” party to be held three weeks later on December 17, 1988 at the brand new house. Unlike the little wedding, this one would have lots of guests.
The massive 3-bay garage was converted to a winter palace by a professional decorator and resembled a fancy high school prom at a gym. The inside of the house was gloriously bedecked with dozens of huge red poinsettia and a 20 foot Christmas tree was lit with tiny white lights and hung with only red glass balls, so the ornaments brought by the guests would have no competition.
It was a big big house with lots of room for hospitality. Between Steve’s family, his extended family, everyone who ever ate at The Country House as a regular customer (the whole county), practically every member of Burlington Country Club across the driving range, Liz’s large family and both of their college friends, plus a few of Liz’s co-workers from the TV station, the guest list swelled to almost 300. The best guess is that at least 250 people came, and celebrated, ate and drank. And flushed.
And beneath the newly-established sod on the broad front lawn, the earth of that former soybean field yielded …but not enough. And a guest pointed out that “water” was running on the walls of the basement near the new pool table. And it was not good.
It’s not so easy getting 150 drunken partiers who are your family and very best friends to believe you when you tell them the merriment is suddenly all over at only 11 p.m. “Can’t BE.” “This is new construction!” “Huh??” said they. “Yeah, well, it’s news to me too, but please go home,” said Liz.
Inspecting the water oozing down a basement wall near some mystery system Liz had never noticed in the three weeks she had lived in the new house — a system which was never necessary in her formerly-sewered suburban and urban world — she was reminded of an expression her sister Marty once used as a small child to describe a toilet-training “accident”: “Your nose will tell you what your eyes can’t see.”
However it happened, toilet water was backing up and found a path dictated by the laws of physics … seeking the lowest level it could flow. And that was inside this new house. “OK. Everybody go HOME! Now. Please.”
The groom/host was pretty drunk too. After all, it was the perfect setting to party-hardy, as he didn’t have to drive. Despite his addled brain, years of practice responding to septic emergencies at The Country House somehow kicked into gear. And soon Steve fully focused on addressing this terrible back-up. The bride/hostess was obligated to kick out every guest — most of whom she was meeting for the first time — and advise them to either use their home bathrooms or visit the diner down the road. But the “services” at this grand new house on the golf course were out of commission.
One set of guests — a college buddy of Steve’s who was already passed out in one of the guest rooms with his date — somehow missed the commotion. And, though Liz and Steve eventually collapsed with the plan to wake up early on Sunday and figure out options, the drunken guests upstairs both flushed AND took a shower in the morning before learning of the septic issue. That is, until the toilet overflowed on the college buddy’s feet. Even with a hangover, he got the message that something had changed while he was out of commission.
Finding a septic pumping company at 7 a.m. on the Sunday before Christmas is a pretty good challenge. Especially in the age of the yellow pages. Liz and Steve expected that a premium would be extracted for such service, and indeed it was.
The new lush sod was chewed up to access the septic field on that frigid Sunday before Christmas and it was pumped out sufficiently to lower the toilet water to acceptable levels inside the house. Lysol was purchased and used extensively.
An inspection of the system during the coming days revealed that the former farmer’s field would probably never percolate as projected and the entire system would need to be dug out and re-installed. Soon, a great deal of the newly-sodded front lawn was ground up by major diggers to re-engineer a system that would not fail. It cost $10K to fix that problem, in addition to the cost of the party.
Over the next year, it would be discovered that something was miscalculated in designing the septic fields for the entire development and eventually everybody’s system failed. But gradually. Over time.
But none so quickly and spectacularly as at Steve and Liz’s wedding reception/housewarming/”trim the tree” party three weeks after Liz left her reliable little row house in the city and moved 25 miles into the country with her eligible, handsome lawyer.
He swore he would never live in another house with a septic system. But he did, when Liz and Steve bought a little house to rehab in a far corner of Burlington County across the river from the city of Philadelphia. They knew that municipal sewer was scheduled to come to their new address some day, as the next door neighbor already had it.
Several emergency pumpings were indeed necessary before the township in their new house would dig up the street and permit them to make the expensive yet treasured connection to the municipal sewer system.
28 years after that wedding and 25 years after moving to the little rehab, their now grown son fell in love with a house on a creek and wanted to make a bid. It had no municipal sewer hook up — just a septic system. And on the day Liz drove by to see what kind of a house he was looking at, a septic pumping company was next door doing something. Steve could not sufficiently explain the agita of thinking his only child would volunteer for the totally-avoidable hassles of living on a septic system that could fail.
Although their son was crestfallen, the parents did a happy dance when the house on the creek came under agreement just days before their son had a chance to bid.
And Steve and Liz were flush with happiness.