You shouldn’t flush celery chunks down the drain. The same adage applies for potato skins, onion layers and rice grains. But inevitably, every Thanksgiving weekend, Joe Keays is summoned to solve another holiday crisis. Keays is vice president of Downey Plumbing in L.A., and after 32 years in the industry, he still braces for a rush of house calls in the last week of November, as aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandpas and grandmas squeeze into a tiny home and lay an ungodly assault on a piping infrastructure. These are the hallmarks of the holiday season: family, friends, good food — and a sense of dread as you watch the turkey grease bubble up like molten lava back through the garbage disposal.
“They’re your typical stoppages because the plumbing systems are old and overused,” Keays says. “You have company over and people tend to be more gluttonous, and more things are going down the drain. It’s that time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Once we get into the holidays, I make sure I have extra cables and that all the equipment is set for high use. You just kinda know it’s coming.”
The day after Thanksgiving has been christened “Black Friday” by a slew of clever big-box retailers. If you participate in that tradition, you will likely find yourself awake for 20 hours straight, as you camp out in front of a Best Buy that’s slashing the prices on all their Samsung TVs. Plumbers have a similar ritual: Like so many other Americans, they too often find themselves working long, hard hours after turkey is served. But they don’t spend the weekend chasing lucrative gadget bounties around town. No, instead that time is spent decompressing the many rusty pipes that have been left gagging, wheezing under the pressure of a well-meaning family’s banquet.
In a clever twist, plumbers use the term “Brown Friday” to refer to that yearly gauntlet. The color-palette shift speaks for itself. “It’s called that for obvious reasons,” laughs Paul Abrams, PR lead of the Ohio-based Roto-Rooter, which employs thousands of plumbers across the U.S. “I first heard of Brown Friday three or four years ago. It was one of those things that was an underlying joke with the plumbing staff, that eventually filtered up to the home office.”
Along those lines, Abrams tells me that the Brown Friday name surfaced out of the gallows humor traded by the operators in the trenches. After all, when you’re unclogging toilets on a day that most Americans spend at home under a warm spell of turkey narcolepsy, it’s nice to have some solidarity with your colleagues also burning the midnight oil. Plumbers do not have a recognized federal holiday, but an internal veneration of the hard work they do — as people like you and me continue to overestimate the capacity of our kitchen sinks — takes the edge off.
For the most part, the house calls on Brown Friday do not deviate from the usual routines of a plumber; if you’re in this industry, you will assist with flooded bathrooms and unresponsive drains throughout the calendar year. But Thanksgiving raises the number of calls considerably. Basically, once the pumpkin pie is served, all hell breaks loose. According to Patrick Garner, operations manager of Next Plumbing, all it takes is a few wine-drunk relatives to reveal the limited understanding Americans have of our waterways.
“There are garbage disposals that are marketed to be invincible. Like, ‘This is the Ferrari of garbage disposals, you can put anything down here!’ That’s just not the case,” he explains. “I feel the same way about those ‘flushable wipes,’ where they market these baby wipes that can go down the toilet. During the holidays, when children are in town, that causes trouble. There’s a lack of education, and it’s targeted that way.”
Garner says that typically, a few of his younger plumbers will step up to take the Brown Friday shifts. That ensures the veterans, who are more likely to have kids and a verdant family life, are able to attend to those duties on the long holiday weekend. (There is an argument to be made, however, that after several days in close, radioactive proximity with fringe in-laws and second-tier cousins, one might prefer to pump out glop from a stranger’s sink than spend another hour in a claustrophobic house.)
For his part, Keays has no idea why Americans continue to brutishly abuse their pipes, but he’s happy to take all the commissions that come along with it, even if it interrupts his own festivities. “I’ll be honest: If you wanna put potato peels down the drain, that’s fine; that’s how I make my money, so keep doing it,” he jokes. “But I try to pass on some basic information. I want people to trust me and have the people they know trust me.”
This year, of course, the U.S. is barreling toward one of the strangest Thanksgivings in modern history. You would think, then, that Brown Friday would be a little bit quieter than usual. Keays, however, isn’t so sure about that. In fact, since the start of the pandemic, he’s seen an uptick in house calls. “All that toilet paper people are hoarding is getting used,” he laughs.
Garner agrees. If anything, he expects to see a busier Brown Friday than ever before. “Instead of having a large amount of people in smaller homes, you’re going to see a lot of smaller immediate families getting together, and that’s going to lead to a higher volume of problems,” he reasons. “In the last few years, we’ve seen this trend of people going out to eat on Thanksgiving, but people are afraid to do that now, so they’re going to stay home. That only increases the potential for disaster.”
If there’s one thing this year doesn’t need, it’s a national sewage discharge crisis. So please, however you are celebrating Thanksgiving, don’t put potato peels down the drain. We need little victories wherever we can find them right now, and we can start by defeating Brown Friday once and for all.