How to Catch a Hairball

by Helin Jung

In my driver’s license picture my hair is short, chin-length. But my actual hair has been long for the past year. It’s constantly grazing the small of my back, like some creepy, million-fingered hand, but I like it, except for the part that involves showering. More shampoo, longer rinsing, and — what the hell is this? — clogs in the bathtub drain?

I’ve begrudgingly had to acknowledge that this is a thing that happens when you have long hair and you want to wash it sometimes. It doesn’t matter if you try to catch all the falling strands by making a hair collage on the tile: You won’t get everything, your drain will back up, and then you’ll be standing ankle-high in nasty water for the entirety of your shower. (I’ve also belatedly come to learn about mesh-type drain-catcher things, like the Hair Stopper, which prevent hair from going down the drain in the first place, and if you know about them already, you are a long-hair professional and you may stop reading now.)

The first time it happened, I called my super, who sent his semi-mute henchman to my apartment with a large power tool that he took to my drain like a jackhammer to concrete. The shower stopped being cloggy after that, but only for a few months, and I couldn’t keep calling the henchman to my apartment. I had to learn to handle it myself. So here’s what I did: I failed a few times. I half-heartedly tried the wire hanger thing. Not effective. I found myself spending less and less time showering, and more and more time watching TV. One day I saw a commercial for the Turbo Snake and I ordered it.

I was sent two snakes, or two glorified pieces of wire that came with a strip of Velcro on one end. They’re easy to maneuver, and using the longer of the two snakes, I succeeded in snagging a few stray hairs. Maybe I was onto something! But then it broke. With my $5 fix-all in two pieces, it was time for some truth: If you’ve got a serious clog situation, you’re going to have to upgrade. You’ll need to go to a home improvement store and buy or rent a serious drain-cleaning tool. I bought one by Ridgid for $50. (They have way more complicated versions, but those are the kind used by actual plumbers, and that isn’t me.) You’ll also need a screwdriver, a pair of work gloves, and if you have it, a power drill, but if you don’t have one, don’t worry, elbow grease will do. Tie up your hair, and don’t wear your nice clothes while you’re doing this.

What we’re attempting to do is get down into the very depths of a bathtub drain — like 10 or 15 feet deep — make contact with a massive glob of hair that’s been tangled up with soap scum, dead skin, vomit even, and then pull all that back out. It’s like a root canal for your shower, but you get to be the dentist!

When you have all your materials, you’ll want to first get used to the idea of the power snake. It’s heavy, because it has lots of metal cable wrapped up inside the drum. Working the power snake is a two-handed deal: One hand goes on the trigger in front, while the other holds on to the drill or the hand crank in the back. The instruction manual is insistent about the fact that you need work gloves and goggles to protect yourself from any toxic matter that could possibly fly out from inside your gross drain. I’ll admit I didn’t use goggles. I just wore my glasses. I still have both eyes.

If you decide to attach a power drill to the back of the drum, what you’re doing is giving your biceps a break and letting the drill do the work of advancing the cable down the drain. However! The drill has to be set on low, and even then, the cable may advance too quickly, which means it’ll start kinking and twisting and acting like a real snake and start freaking you the hell out. So just be aware of this possibility and be careful. Keep the tool very close to edge of the drain, which prevents the twisting and kinking from happening.

OK, now for the actual process. Believe it or not, the cable doesn’t go into the drain. I know, right? Between the drain and the faucet, there should be another metal cap. This cap covers something called the overflow drain. This is where the magic happens. So grab a screwdriver, take that cap off, and let’s get started.

Pull the cable out of the snake tool and push it into the overflow drain — again, NOT the hole where the water and hair go down — and marvel as the cable disappears into a very dark place. Get one hand on the snake tool’s trigger and pull. Then, get cranking (or drilling) with the other hand. You’ll feel and hear the cable go down and down and down. All of a sudden, you won’t be able to crank as easily anymore. The tension will be tugging in the other direction and you’ll be thinking maybe you’re tired or something but really what it means is that you’ve reached the massive hair glob, which is a good thing!

Once you’re here, things get a little tricky. You have to feel your way through this process without being able to see anything. You might not want to advance the cable too much at this point because you’ll be pushing the glob further down the drain or even pushing the snake past the problem area. What you’re hoping to have happen now is to move the top of the cable into the glob and hook it there. It’s like catching a big hairy fish. So you give your trigger finger a rest and just crank with the one hand, which means the cable is only twisting in place instead of moving forward, sort of like a corkscrew twisting into the most disgusting cork you’ll ever see. Follow? So the cable just keeps tangling the glob up on itself. When you feel like maybe you’ve caught enough of the hairy fish, start reeling it back to the surface. You’re putting the drill in reverse at this point, or going counter-clockwise on the crank.

You may find, ever so frustratingly, that the first go ‘round brings back nothing. You may have to do this several times. The drainage may still be slow. On my first try, I was Googling and watching YouTube videos and still so confused. And on the tenth pass, when you’re about to give up and call the super and his henchman, or beg Home Depot for help, or pay a plumber, or cut your hair, or just accept that you’ll never shower again, you’ll play some Phil Collins, Mariah Carey, or Jock Jams and do it one more time, give it one last go, and you’ll come out with this:

And it’ll be the most satisfied you’ve possibly ever felt in your life. Go forth and shower freely.

Helin Jung, embarrassingly, had never heard of mesh-type drain-catcher things before this week. She just moved to D.C. and needs friends.