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Pool Man 

Neck-Deep in the living waters

Wednesday, Jul 3 2002
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Every March is free hot dog month at Superior Pool Supply -- an early sign of summer, at least to pool men in Norwalk.

“You‘re about out of relish,” John the pool man said, finishing his second.

Someone said, “You know, hot dogs didn’t used to come with relish.”

The Latinos at the counter smiled at each other without smiling, the way everybody does in trades without women.

Thirty or 40 years ago there may actually have been more women in the pool business. But the rows of industrial products looked the same, timeless in whiteorange packaging, along with the ancient elements of chlorine cakes and bottles of Solar Blanket. Outside, the parking lot was blazing and still, and it was easy to imagine forward or back to the part of middle-late summer when it‘s so horror-movie hot that no one can hear you scream. æ

Then we drove back to Seal Beach across prairies studded with oil wells, and the very best thing about driving to other people’s pools in midday traffic might be that you get to feel connected in some semiofficial way to the debut of Summer, while not so connected as to live and die by the events of a particular back yard. As anyone who grew up here knows, there‘s as much ache as joy around man-made reservoirs (“Out back was an empty swimming pool, and there is nothing as empty as an empty swimming pool” --Raymond Chandler); for every memory of diving and splashing to exhaustion in my Valley childhood, I’ve got another one of nursing wounds, numbing out and all the fatal, carnal pleasure of doing that -- simultaneously intoxicated, dazzled and victimized by water and light. Just the sight of an unused pool in summer still brings up afternoons in socks and shoes on restriction. And I might never get over a July when I was 9, pissed-off child of a divorce, right arm in a blinding-white cast that I suspended bitterly above the tile coping in order to wade.

Back then there were four archetypes of pool design, like the great faiths of the world: Each seemed to have missed, by the narrowest, most tragic margin, the paradise it was meant for. 1) 1950s ones, Spartan as biscuits; these belonged to the poorer, happier families in the neighborhood and their surfboarding dogs. 2) Reedy Xanadus, like the pool in the Twilight Zone episode where the brokenhearted children swam away to caring families through a warp in the deep end. 3) Turquoise feminized kidney shapes of the 1960s. 4) Cantilevered Greco-Spanish altars. Since the ‘70s, though, relatively few pools have been built for the middle class, which is why so many customers today are getting old, while the pools themselves exist like gorgeous crypts, in a suspended animation of maintenance.

Hence, pool men -- who are serfs, obviously, but also independent, unbeholden, Chandleresque. They’re ghosts of the jingle-jangle morning, whistling arrival with a wood gate slamming behind them. To my childhood self, their comings and goings looked like the height of Pied Piper detachment. So much so that decades later, blocked and confused, when The Artist‘s Way prescribed making list after list of alternative careers, I’d invariably write down: Pool Man.

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As for John, he was someone from church -- I‘d chosen a respectable, slightly geeky pool guy. Although he had fingers as thick as an outfielder’s mitt, and could probably tear off a frozen gas valve at the stem, he was trim and bespectacled, and his idea of cursing was to gasp: “My word!” He had a sandy red business major‘s beard trimmed close, and it dropped with his jaw whenever he listened or thought hard on a subject.

Nor was he much of an escapist, but as with a lot of pool men, there’d been a former life (his was in Oil), followed by a moral turning point: He‘d sued his uncle and grandfather for defrauding the family business, and won. He did that for his mom, and because the older men in the family didn’t believe him when he said that he would.

How John got his pool route was by buying someone else‘s, for the going rate of six to nine times a month’s revenue. To John‘s mind that was robbery. But the failure rate was low, and if you lost a client, you didn’t lose much: $40 to $80 a month, which is both too little to charge and too much to spend. (You can get a xenophobic lecture on immigration and deflated service fees by asking around any pool cleaners‘ association meeting.) Happily, the learning curve was almost nonexistent -- “Any monkey with a cleaning pole can do it,” insiders said -- although the repair side required training and talent. It took less than three days for John to grasp that he could do pools more efficiently and profitably than the mentor he bought the route from, a onetime attorney who, inaugurating his own quest for invincible summer, had apparently been disbarred for drinking.

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