By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The pool guy who said that for seven years he hated the wind -- Steve Schmidt, a local fine artist -- brought a genuine dropout spirit to the job. All he’d ever wanted was “a steady route of pools with good suction.” (Windless heat, concrete permanence, the unrent water line -- this was a nirvana I understood.) He considered the aesthetic of light and surfaces to be “meditative” (the sound alone, “all silent but for the motor,” could induce a posthypnotic state), and he wanted that influence in some paintings he was doing at the time.
So for the first few years he drove around in the conceptual installation that was the Inland Empire, shirtless, not only basking in my dream job but rubbing it in. So streamlined was his routine that he jumped into each pool after cleaning it, lit a cigarette walking back to the truck, and pulled up dry at the next house in time with his last puff.
True, the long-range picture was terrifying. All the men who grew roots in the business struck him as lizardly mechanics. And he was so bad at repairs that whenever he flicked on a pool light he was surprised if it worked. On the other hand, he could eat mushrooms and sit on somebody‘s dirty diving board for hours with his Walkman on, just vacuuming the deep end with an extension pole that swore to him it was part of his arm. And he got invited to big, drunken-sheriff parties. “Just bring yourself and a bottle of chlorine,” the owners joked.
Once, there was a pretty girl naked on top of a patio awning, which may have seemed for a moment a good place not to be seen. He ignored the girl and finished cleaning.
But the aunt, who lived next door, caught him smiling. “You look like the cat who ate the canary,” she said. He ignored that too.
Now, what is it, anyway, about exhibitionists and pool men? My last girlfriend before I got married bared herself freely in a University Estate back yard while her grandfather, the only dad she’d known, lay dying inside the house -- her youthful privilege while it lasted, but I used to wonder how the pool man read her message. Look at me (but don‘t)? Pretend I’m in the Garden (but I‘m not)? Save me from this body of death? You can practically see the crone within the maiden, the aging romantics gazing at their pools from the other end of years; you can practically hear them say, “What went wrong?” For thinking there was still enough summer left to be healed by a swim in his pool, Jay Gatsby got shot on a raft, an outcome we now have to wonder if he wanted: The convergence of Death Wish with Backyard California is a motif worthy of Melville. “Have you seen the movie Gods and Monsters?” Steve asked me when we first sat down to talk. More than Prince of Bel Air or Earth Girls Are Easy, this is the movie that, according to the veteran pool cleaner, had it about right. In it, a man tries to provoke his gardener to kill him.
Indeed, one of Steve’s own customers, a “frail professor who raised pugs” (the dogs kept sinking, Steve kept saving them), spent a season drinking White Russians in his boxer shorts by the pool, and then shot himself. But lived. As soon as he got better, he passed himself off as a cuckold to the biker next door, who crushed his head with a baseball bat.
Sometimes, when pool men are asked about their naked-housewife encounters, they‘re embarrassed to tell -- knowing deep down, as every Casanova does, that the privilege they’ve been granted by these women hasn‘t done them any honor. “Most of the time,” one pool man told me, “it’s lonely old women with hair where there shouldn‘t be hair who want to chase you around the pool.” One customer had offered her body in exchange for a false report to a heater-warranty company. Another beckoned him to join her in the hot tub. (“Mind if I just sit here and watch you?”) This isn’t the subject he hoped we would talk about -- being a repair enthusiast himself. His goal was to “work till my eyes bleed and make money” -- to which end he had cleaned pools in Los Angeles, Apple Valley, Victorville (where the young families with children had gone), Las Vegas (where you could jump across most of the pools and where “carbon filters are immensely popular,” he doesn‘t know why), La Habra, San Bernardino, Diamond Bar. He used to drive from Palm Springs to Anaheim and then to Redding in a single day, and he carries in his wallet a photo of his parents, c. 1967, manning their first store, an Anthony Service Center.
His ambition had cost him, however. When he transferred to Las Vegas, his own wife and children refused to go, voting family values. He lasted there a year before missing the family and moving home, and things are better today but he never finds time to join them in the pool.