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Pool Man 

Neck-Deep in the living waters

Wednesday, Jul 3 2002
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Page 3 of 8

We were getting to very few homes. A wicked Santa Ana over the weekend had turned the pools into twiggy marshes. (“For seven years, I hated wind,” a former pool man told me, closing that chapter of his life.) The benefit of this was that the day broke amazingly clear, an expectant, fragrant-desert morning. In the older neighborhoods, the blue-trimmed Craftsman houses looked like sailor shirts, and you could hear the chink of a tetherball chain from a nearby schoolyard. But along the route, residents stood outside as if there‘d been an accident. “Nothing’s working,” said a woman in her back yard beside an overwhelmed filter pump.

The other reason John was behind was that he‘d spent Monday attending a memorial service -- and it was a brutal one, for the week-old baby of a certain young couple. The mother, maybe not surprisingly, was having nobody’s formulaic compassion; in fact, her eulogy accused the gatherers of taking life for granted -- of not deserving life, of being deader than her baby. “We are the dead ones!” she yelled. Then, at a critical moment, she opened the casket in order to pray -- i.e., why pray for a resurrection if you didn‘t have faith enough to look? -- which gesture had been too much for some people to bear. The baby did not resurrect, but everyone left knowing what a memorial was supposed to be about.

We weren’t long done with this discussion when we visited Mrs. Stewart, a 40-ish woman with a cigarette in a filter holder who announced that her husband‘s lung cancer had returned.

John stood with his head tortoised forward and his hands on his hips. “Oh, my word. I am sorry to hear that.”

She took an impatient drag on the cigarette, half-turning toward the house; she was not going to go too deeply into this.

“This is a writer,” John announced, sensing some confusion. “He’s actually writing about me. The Life of a Pool Man.”

“You know, when I saw him with you, I thought: Don‘t you leave me now, John. I thought you were giving your route to someone!” She looked at me. “John’s the best there is. I‘d give up Poopsie before I gave up John.”

The late afternoon was starting to turn cold, which on top of a sunburn felt like missing the last bus of the day. At Bixby Hill in Long Beach, nicknamed “Pill Hill” because a lot of doctors live there, a former actor named Mr. Baggett tried to explain the solar panels up on the roof. Wind was murking up the water, and you could hear neighbors making their dinner and John’s knuckles banging around to get the truck properly loaded.

“Have a good evening,” John said, waving once.

“Well,” Mr. Baggett said, turning the word toward a Ronald Reagan moment, “having a chat with you fellows is part of having a good evening. I thank you for coming!” Then he was hustling indoors too, as if he realized all at once that this was only March, false summer having made fools of everyone.

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An aerial view of California today would show more than a million pools in the ground, as many pools as there are residents of Nevada -- evidence of an overpowering instinct to either lay down our burdens by water, or never leave the suburbs, or be gorgeously dead for a summer, like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate -- the grandest postwar version of that daydream having been that of the Anthony Brothers, whose business began when they dug their own pool by hand out in Hawthorne, and the neighbor over the backyard fence asked for one of the same. Nowadays, Anthony & Sylvan, which earned 38 percent less in 2001 than in 2000, has diversified into ski equipment and fishing supplies, and you get the impression that the business has had to do some growing up. At the service level, fees are pinched to the point of near humiliation. You can make $40,000 or $50,000 a year if you never stop for air, just for a customer to decide he wants you summers only, when your chemical costs quadruple. John complains too about pool-supply stores that offer cleaning service directly to the public, often underbidding him. At night, pool men grouse about such subjects over the Internet.

They also talk shop about everything from parts per million of dissolved solids to solutions for cracked, winter hands (vitamin E lotion, not oil, under disposable latex gloves). And they network for things like sick route coverage and liability insurance: Gone are the metal ring-toss games of my childhood. In the swimming-pool business, fantasies of paradise are often giving way to the realities of accident and aging. Robert Altman‘s Short Cuts famously depicted a pool man’s disillusion at the end of a workday: a two-income apartment, and a wife who sells phone sex.

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