By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, October 20, 1934
“My family,” said Jimmie Frise, “are after me to clean the furnace pipes.”
“It’s a trifling job,” I said. “My gardener does it in a few minutes each year and doesn’t even mention it at the end of the month.”
“Still,” demurred Jimmie, “I don’t see why I should rob some poor man of a dollar.”
“It would do you good to engage occasionally in a little unpleasant toil,” I said. “One of the things that is wrong with the world is specialization, not only in industry, but in life itself.”
“How do you mean?” demanded Jim.
“We kick about the deadening effect of mass production,” I stated, “and the evil effect upon the human race of having men doing one small thing over and over again all their lives, like screwing up nuts or tightening a bolt or some other automatic action. It drives men mad. But how about us all living our lives as automatically, never straying out of the rut, always doing the same things every day at the same time, getting out of bed the same side, shaving in the exact same way, starting with our top right cheek and ending with our left neck, kissing the same woman goodby each morning at the same place in the same hallway, and so forth.”
“What has this got to do with stove pipes?” demanded Jim.
“The deadly routine of your life.” I went on, “includes a furnace, and you stoke it and shake it, and remove the ashes and stoke it again. But the ghastly routine would be broken if, once in while, you cleaned the pipes. It would be like getting out of bed the other side, and shaving your left neck first and ending with your right top cheek, and kissing somebody else goodby in the front hall. It would give you a fresh and sudden zest.”
“I never heard anybody rave about furnace pipes the way you do,” said Jimmie. “How about helping me with them?”
“I could ask my gardener to,” I agreed.
“How about the ghastly monotony of your own life?” sneered Jim.
“I often shave backwards,” I said. “And sometimes I kiss my little daughter goodby instead.”
“If I clean the furnace pipes,” said Jim, “it won’t be for any philosophic or psychopathic reason. It will be simply to save a buck. For five years now I have been trying to end the depression by spending all I made, by sharing my work with others, by hiring people on the slightest pretext to do my work for me. But I can’t see it has made the slightest difference. So from now on I am going to be thrifty and careful like everybody else, and do all my own chores and sole my own boots and cut my own grass and clean my own furnace pipes.”
“And what will you do with the money you save?” I asked.
“I’ll buy bonds,” said Jim.
“That’s patriotic,” I assured him. “Instead of spending your dollars on small jobs like furnace pipes and your garden, you will lend It to the government to pay relief. Then, after they have paid relief to a few million people, you get your money back in ten years. Meantime, who paid the relief?”
“Don’t confuse me,” begged Jim. “I am trying to do the right thing by my country. My country wants cash. To lend it to them, I am going to cut down my spending. I am going to do my own furnace pipes.”
“And the people you no longer help support,” I argued, “will get your money just the same, only in relief.”
“I suppose so,” admitted Jim.
“Then,” I demanded, “where does the money come from, twenty years from now, when the government pays you back the money they borrowed from you?”
“Look,” said Jim, “I have five children. In twenty years they will all be grown up and making money. The government can reborrow from them to pay me back.”
“I’d rather have my furnace pipes done by a pipe cleaner,” I said. “It makes him happy. And it only costs me two dollars. It wont cost my grandchildren anything.”
“But there will be five Frises to borrow from instead of only one pointed out Jim. “It will be easier. That’s what the government figures on. It will be easier to borrow by the time their note to me falls due.”
“It looks to me,” I said, “as if we were paying for having our pipes cleaned and cleaning them ourselves. It is all very confusing.”
“I only want to do what is right,” said Jim. “If they say spend, I spend. If they say save, I save.”
“And if you spend, it’s gone,” I enlightened, “and if you save, It’s loaned.”
But Jimmie had risen from the steps of his house, where we had been sitting in the sunshine, and was staring at a little man walking down the street.
This little man was small and smudgy. Under his arm, he carried a roll of what appeared to be very dirty carpet, and from the ends of the carpet protruded filthy brushes on long wire handles.
“Speak of the devil,” exclaimed Jimmie.
The little man, passing, halted and in a deep English voice cried.
“‘Ow’s yer pipes?”
“Come up a minute,” called Jimmie.
“A real chimney sweep, like in Dickens,” I breathed to Jim.
The little man drew nigh and rested his roll of carpet.
“Are you a chimney sweep?” I asked excitedly, picturing him as one who has spent his entire childhood and infancy in the chimneys of Old London.
“No, sir,” he said, with dignity. “I am a financial man, by profession, but during the present interregnum, as you might say, I am picking up what I can.”
“You clean chimneys?” asked Jim.
“I clean furnace pipes,” said the little man.
“How much do you charge?”
“Two dollars,” said he.
“Two dollars!” cried Jim. “Two bucks Just to rattle a few furnace pipes into an ash can! Man, you’re crazy.”
“It’s quite a job,” said the chimney man.
“Why, for two dollars I could drive my car from here to Montreal!”
“But your pipes would still be choked,” said the small man, “when you got back ‘ome.”
“Two dollars! Why, that is ridiculous,” said Jim. “Some of you people have no sense of proportion. Just because a job is a little unpleasant, you charge three times what it is worth. My friend and I can do those pipes in a few minutes after supper.”
“I shouldn’t try it of an evening, sir,” said the little man. “Professionally speaking.”
“Thanks very much,” said Jim, dismissing the small man, who hoisted his roll of carpet. “I had no idea.”
And as the little man retired down the walk, Jim said: “Look here, you save Saturday afternoon, we’ll do mine and yours both.”
“Mine were done,” I pointed out.
“Lend me hand, just for the experience,” said Jim. “I want to look into this business of small jobs. Two bucks!”
Saturday Jim drove me home from the office very kindly and then reminded me, as he let me out, to come over at 2 p.m.
It is curious how seldom one looks at a furnace. One visits it in the dark, shovels coal into a glowing hole, rattles a shaker, reaches up to a familiar doohickey and turns the draft on or off, and the furnace remains a dimly seen, faintly disliked, something to be admitted only part way into one’s consciousness.
Jim and I surveyed his furnace in some awe. It was a bulging and somehow bowlegged sort of furnace. It was aged and scaley and corroded. There were bands or bolts of clay around it that fell away like dust when you touched them. Everything was rusty and squeaked.
Dark Cloud of Endeavor
The pipes were fragile and sagged. When we slapped them, they felt soggy and stuffed.
“How long is it since you had your pipes cleaned?” I asked Jim, doubtfully.
“I don’t recall them being cleaned.”
“Why, you have been wasting fuel for years and haven’t been getting a fraction of the British thermal units you should have been getting.”
“You’d better take off your coat,” said Jim, throwing his across the empty coal bin stall.
I stood ready while Jim stretched up and took firm hold of the joint of pipe that vanished into the cellar wall. It was stuck. It was corroded.
He tapped it with a stick. He hammered it with the shaker handle. He punched a hole in it.
“Poof,” said Jim, as a darkish mist filled the air.
“Get a couple of chairs, and we’ll both take hold and twist,” I suggested.
So Jim got on a box and I got on a chair, and we took firm hold of the pipe and twisted.
It was only a matter of a fraction of a second, but as the pipe came free, Jim, who was curved in one of these fantastic postures tall men can get into when doing the most commonplace things, lost his balance off the box and I felt a heavy and clumsy pipe slip from my grasp.
“Are you there, Jim?” I asked, from the depths of the inky darkness which had suddenly enveloped the furnace room.
“Curious-pfft-smell, isn’t it-pfft!” said Jim from below.
“We had better go outside,” I suggested.
“Tale a section of pipe each,” said Jimmie. “There are ash cans in the side drive.”
I felt above and found a sagging section of pipe. It came fairly easily into my arms, but I felt a cool dry flood of something like talcum powder flow over my hands and wrists as I tilted the pipe level.
“Easy, there,” said Jimmie, coughing.
By only half breathing, we got out of the cellar, dark as night, into the semigloom of the stairs, and preceding Jimmie, I carried the pipe to the side door. It was heavy. You can have no idea how neglected those pipes were. I saw a garbage can and I dumped the pipe smartly head first into the can.
A great whoof of midnight whirled into the bright afternoon air.
“Make way,” gasped Jim, behind me, and as I turned, still marvelling at the fog, I beheld a devilish figure, black from head to foot, heave a section of pipe alongside mine into the ash can, and another and a vaster and a more deadly black cloud billowed into the air.
“Jimmie!” I cried. “You’re filthy. What have you been doing?”
But I could tell by the red gape of Jim’s mouth in his face that I too, was soiled.
“You’ll pay for cleaning this suit, young man,” I assured him. The more you try to brush soot off, the worse you get. Especially if you are perspiring a little.
“Keep still,” said Jim. “Wait till I think.”
But from the rear of the house came screeches and screams and moans in a female voice. It was the next door neighbor. We ran around the corner, and there was a lady, her arms held over her head like the statue of victory, and she was staring transfixed at three large curtains or drapes of a silvery blue color, that were hanging on the clothesline, while the dark cloud of our endeavor slowly engulfed them like a fog.
“Dear, dear,” said Jimmie, drawing me back from the corner.
Better Stay in the Rut
To the lady’s screams were suddenly added loud, brief and profane shouts of a man.
It was the man whose house abuts the rear of Jim’s place.
Head low to avoid the cloud, he came hurling over the fence and faced us.
“Look at that!” he roared. “Painted this morning, and now look at it!”
We could make out the back of his house. I was finished in white and light green. The cloud was aiming straight at it, and vanishing into the paint as cigarette smoke vanishes into an electric fan.
The lady was standing waiting.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Jim, “I will make it right with you.”
“They just came back from the cleaners,” wept the lady, “and I was airing that smell off them before putting them up before dinner when my father-in-law is coming and we have roast chicken, and they cover the living room windows and now …”
“That job,” interrupted the man, “cost me forty-eight dollars and to have the back done, by George, will cost you at least twenty. Twenty, l estimate. Yes, sir, twenty would be fair estimate.”
There we stood, with the two pipe sections upended in the ash can, and with us the man and the lady, when we heard footsteps up the drive and the little man with the roll of carpet that we had seen last Wednesday joined us.
“Glory!” yelled Jim.
“Good day, gentlemen,” said the little financial man.
“How did you turn up?” said Jim, trying to wring the little man’s hand, but the little man evaded him.
“I overheard you say Saturday, so I just dropped around. I do quite a little business this way, whenever I hear of gents planning to clean their furnaces.”
He laid his roll of brushes down in a business-like way.
“I’ll give you $5 to clean all this up,” cried Jimmie. “That is, if you can empty these two joints as well.”
“It would have been better,” said the little man, “if you had left the pipes. But I’ll do what I can.”
“Five dollars,” said Jim.
“And a dollar and a half to clean this suit,” I said.
“And a dollar and a half for this one,” added Jim, looking down at himself.
“And twenty for the paint job,” I calculated.
“And say three for the curtains?” contributed Jim.
The little man, who had trotted down the collar, reappeared.
“You’ll need new pipes,” said he. “These are all rotted and pitted.”
“How much?” asked Jim. “I should estimate about two,” said he.
“Total,” said Jim, “thirty-three dollars.”
He was very cheerful.
“Now you see,” said Jim, “that it is best not to try to get out of the rut. Accept the ghastly monotony of your life. And don’t try to be thrifty. It always costs you more in the end. Each man to his trade. I’m an artist. You’re a writer. And this gentleman cleans furnaces.”
“The furnace itself,” said the little man, picking up his carpet roll, “isn’t in bad shape.”
Editor’s Notes: $2 in 1934 would be almost $40 in 2021. $33 would be $650.
Old coal furnaces ran by having coal delivered through a chute in the basement window, and would require the owner to stoke the furnace with coal to keep it hot. The shaker handle was accessible from the outside and you would crank it to activate shaker plates in the bottom that would help the ashes from the burnt coal to get to the bottom ash pan. You would have to then collect the ash to put in an ash can that would be picked up from your curb.
This story appeared in Silver Linings (1978).