Another League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Being proved wrong can be delightful, particularly if you’re watching someone break out of the box you’ve put them in.  Susan Boyle, with her washer woman looks and elegant tones, affords this pleasure, as do pretty boy actors who go to Ivy League schools and write serious fiction, and 91-year old Olga Kotelko, a record-breaking star of track and field.

I had just such delight last week with a trinity of service calls.  I was all set to endure the irritations of waiting for each to arrive, writing checks larger than anticipated, and making cheerless conversation about the weather; but instead I enjoyed the company of three marvelous men.

First came the carpet cleaner.  A mysterious odor in the family room couch had recently become nauseating.  Understand that carpet cleaners are low on my list of desired company—there’s always a song and dance about this treatment and that protectant, and hundreds of dollars later you’ve filled your house with poisonous chemicals and false promises.  But this one, a stocky fellow from northern England who managed to look dignified even with shower caps on his shoes, was lovely.  Formerly an engineer, he approached his work with the utmost seriousness.  “Knowledge is power,” he said when I commented on his encyclopedic knowledge of wools, nylons, polyesters, dyes and urine crystals.  Nose to the fabric, he sniffed methodically up and down the cushion like he was mowing a lawn.   “That’s got to be a bad part of your job,” I said as I watched, embarrassed.

“Actually it’s very rewarding, ” he said, coming up for air.  “And it’s definitely pet urine.”

The reward, he explained, is not in getting a nostril-full of Trixie’s tinkles but in helping people.  I had never considered carpet cleaning a noble undertaking, but perhaps it was.  Stains are discouraging to live with, odors downright unnerving. Maybe my carpet cleaner feels like a priest in a confessional, removing dirt, mess and stain.

And business was good, he cheerfully went on. “Where there’s muck there’s brass.”  Which means (I had to ask for a translation), where there’s dirt there’s money to be made.

(I love this saying, Where there’s muck there’s brass—it’s true in writing as well.  Writers have to go to the dirty places, the dark places, the places no one wants to go to in order to create something worth reading. )

Hours later I was revising my list of undesirable companions, noting that mattress salesmen were still at the very bottom, when the jolliest, sincerest mattress salesman imaginable came to call.  I won’t belabor the details except to say that his pride in his product was strong and well-founded.  He makes his mattresses by hand, with natural materials.  Mass-produced mattresses are built to last 3-5 years, he told me, and end up in landfills, but his come with lifetime guarantees. I know, I know, there’s a sucker born every minute; but I couldn’t find a reason to doubt him.  Besides, his stories were marvelous—a boxspring-punishing couple with 600 pounds of weight combined, a priest with back problems—and the hero of each tale was his mattress.  He hugged me goodbye, and though I had just met him and I had formerly pledged to despise mattress salesmen, I was glad he did.

And then came the plumber.  He was a bit of a talker, which should have been tedious, as the subject was rubber seals and the mechanics of toilet flushing.  But I was wrong again.  I found his conversation nearly as engaging as the banter on NPR’s Car Talk.  No matter what the subject, I like listening to people puzzle through a problem, using logic and their great breadth of experience and knowledge.

Maybe I’m just an easy mark for a good sales pitch. But I closed the door on each man with newfound respect.  All three enjoyed helping people solve problems, a quality and a mission which elevated their daily work—in the muck or in the wool—to the exceptional.

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