And people think "every goddamn day" is edgy...
Wednesday I was leaving the Department of Motor Vehicles—after a more than two hour wait for a simple driver's license renewal; get on the stick, Jesse White.
There it was, in the parking lot. I raced over, pulling out my iPhone.
But clicking a few pictures was not enough.
I had to know.
"Why are you asking?" said the voice that answered the number a few hours later.
"It happened in a bar," owner Ross Reed began. "Forty years ago."
"Seandell's," he continued, a bar in Lincolnshire, at Milwaukee Avenue and 22, now long gone. "As red neck as red neck gets."
He was in the tree business, understand. Sold a lot of firewood. Firewood goes in fireplaces. Creating smoke, that billows up chimneys and, eventually, over time, dirties them.
"So many people were asking who I knew in the cleaning business," said Reed. The tree business cools down the in fall, just when the chimney-cleaning business heats up.
"One night I was out with the boys in 1980, and I said, 'I kinda like sitting in a nice warm living room instead of being up a tree in a blizzard,'" Reed said.
He started the business with a landscaper friend, Kevin Winkler. A business needs a name. Names were discussed. A certain sooty pun was unspooled.
"They said 'No way' and I said, 'watch me' and it's been Ash Wipe ever since."
Officialdom didn't blink.
"Oh hell, I'm incorporated with the state, my own trademark," he said. "If the government can accept it...."
So can the chimney-owning residents of the tony North Shore? So does the name attract customers? Or drive them away?
"A little of both."
But between the two, business booms.
"It's crazy," said Reed, 59. "Here it is, middle of July, I'm absolutely slammed. I don't advertise."
With that truck you don't have to.
Ever find any interesting stuff clogging up chimneys?
"Lots of times you find animals," Reed said. "The coolest thing I found is a letter to Santa Claus written by a girl named Sarah. The family in the house had been there 25 years and didn't have a Sarah. They knew the people they bought the house from: no Sarah. I could tell from the dolls and toys she asked for, the letter was from 1910, 1915, discolored from time. It had gotten stuck up behind the damper. The lady from the house wanted it; I would have framed it, hung it up. I hope she kept it. That's one of the cooler things. I've been waiting to find the box of diamonds that grandpa hid up a chimney, but it hasn't happened yet."
We talked for a long time. Sadly, some of the more interesting things he made me promise not to repeat here, and I'm a man of my word. These rich people and their fireplaces...While on the subject. How do you clean a chimney?
"Brushes," Reed said. "You send 'em up. "You do it from the bottom up, because if you do it from the top up you got no control. You push the brush up, with a vacuum running, to catch it before it gets out of hand. In some of those mansions in Lake Forest: white carpet, white furniture, white dog, white wife... you get one speck of it in there and you're in trouble."
No doubt. I did not envy the man his clientele.
A cleaning costs $150 to $200, "depending on how far I have to drive." A mansion can have five fireplaces. Or more. He's cleaned the fireplaces of homes about to be torn down. He's cleaned the chimneys for artificial fireplaces.
"You really don't got to clean 'em with gas logs," he said. "I tell 'em that. They say, 'Well, I'll feel better if you do it.' My honesty only goes so far. 'You got seven fireplaces. You want me to pretend like I cleaned 'em? Okay...'"
Then, out of the blue.
"I don't wear my top hat anymore. It's in a drawer, but I don't wear them."
But you did?
I started in '79. I have hats as old as I am. The real McCoy. I bought it because that's what chimney sweeps wear. If you see someone up there in blue jeans ..."
He paused, to let the thought sink in. "But if they're up there in a top hat, you know immediately what they're doing."
He said that chimney cleaning began in Germany 800 or 900 years ago, and the top hat tradition began with undertakers throwing away their top hats and tails and chimney sweeps taking them.
We talked a long time, and I hung up with reluctance, wishing I had a fireplace.