The Old, the Cold, and the Useless 

The Night the Furnace Died

It's an old house, older than both of them, and they are not young. In this old house they've raised their family, watched one cat and dog after another grow stiff and die, seen the neighborhood turn from Polish to Puerto Rican to a little bit of everything under the United Nations flag. In warm weather, up and down the block people of all colors and languages are out painting, hammering, mowing, living the American dream.

This old house is beginning to stand out. Needs paint. Needs siding. Where are those rusty nails in the gangway coming from? Shouldn't somebody be calling about repairs?

But repairs cost money, and folks on a pension worry all the time about money. Is there enough? Will it last? Will inflation start up again and leave us in poverty? Will someone trip on the stairs, hire a lawyer, and strip a man of everything he owns? There's always some damn thing to worry about.

Let's talk about a certain night, a night when one of those weather systems out of Canada sweeps in. The guys on TV are going wild reporting wind-chill factors. Thirty below. Forty below. What's it to them? They have their condos on Lake Shore Drive. For a Logan Square home owner, it's a very bad night.

Just about bedtime the lady of the house begins to complain. "Why is it so cold in here?"

She's always cold, except in the summer when she's hot, but this time she isn't kidding. The minute her man puts his hand on the radiator two words leap into his mind: "Oh shit!"

It's time to dial that number taped up by the phone. Luckily, a few years ago he discovered this hippie furnace repairman who always plays it straight.

Furnace repairmen are like automobile mechanics. You find a good one, you hang on to him, or her. The yellow pages are full of these people and nobody is saying they are all thieves but--on a 40-below wind-chill night a furnace repairman kind of has you at his mercy. That's why Mr. Homeowner is so pleased about this repairman with the long dark ponytail. "Shucks," he'll say. "It's only a widget. I can fix it for 30 bucks." Let us give thanks to the friend who gave us this number to call!

But there's a new voice on the line, and a new company to deal with. That's the way business works in America. You finally find someone you can trust, the next thing you know the guy goes broke and moves back to Michigan or Kentucky or wherever he came from in the first place. It goes without saying that anyone who will fix your furnace for 30 bucks is not a native Chicagoan. "Well, come out anyway," Mr. Homeowner says to this new voice. What else can he say? Already the windows are frosting over.

He heads to the basement hoping to figure out this thing for himself. What does he, an ordinary home owner, know about furnaces? It's just a big box with pipes running in and out and a large yellow flame that keeps puffing on and off and licking out the sides. To tell the truth, he's a little bit afraid of it. What's wrong with this thing? Maybe a valve, maybe a wire not touching right, maybe a widget?

Forty-five minutes later the new repairman arrives. He's got one of those Thomas Dewey mustaches. You remember Tom Dewey. Lost his run for president. Lost when the other side compared him to one of those little toy bridegrooms they stick on wedding cakes. Never trust a furnace repairman with a sneaky little mustache.

"Can't be fixed. Look at the rust on those burners. Look at those pipes. This thing is liable to blow up any moment and burn down your house!"

That's how these guys talk. They don't even take off their jackets or squat down to look close.

And where is that faithful hippie furnaceman? Gone, gone, back to Kentucky, back to Michigan, back to some civilized land where people play acoustic guitars and smoke good dope. "The other guy checked it last summer," the home owner protests. "He told me it would last another 20 years. I don't want a new furnace. I want this one fixed!"

Young Tom Dewey shakes his carefully barbered head. "If that's what you want. But I'll have to pull the boiler and take it into the shop."

"How long will that take?"

"A day, maybe two, maybe three."

Maybe it's just imagination, but that 40-below wind outside the basement window seems to be howling in laughter.

"And how much will it cost?"

"Can't say. If we can fix it, I say if--we won't know for sure until we get this rust cleaned off--well, if we can, it will run, oh, 400 dollars."

Tom Dewey pauses for effect, then adds: "Of course we can't guarantee it will last."

"Forget it. I'll call another repair service."

"OK by me." Tom takes out his clipboard and begins writing. "That'll be 75 dollars."

"For what?"

"Service charge."

Get several estimates. That's what the guys who write the fix-it articles in the newspapers tell you. They don't tell you about these service charges on a night when the wind is threatening to turn your house into an ice cube.

Tom gives his quarry a moment to think. Then he says, "Why don't you let me call my boss? He's got a brand-new boiler down at the shop. Some guy ordered it and backed out. I'm sure he'll give you a price."

The main part of the story is now going on inside the home owner's head. He wants to strangle this repairman on the spot. He's so young, so healthy, so confident. What does he care if the pipes freeze, if the walls crack, if the house dies before its owner? It's just a piece of business to him.

"What kind of price?"

"Aw, this boiler lists at three thousand. But I know he'll come down on that."

The last furnace only cost two thousand. The cost of living does go up. And up. And up.

"You can call another repair service," young Tom continues. "But they're going to tell you the same thing."

"I'm sure they will," the home owner says, a bit bitterly, but Tom pretends not to notice. Why should he care what this old man thinks? Not only does he have his own warm house to live in, he knows what to do when the furnace breaks.

Upstairs the home owner finds the other half of his family in the kitchen with a blanket around her shoulders and the oven going. "They say the furnace is shot."

"What! We just bought it!"

They get out the papers . . . it's been almost 17 years!

And so young Tom Dewey, who chews gum and snaps it between his teeth (why do people insist upon doing that!), calls his boss, who generously reduces the price to 2,800 dollars.

"When can you put it in?"

"Right away," Tom says. "Sign here."

In less than an hour, four young men are hammering and turning pipes in the basement. They're all husky, good-looking guys who smoke cigarettes like they never heard of the surgeon general, and cuss and swear and joke about their girlfriends. They don't seem to be the least bit affected by the cold. Are you kidding? They love this weather. Bang, bang, bang, they rip out that poor old furnace and carry it away. "It's part of the price. But we just sell it for scrap." In comes a gleaming new furnace, which Tom declares is guaranteed for 15 full years and will last 30. "You'll never have to worry about heat again!" These guys are such good workers, they really seem to know what they are doing. They cover the basement floor with their tools and smoke more cigarettes than anyone would care to count, talk about women, and never once meet the home owner's eyes. What is he to them? Nothing. Just another paycheck they'll probably spend on Old Style.

Same as he would if he were their age.

By dawn the new furnace is pumping hot water and the cat is asleep on the dining room radiator and the man of this house is 2,800 dollars poorer. There is no way he can quell the rage that has built up in his heart. Life just isn't fair. They're all alike, these furnace repairmen, these roofers, these guys who fix your car, healthy young men who walk around you and barely know your name. They have a world that is their own and not one of them could ever imagine he might someday be in yours.

Eight hours later, with a little sleep, he's almost feeling better. The new furnace is humming and putting up more heat than the old one ever did, even when it was new. He sits in the kitchen reading the warranty, and he no longer wants to know if the old furnace could have been fixed. He gets out the bank book and begins calculating. Another chunk out of the old nest egg. Cash in a CD. No way does he accept the terms Tom Dewey is offering. Twelve percent interest? And the CD only earns five? To hell with that!

When the lady of the house is ready he goes round to the garage and gets the car. These people own a Chevy with 84,000 miles on it and still think of it as new. It does drive well enough but needs a muffler, and who knows why that little red light on the dashboard, which neither of them has ever understood, keeps flashing on and off.

At the savings and loan the lady of the house chooses to remain in the car while her man does the dirty work. She comes from the old school. Standing in line at the savings and loan is not, in her opinion, woman's work.

Preoccupied, he almost pushes the revolving door in the wrong direction. You won't believe this, but at this very same savings and loan he once pushed all the way through in the wrong direction, and before he could take another step a security guard was at his side. "Do you see what you've done?"

That's how they talk to you, these security guards. They're all a bunch of high school dropouts who wannabe cops.

"What have I done?"

"Look at the door! You've got the weather stripping all bent the wrong way."

The next thing you know, our Logan Square home owner, a dignified senior citizen, is being made to push the damn thing back while a security guard half his age stands by, hands on hips, making sure he gets the weather strip right.

Luckily, this time he catches himself before it can happen again.

Of course you're not allowed to cash a CD at the teller's window. Instead, the woman at the desk gives you a number and tells you to take a seat. As usual there are several other couples ahead, old Polish couples who, when they reach the bank officer, make sure they take every moment of time possible (and just a bit more) before giving up their places. They have to have everything explained to them twice, once in English, once in Polish, and whatever it is the lady tells them they still don't believe it. They argue over every penny and every detail and it kind of makes a person wonder what goes on in their basements when they have to call the furnace man.

At last it's Mr. Homeowner's turn. By now he's read all the little folders banks leave out for you, stuff about assets and liabilities, as if they're really going to tell you when the place is about to go broke. He's directed to a woman in her late 30s. "And now," she says, removing her oddly shaped eyeglasses, "What can we do for you?"

More often than anyone would imagine necessary, this woman tells him about the penalty he must pay for cashing in a CD early. "You have to leave your money in for 90 days," she keeps repeating. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

It's a complicated transaction, made worse by her telephone, which keeps ringing and ringing and has to be answered. Never mind if a man has just spent 45 minutes reading bank statements, any fool who can dial a number gets to talk to her first. Evidently she finds a voice on a telephone more important than a flesh-and-blood person sitting before her. Finally, he signs paper after paper and sees the numbers transferred from one account to another. So much money changing hands, and no one ever sees an actual penny of it, just numbers on a sheet of paper.

Meanwhile the other half of the family is sitting in the car, shivering. Once again the engine has died.

"Why didn't you come inside?" he says, turning the key and pumping at the gas pedal.

"Banks just make me nervous," she says.

"So isn't it better to be nervous than to freeze?"

Maybe he snaps at her a little. Shouldn't do that. In a world of furnace repairmen, security guards, and bank officers, a man ought to remember that the other half of the family is at least on his side. So when the car finally starts up and she says "Can we eat out tonight?" he knows how he had better answer.

She's got it in her head to visit a restaurant she noticed on a recent drive. She does that a lot, notices restaurants. "I think it's on Harlem," she says, and they drive down this street slowly, holding up traffic, until she spots the sign.

The minute they step through the door, at least one of these people decides he is not going to like this restaurant. In the mood he's presently in, it's hard to imagine any restaurant he would like. This one is large and bright and new, and there are altogether too many plants hanging from far too many places. Even worse is the old-time motif with pseudoantique advertising signs plastered over the walls and imitation Tiffany lamps dangling over every table. This is the kind of restaurant that calls chicken wings "buffalo wings" and hires no waitresses over 30. A hostess with big country-western hair leads them to a table, and here comes their waiter.

He's even younger than the hostess, with coal black hair cut short and plastered in place with mousse. "My name is Lenny," he says. "Can I get you something from the bar?"

If enthusiasm makes a good waiter, Lenny has found the right profession. And just recently. "This is my first day," he confesses. "I'm a little nervous."

He isn't kidding. He dashes back and forth, filling cups and grinding pepper, anxiously offering his assistance. He also drops several spoons, puts the wife's salad in front of the husband, and brings decaf instead of the real thing.

All of which could be overlooked were it not for the meal itself, lasagna that can only have come straight from a microwave.

This gets eaten in silence, and washed down with that fake coffee. When Lenny finally notices they are finished he brings the check and takes the money away on a little plastic tray. Out of 20 dollars, 3 dollars and 76 cents return.

"Leave him a nice tip," the other half of the family says.

It's snowing outside. Above the bar our man can see a television set going. The Channel Five weather girl is pointing at a map of North America with arrows pointing out of the arctic. She's talking about wind-chill factors. When he stands up to leave Mr. Homeowner sees all around him young men and women with mousse in their hair dashing from table to table, smiling obsequiously. Who do they think they are kidding? Put them in another uniform, stand them in your basement some frigid night, and any one of them will say: "You have rust on your burners, you're leaking carbon monoxide. I'm surprised you haven't been smothered in your sleep."

He looks at the three dollars on that tray. He picks up one, then another. He almost picks up the third. Leave a nice tip?

Lenny, my boy, let's put it this way: Be glad he didn't pocket it all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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