In 2005 I became a Vocational Instructor and began spending less time in the field and as a result, a lot less time at the Supply House. The funny thing about Plumbers, although we're competitors for the same jobs, and that can be cut-throat, over the years we've somehow managed to remain friends or at the very least, friendly acquaintances. Maybe it's because there is a bond that hard work, sometimes dirty work, creates, taking us all down a notch to where we coexist without bias. Whatever it is, the camaraderie is uncommon.
Every industry has its own language, and the plumbing trade is no exception. When plumbers get together it's always interesting and entertaining to listen to the conversation, or if you're a plumber, be part of it. There's always grand, sometimes exaggerated stories accompanied by unrestrained laughter. That's what I miss the most.
While on Christmas Break in 2018, I put aside some time to rebuild a tub and shower valve for a good customer, and I needed parts. I could have gone to a big-box store and stood in line with nameless faces, but I opted for the friendly confines of the local plumbing supply house instead. On the way over I wondered who I'd see and how long I'd stay...
Dave's my old high school buddy and manages this particular store and I figured I'd see him. He's worked in supply houses since he and I graduated high school in 1974, and he's also a licensed plumber, so he speaks the language fluently. And then there's Ken, he's been there a while and has lugged boilers and water heaters around the back of houses with me, sometimes through deep snow and heavy rain, and without hesitation.
I walked in and the big-wigs were all busy on the phones, which is common, especially during the heating season and frigid temperatures, and so two young kids were working the counter. I was immediately disappointed, thinking I would pick up my parts without chewing any fat...
Then, Ken looked up from his desk, which was closest to the counter area, and came out of the office to say hello. After a friendly handshake, we both did some catching up.
All of a sudden, in walks Danny. I worked with Danny 35 years ago. We were both employed by a local plumber and one of the first jobs we worked together on was a three-family rehab in Dorchester. I remember carrying a two-piece toilet and seat, still in boxes, up multiple flights of stairs to the top floor. I had challenged myself to do it in one trip. Next thing I know, there's Danny, six years my senior, the Master Plumber on the job, and he's doing the same thing. He wasn't about to be outdone by an Apprentice.
We worked hard and took our breaks together. He was very outspoken, funny and there was never a dull moment, which helped us through some challenging moments. He was definitely not a short conversation kind-of-guy and on more than one occasion, I spent considerably more time than I had available listening to his colorful stories while standing at the supply house counter.
On this day he approached noticeably slower, still displaying the wide smile and the crazy eyes that was his calling card. He had aged and put on some weight, nothing we all hadn't done, and he was quick to mention he was having his second knee replacement just after New Years'. As we spoke I was imagining him carrying that toilet up to the third floor and wondering if either one of us could still do it today.
Since I had a customer waiting I cut it short, shaking hands again with Danny and Ken, wishing them both a Happy and Healthy New Year, which seemed so much more meaningful than it did some thirty years ago...