John Barber, 31, now enjoys the curious stares he receives, and thrives on the unusual nature of his job as a chimney sweep. The El Cajon man has cleaned chimneys for eight years and goes about the task in the traditional top hat and tails. Though formerly "very shy," Barber said he's gotten used to being the object of people's stares. During the "busy season," the fall and winter months, Barber cleans four to six chimneys a day throughout the San Diego area. He got started in the business after getting out of the Navy, when a friend mentioned to him he knew a man who needed some part-time help cleaning chimneys. Attracted by the independence the job afforded him, Barber eventually took over the older man's business. He readily admits he was afraid of heights when he first started, but has long since grown used to scaling the roofs of two- and even three-story homes. Barber was interviewed by Times staff writer Kathie Bozanich and photographed by Times staff photographer Barbara Martin.
Ever since I was a kid I wanted to do something unusual. It's unusual enough to be self-employed, but to be a self-employed chimney sweep in Southern California is very strange. I always felt that I was different, but I felt that I was weird different. We all fall into a little niche, and this is my niche.
I've been a very, very shy person all my life, and it took me quite a long time just to get used to having people notice me. It's something I've had to get used to because it's business. When you have a top hat and tails on a really hot day in Southern California, you're going to get noticed, especially in the beach area. People will be lying on the beach with hardly any clothes on, and then they see me, they just kind of flip.
People's reactions are weird. Most just wave and smile at me, some point and stare. It seems like I've caused numerous traffic tie-ups. I'll be up on a roof near a busy intersection and people will stop and gawk and cause a commotion.
I wanted to grow up to be rich and famous. I loved sports, but my body didn't catch up with me. That's one thing about being a chimney sweep, you have to be very coordinated and be nimble on your feet, otherwise you're going to hurt yourself. You have to climb up on roofs, and actually stand on the chimney stacks of one-, two-, and even three-story houses.
I've learned to respect heights very much. Before I would climb up a 10-foot ladder and I'd be sweating, but I'm pretty well used to heights now. I have to be.
I really aspired to be my own boss. I've always been very independent, and once I got out of the Navy I didn't want a whole lot of people telling me what to do anymore.
Chimney sweeps are basically an independent lot. We're kind of out there on our own. You have to learn to enjoy your own company in this business because there really isn't anyone else you're working with.
When my friend told me about this guy needing help during the busy season chimney sweeping, my immediate thought was what a really weird kind of job. I grew up in Southern California, and I said to myself, "What do I know about chimneys? Nothing."
I wear a top hat, tails, a red scarf, and dress all in black, just like the chimney sweeps in turn-of-the-century Europe. The sweeps were very poor, and they would buy second-hand mortician clothes. Morticians don't really wear out their clothing, plus it is functional because it is all black.
You have to be very careful in protecting people's homes, because when you make a mistake with soot, black is black, and it doesn't come off really easy. There are tell-tale signs left there if something didn't go right.
People are really curious. They poke around and ask me questions like, "Do you ever find anything live in there?" I tell them I have found live birds. The birds are a real pain, and they are really dumb, but I would rather find them live than dead. I've found dead ones, too and that's really nasty.