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Chimney Sweeps : A Touch of Luck From a Sooty Sleeve

Times Staff Writer

The head of the chimney sweepers’ union doesn’t want to talk about the spurious issue of good luck--since superstition and time-worn tradition are not officially regarded as recruitment incentives in the new world of socialist reform and modernization.

The shortage of chimney sweeps in Prague is getting to be serious, and the union chief tries hard to put a high-tech modern gloss on his discussion of the problems of converting coal heaters to gas. But after all, this is not rocket science.

“Just don’t ask them about the superstition,” he says hopelessly at last. “They don’t like it.”

Whiff of Coal Smoke

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There is a frost of early winter on the pitched rooftops of Prague as Pepa Vitak and Vaclav Gebhart set out on their rounds. The sky matches the slate of the roofs, and their breath hangs in motionless plumes. A whiff of coal smoke gives its acid bite to the air.

They wear black flannel shirts, black pants, black shoes, white caps on their heads. On belts around their waists are tin boxes filled with official forms. Vitak carries the satchel with the coiled leather rope, the steel brush on the end of the baseball-sized iron weight--the trademark uniform and tools of the chimney sweep.

And they are not 50 yards up the street before it begins. A little old lady, her morning’s shopping list clutched in a dimpled fist, looks up, spies them. Her hand goes quickly to the button on her coat, her lips move silently.

She is making her wish.

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Her smile, as she passes, is sly and grateful, as though she’s been let in on a secret.

Gebhart pretends not to notice. Vitak actually doesn’t.

Human Good-Luck Charms

Gebhart has been a chimney sweep for 18 years, Vitak for 12. It seems a part of the code of the chimney sweep, especially after so many years, is not to take obvious notice of the fact that people regard them as human good-luck charms.

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The notion that chimney sweeps are the agents of good fortune is an old European tradition. The superstition holds that it is good luck to touch them, wiping a fingertip across their sooty sleeves, or, when seeing them from a distance, to touch a button and make a wish.

The effect of this, especially for a companion dressed up--at the insistence of Gebhart and Vitak--in black flannel chimney sweep gear, is like spending a day as a kind of enchanted person. People smile, murmur bashful greetings, slyly finger their coat buttons, sneak a touch on a crowded sidewalk.

However quaint chimney sweeps may seem in America, in Czechoslovakia and most of the rest of Eastern Europe, where houses and apartment buildings are often heated by individual coal stoves, chimney sweeps are in high demand. In fact, they are in such high demand that in some places, such as Poland, they are as imperious in manner as star surgeons and, some would say, just as hard to find.

For example, there were 300 chimney sweeps working in Prague’s state-run chimney sweep enterprise 15 years ago. Now there are 190. There are 16 working out of the office in Prague’s Second District, where Gebhart and Vitak are assigned. Gebhart says they need 25. Recruiting has gotten difficult, despite the pay, which, at 4,500 crowns per month ($450), is above the national average of 3,800 crowns.

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“It’s not the kind of work people want to do any more,” Gebhart says. “They want to wear white shirts and work in offices. They don’t want to do work like this, where you get dirty.”

The backlog of work orders takes at least a week to fulfill, often longer, and the demand continues to rise as more of Prague’s residents seek permission to convert from coal to gas heaters in their apartments. Such a conversion requires an inspection from the chimney sweeps. Likewise, any apartment remodeling that affects the heating system requires chimney sweep approval.

Decidedly Cool Welcome

The first call of the day for Gebhart and Vitak is such a case, and the only visit where their welcome is decidedly cool. On the fourth floor of a large apartment building, a man had remodeled his apartment and, in the process, blocked off three chimneys from other apartments and tapped into three others, although, by chimney sweep rules, he was entitled to only one. Opening his door, the apartment owner scowls as though a pair of large wharf rats had materialized on the landing.

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Just behind the chimney sweeps comes a delegation of three women from the local housing authority. This is, it turns out, an old dispute.

The complaint comes from a poor single man of impaired intelligence living downstairs, a man whom the rest of the building’s occupants do their best to look after. Now, his small room fills with smoke when he tries to use his coal heater. For days, he has had no heat at all. His cramped room is frigid.

The situation is resolved, somehow, by the committee of women, who tell the man downstairs that he will be moved to a new apartment and inform the man upstairs that he is to be fined and directed to return the chimneys to their original state.

It is the day’s only sign of conflict. Over a mid-morning break of bean soup and coffee in a neighborhood eatery, Gebhart says he and Vitak could have told the man how to get around his problem, but, as on two previous visits, he tried to deceive them, so they backed away and let the ladies of the committee have a go at him. “He shouldn’t have acted like a criminal,” Gebhart says.

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Frou-Frou and Filigree

They hurry on though the district, past once-lovely turn-of-the-century apartment buildings, up stairways where panels of etched glass in moderne designs look out over weedy gardens and where the iron scrollwork around windows and stair railings whisper of a vanished age before communism, when architects and builders could afford such frou-frou and filigree in privately owned buildings.

“This is what our fathers left to us,” says Gebhart, pausing before one of the lovely etched windows. Then, on the next landing, where the window has been replaced by a plain sheet of opaque glass, he adds, “and this is what we are passing on to our children.”

Vitak climbs through lofts filthy with pigeon droppings and onto tile roofs, lowering his iron ball and brush down chimney pipes, and sits gazing over the rooftops of Prague while he waits for Gebhart’s answer on the two-way radio--the one modern device in a chimney sweep’s kit, one that saves much huffing up and down stairs. The air is hazy with coal smoke, and the golden globes on the Gothic spires of the city’s churches wink in the wan sunlight. Prague is a lovely city from any vantage point, but, from a chimney sweep’s perch, it seems especially magical.

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“It’s even better in the summer,” Vitak says. “Then you have the girls, out sunbathing on the rooftops. On days like that, you don’t want to go back to the office. You can stay up here all day.”

Sprightly Woman of 92

Their last stop is the apartment of a sprightly woman of 92, her hair died a brassy blonde, her enthusiasm for life undiminished by either her age or the fact that she now lives her life entirely in one room, the kitchen of her apartment, to save on coal. Her bedside table is crowded with medicines and nostrums.

All she really wants from Vitak and Gebhart is to clean the ashes from her coal stove, and to do it quickly enough so that she makes it to the weekly meeting of her ladies’ circle.

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Vitak does the work, and Gebhart talks, looking over adored pictures of grandchildren. “And this is my granddaughter, just graduated from medical school.”

In a few minutes, they are trooping down the stairs, meeting another elderly lady on the way up. She stops on the landing and stares for a moment.

“Look at this,” she says in a cooing, high-pitched voice. “Three little chimney sweeps. What luck I am going to have today.” She reaches out with a finger, as though to strike a single note on a piano.

“Bing, bing, bing,” she says, her voice like a bell, touching them as they pass.

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Powers, The Times’ Warsaw bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Prague.


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