Intersections: A clean Bill of sweeping chimneys

In a blue Dickies jumpsuit and a black cap, Bill Saltzman greets me with a firm handshake.

It's 9 a.m. on a recent Thursday morning and we're on a quiet, idyllic street in La Cañada Flintridge, walking towards the door of a house with a blanket, vacuum and a brush which looks like a fuzzy, flattened top hat fastened on a pole.

“You can't make an honest living doing this,” Bill says, his salt and pepper beard neatly outlining his warm smile. “Believe me, I've tried.”

For 35 years, Saltzman, or “Chimney Sweep Bill” as he's known, has serviced thousands of chimneys from the streets of La Crescenta, where he was born and raised, to cabins near Mt. Baldy, where the fireplaces are used for more than just atmosphere.

Most chimney sweeps last only a few years, packing up shop due to lack of work or moving on in an attempt to lure residents with repair scams elsewhere, but 54-year-old Saltzman's longevity in winterless Southern California has outlasted most.

As part of a dying industry made largely famous by Dick Van Dyke's cockney chimney sweep in Disney's “Mary Poppins,” his success comes down to old-fashioned honesty and expertise. It's what's earned him stellar Yelp reviews from customers who call him out to service their chimneys time and time again.

It also helps that at heart, Saltzman is a people person. He'd be in and out of each job in almost half the time, he confides, if only he could stop talking.

While he lays down the blanket on the brick fireplace to protect it from ashes and inserts the brush in to give for a good sweep and inspection, he talks and I listen, the conversation in a stranger's living room satiating my curiosity about this centuries-old trade, which prompted me to call Bill in the first place.

“I like people. I like meeting people,” he says, chuckling. “I like to make sure that people are comfortable with what I've done and they're comfortable with me walking away knowing how to use their fireplace.”

A full-time senior electrical system dispatcher for the city of Glendale, Saltzman works as a chimney sweep on his off days — his city job comes first he says — driving his van full of sweeping equipment wherever the calls take him — Santa Clarita, Long Beach, Pasadena, Eagle Rock or Frazier Park.

Over the years, he's turned his chimney sweep business in to a family affair. Saltzman's wife Jewell handles the calls and appointments while his two sons, now in their 20s, have been accompanying him on sweeps since they were both 5-years-old. One is even in the midst of setting up his own sweeping business in Northern California.

Saltzman's beginnings as a sweep just after graduating high school were cultivated at his mother's La Crescenta house, where she encouraged him despite his doubts.

“A chimney sweeping business in sunny Southern California, who would ever hire me?” he thought.

“What have you got to lose?” his mother told him.

Saltzman put an ad in the paper and to his surprise, got a roaring response. His assembly of do-it-yourself tools and library visits to teach himself the chimney sweep trade gave him his first taste of the business.

“I basically started out with my mom's old pool equipment,” he says, using it to scrape down the flue pipes and taping an old measuring cup to the end of a ruler to scoop all the soot out.

He eventually upgraded to industry standard tools, though equipment hasn't changed too much since chimney sweeping began during the Industrial Revolution. However, to last, being genuine makes all the difference, Saltzman says.

“It's just being an honest business person and trying to keep my prices underneath or at least right there with the rest of the competition,” he says. “I don't try to up sell people on things they don't need.”

The work of a chimney sweep might be dirty and demanding, but at least for Saltzman, it hasn't been boring. Over the years, he's pulled out dolls, license plates and even an old revolver out of chimneys, along with coming to the rescue of raccoons, squirrels and birds.

There was also that one time 25 years ago when he received a desperate call from a woman looking for a chimney sweep, generally considered a lucky omen in parts of Europe, for the wedding of her Estonian boss's daughter.

So Saltzman put on his top coat and tails, drove to downtown L.A at midnight where he was taken around to meet guests, kiss the bride for good luck and offered vodka. He was then handed a microphone and asked to sing “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”

Does he often get Mary Poppins comparisons?

Oh all the time, he says.

“I get that quite a bit, it still puts a smile on my face.”

Soon Saltzman's job in La Cañada is finished. He bids the homeowner goodbye after handing her a pamphlet on chimney care and dispensing advice on buying the best firewood. With his jumpsuit off, a cheeky slogan on his t-shirt is revealed: “Best ash wiper in town.”

Another firm handshake and Saltzman sets off. For “Chimney Sweep Bill,” there's more chimneys to clean, even in a city whose winters it seems, are virtually nonexistent.

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LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.

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