The Bailey’s Chimney Story (Part 2)

Wade told me that when he started his chimney business, when he ran into problems he would call Lou, and Lou would talk on the phone with him in the evenings, “explaining how to attach a chimney to a wall made of beer cans and stuff like that, you know what I mean?” Wade said. “And even though I was his competition, he helped me a lot. You know what I mean?” Last I heard, Wade was selling time shares in Hawaii.

I was 30 when I started my chimney business. I had an old Toyota 4×4 pickup, some tools, and one of those voice mail services where you call in and check your messages.

That same year, after an 8 year absence, I also went back to college to finish my degree. I was certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America, and within a couple of years I’d build up a base of customers and gotten my diploma from UNM, summa cum laude.

But none of the jobs available to a new college grad seemed as appealing as running my own business in Taos. I bought a fixer upper house, wrote a regular column for a newspaper, and settled in.

Chimney work is a trade, like plumbing or painting or electrical. A lot of people don’t understand that. I know the codes, I have the skills and the expertise to make sure your house doesn’t burn down.

In 2007, during the slow season, I started volunteering for a national political campaign, a presidential race. The campaign staff seemed to think I was capable, and so they hired me to run the Taos County operation. I closed the chimney business.

The other staffers were young kids mostly straight out of Stanford or Dartmouth or wherever, and then there was me, the chimney guy.

I was out of my comfort zone and in a lot of ways, out of my league. But that’s how you grow and develop. It was hundred-hour weeks of constant pressure, for really low pay.

But I never had joined the peace corp, I never joined the military; that campaign was a chance to serve my country. I acquired a set of skills I never would have known existed, and made lots of friends too.

In 2010, I created and coordinated a Congressional Campaign Fellowship Program for Congressman Lujan. The idea was to teach high school and college students how to be politically effective.

Then the Democratic National Committee hired me as regional field director for the 3rd congressional district.

My office was in Santa Fe, and I couldn’t help looking at all the chimneys everywhere. I did a little research and learned that none of the chimney sweeps in Santa Fe were certified at the time.

It seemed like an opportunity.

After the 2010 election, I was burned out on politics. I left the DNC and reopened Bailey’s Chimney Cleaning & Repair with a branch in Santa Fe.

I’d met Marc Black when he was volunteering for Brian Egolf’s campaign in 2010. He’d volunteered to teach the kids in the fellowship program how to canvass, and we clicked. I hired him, trained him for a year, and got him certified. His wife Jenn Kilbourn became our office manager.

In 2012 we had four employees.

Dryer vents are one of the leading causes of house fires, so I decided we should become the experts in preventing that kind of danger. We got certified in dryer vent technology, and we are the only company in New Mexico with that credential.

I still do the occasional political campaign, as a freelance campaign manager/consultant. My last client was a district judge in a Democratic Primary race. She won by almost ten points.

Some people think its strange that I’m a chimney sweep but I also do political work. I tell them there’s nothing strange about it: they are the two dirtiest businesses in the world.

In the meantime I apply lessons of political organizing to the chimney business, and sometimes it works.

Some of our customers will organize their neighbors for a day of chimney service in exchange for a screaming deal on our services.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, and I hope I get the chance to meet you soon.

This photo is by Heather Sparrow. She took it the first year I was in business, just after I started Bailey’s Chimney Cleaning & Repair, and I’ve been using this image in my promotional materials ever since. I’m a few years older now than when she took the picture, and a few pounds heavier, but I still enjoy the opportunity to help my neighbors be prepared, self sufficient, and safe. Bailey’s Chimney Cleaning & Repair does all aspects of chimney service: Cleanings, Inspections, Installations, Troubleshooting, Consulting, and Repairs. We are the only company in New Mexico Certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America to service dryer vents. We are the experts in dryer Vent Evaluations, repairs, installation, and cleaning. We have offices in Santa Fe (505) 988-2771 and Taos (575) 770-7769. We serve all of North Central New Mexico.

My friend Dorie Hagler took this photo years ago on a way-below-zero day in Taos Ski Valley. That’s me on the ladder. She did a photo essay/article on my chimney work for the Taos News.

This video shows the Bailey’s crew hard at work cleaning a chimney near Arroyo Seco, NM.

1. Lay two logs side by side on floor of firebox with 4 to 6 inches of space in between them.
2. Crumple 2 or 3 sheets of newspaper loosely, place between logs.
3. Lay kindling across newspaper so it is supported by the logs but bridges over the paper
4. Lay a medium sized log diagonally on top of the kindling so that each of the bottom two logs will support it when the kindling is burning up.
5. Light the newspaper on fire.
6. The fire will eat its way down onto the bottom two logs once the kindling catches on fire.
7.  Once the newspaper is burned up, there will plenty of space for air to feed the fire.

This time of year has always been hibernation time for me.  In chimney world, the busy season is over.

The phone doesn’t ring much.

Yesterday, for example, all I did was one dryer vent service job.  Today I have no jobs on the schedule.

The dryer vent job took me about two and a half hours, working by myself.  I took my time.  There was snow all over the roof, and a nice sheen of ice outside of the hot-tub.

The job was to clean a clogged dryer vent and replaced a crushed, torn, disconnected transition duct with a periscope transition (for dryers with not enough room behind them for a traditional aluminum transition from dryer to vent.)  More on dryer vents later–they deserve their own blog post.

It’s been really, really cold lately.  Instead of moisture and water droplets on the insides of the windows (and I have double-paned, good windows) there is actual ice around the bottom and the edges of the glass in the morning when I pull the curtains aside.

I wipe off the liquid condensation with a towel and make some coffee.  The cat gets fed.

Yesterday it was negative 15 at my house when the sun came up, negative 30 in some outlying areas, negative 35 in the ski valley.  That means people are using their chimneys a lot and the phone will start ringing soon when chimneys start clogging up.

But for now I am enjoying some down time after a hectic busy season.  Sleeping till 8 a.m. is a luxury.  Taking the time to write this blog is nice, and now on day five (that means its January 5th today) its starting to seem a little bit like a routine.

I realize there will be plenty of days this year when I do not feel like writing the daily blog post.  Today was one of those.


I’ve only just begun this project and it almost feels like it did back when I used to really write, when I started writing.  Thousands of words a day came out of me, sometimes.  Smoking cigarettes nonstop, I myself some kind of a living chimney with a pulse, teeth, and hair–in a cloud of smoke–I was a human vent. 

My Salt Lake City friend used to write poetic lines about all the smoke and the flames.  What did she write?  I wish I could remember.  She made it sound so interesting.  She didn’t smoke, nobody in her life smoked or drank except for me, so to her my vices–despite being commonplace in the world–were exotic. 

The stuff poured out of me, smoke and words on pages.  I wasn’t even writing it.  The pen would just move across the page.  The typewriter sounded like a machine gun in my garret at the top of the red stairway up the back of the house, where I slept on a mat on the floor and typed on a makeshift desk made of a pallet set upon cinderblocks, blue smoke winding its way up from the cigarette in the ashtray, tobacco resin on my fingers, or I would sit in bars and write with a pencil, back when you could smoke in bars, and I would write slowly, sharpening the pencil with a knife. 

For years, my excuse to keep smoking cigarettes was that if I quit smoking, I would stop writing.  

Then later I quit writing and kept smoking. 

And now recently I quit smoking and then started writing.

Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk who wrote some books.  He wrote of deep things.  I found one of his books recently in a place called the Friendship Club in Santa Fe, a book called New Seeds of Contemplation, it was in the shelf they have there where you can just take any book you want.  I opened it and started reading and it was one of those moments it feels like a certain book comes into your hands at the exact moment you needed it.

In that book, Merton says a few things about writing that I think are probably true. 

I’m not a religious man.  But this stuff rings true.  Merton says:

 “If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men–you may make some money…and make a noise in the world, for a little while.  If you write only for yourself you can read what yourself have written and you will be so disgusted that you will wish you were dead.”

One of those paradoxes.  If you want to reach men and give them joy, then don’t write for men.  Write for god.  
There is a trunk full of notebooks and manuscripts and published clips, stuff I wrote back before the internet and so now I’m asking myself who did I write that stuff for, those million or so words I wrote when I was in my twenties.  

Maybe I should be asking God that question.   Merton says that each of us is a word written by God.  A question in the form of a word.  And the way we live is our answer to that question.  

I’ve been tempted, for years, to dump the trunk out and burn those writings of mine in a bonfire out in the snow somewhere in a sagebrush field in some private ceremony to clean the personal slate.   

My friend Dorie Hagler once posted on face book that she burned 20 years worth of journals.  

She actually did it.  

I never asked her if she read them before she burned them.  

Its not really a trunk, that container full of words on pages.  Its more like a plastic tub the size of a trunk.   Biggest one I could find at Walmart, and its full.  Its in my warehouse, the plastic tub is, which warehouse isn’t really a warehouse but is actually a room on the other side of my bedroom wall with a bare particle-board floor and bare sheet rock walls where I keep chimney parts and pipe.  

But anyway so there is this blue purple plastic tub in my warehouse full of chimney stuff, and the tub is  full of manuscripts, and in trying to decide what to do with it I am thinking of Thomas Merton, and what he said about who are you writing for.  

What did I write and who did I write it for?     

I wrote theater plays first, starting when I was around 21.  Did I write them for  men?  Or for a woman who would help turn me from a boy to a man?   Certainly not for God, unless those fucked-up plays were sort of like protest letters to Him, a shaking of a young fist at the sky. 
Has anybody asked Thomas Merton if its possible to write for all of the above: God, Men, and the Self, at once?  Only a few of the plays I wrote were ever performed by actual actors on actual stages for actual audiences. And most of those plays have, I hope, been forgotten.  

Living in Salt Lake City, of all places, going to the university, walking around with a full-blown theater going on in my head and these actors would come out onto that make-believe stage in my mind, and they would do and say crazy things, and I would write it down as fast as I could.  

My first little play was produced there in a barn-type building in some park near the University.  The audience was all dressed up.  That shocked me.  Their nice clothes.   These people were somebodies, and I was nobody, and they got dressed up and sat together, tears in their eyes because the whole play was two guys talking and chopping onions and the onion fumes went out into the audience, until there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.  I got my first royalty check.  

I had no skill or technique. 

I was a long way from being ready for any kind of success.