When you grow up in the South, you know very little of snow tires, ice scrapers or rock salt on sidewalks. When I was a kid, a sack of rock salt meant somebody was making homemade peach ice cream.
To some Southerners, being raised in Miami does not count as the South, but I can claim deeper roots in towns like Arcadia and Wauchula. I can fix proper cheese grits. Should I find myself trapped in such conversation at a barbecue, I can hold my own talking NASCAR.
So what do I know from chimney sweeps?
Our houses in Miami did not have basements or attics, and ceilings tended to be popcorned and touchable on tiptoe. But as a grownup, I find myself living in one of those high-ceilinged 1920s Tampa bungalows with enough charm to make up for the fact that the closets could not fit enough clothes for a lawn gnome.
And in the living room is a proper brick fireplace.
After a few charming winters of charming light-the-bag logs, the fireplace clearly needed tending. For this, you apparently call an actual chimney sweep, my only reference to this being multiple viewings of Mary Poppins.
Dennis B. Verkest does not resemble a sooty Dick Van Dyke, though he gets that chim-chiminey stuff a lot. He shows up in a candy-apple red SUV, trim and spry (there's a good chimney sweep word) and, wearing an actual top hat. (The gas mask thing came later.) "Yep, they ask if I dance on the roof," he says affably. "All the time."
The hat is tradition, he says, dating back to when sweeps tried to raise their status as doers of dirty jobs by getting fancied up in clothes from funeral homes. (Uh, kind of charming.) And black turned out to be real practical.
Verkest is one of those always-moving guys, a former Air Force man and Wal-Mart produce manager. He says he'd starve on just chimneys, we Southerners being the log-in-a-bag, few-fires-a-year types, but add gutter cleaning and pressure washing and such, and it's a living. Though he opts for a ball cap for those gutter jobs.
More history: Orphans were once used in chimney sweeping, practical from a size standpoint though not so good for their health. Verkest uses flexible brushes and a vacuum system.
"We've come a long way," he says.
The hat comes off and he puts on the aforementioned gas mask thingie, which turns out to be a respirator, which those orphans could have used. As he's finishing, he tells me about the couple dozen squirrels he gets called to remove yearly, the Muscovy duck that may have clumsily fallen or willingly gone in and then, surprise, the duck's spouse down there too, plus three duck eggs, all of which he took to a nearby pond.
Once he fished a football out of a chimney, and can't you just see it, two guys tossing the ball over the roof and then standing there dumbfounded, saying, "Where'd it go?" Or maybe, in the all-purpose parlance of the South when something is especially confounding: "Do whut?"
When he was done, Verkest shook my hand for tradition and luck. (Or as Dick Van Dyke put it, "Good luck will rub off when I shakes hands wif you!") In all, he was by far the most interesting chimney sweep I ever met. And the fireplace?
Shoot, it's so clean in there now, you could eat cheese grits off it.