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Paving Over Plumbers' Paradise

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006

Rick Plumley did not need any faucets, toilets or bathtubs when he stopped the other day at Washington's version of a plumber's paradise, a filthy, windowless warehouse in the center of the city.

He stepped past the rusting front door, the cluttered shelves and found what he was looking for, what he always finds at the Atlantic Plumbing Supply Co.: a crowd of familiar faces -- Pop and George and Harry and Jeff kibitzing and cursing and trading their favorite one-liners.

Like the one Plumley told about the doctor who complains to the plumber that he only gets $225 an hour. "And the plumber says, 'I know. I used to be a doctor,' " said Plumley, howling with laughter.

In buttoned-down, bureaucratic Washington, Atlantic Plumbing has long been a timeless reminder that a blue-collar heart thumps at the city's core. It was a place where men could be men in all their profane glory, where jeans and work shirts were the couture of choice, where a never-before-heard bathroom joke was to die for.

The tool-belt set will have to find a new oasis beginning next week. Tomorrow, after 49 years, Atlantic Plumbing is shutting its doors for the last time.

Ed Needle, Atlantic's owner who took over the business from his father 25 years ago, is selling his two-acre plot near Florida and Georgia avenues for upwards of $30 million, or more than 10 times what the family paid decades ago when the neighborhood was a gritty mix of warehouses, garages and rowhouses.

"You can't blame him," plumber Mike Johnson said as he dished out a thank-you lunch for Atlantic's staff one afternoon last week -- pans of barbecue, corn bread and baked beans laid on a sheet of plywood. "But it's going to hurt people. There's just no place like it."

The banter, the jokes and the convenient location weren't all that kept plumbers coming back to Atlantic's bunker at 807 V St. NW, as the address reads in hand-scrawled black marker over the entrance. With its concrete floors and dirty walls, the place has all the ambience of the inside of a rusty pipe.

Where else could the plumbers talk of converters, gaskets and adapters and be understood? Where else could they demonstrate their brawn by hoisting a 200 pound, cast-iron tub?

And where else could they confer on each other the kind of respect hard to find in a world that often lampoons them as overpaid, malodorous slobs who struggle to keep their pants up?

"Without plumbers, we'd be a Third World country," said Dave Johnson, president of his own plumbing company, munching on one of those barbecue sandwiches, as heads around him nodded. "We're God's gift."

Johnson's introduction to Atlantic began 40 years ago, when he was 6 and his grandfather, a plumber, brought him along on shopping trips. Plumley, 53, a Crofton plumber, was initiated into Atlantic's world the same way. Later, he brought his own son, Geoff, who also became a plumber.

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