It's another day of empty pools -- lots of water but no people. This one's an indoor pool, a pale-blue rectangle sitting in Bethesda under a retractable skylight. There's also a terra cotta-tile deck. Ten plastic plants. A sauna. Stereo speakers. Silver inflatable rafts and boats. The sliding door has been left open for him.
He's Paul Wahler. Poolman.
The automatic sweeper-cleaner is running. There's something poetic about it because it doesn't seem to know where it's going. It circles the pool like a stupid robot, a renegade without direction. Three skinny hoses are flailing around, trying to clean the bottom. "One customer did complain after I fixed her sweeper that it was going too fast," says Wahler, "that it bothered her nerves."
Wahler takes off his cap. He takes off his shirt too. He knew this would happen because he's brought a beach towel. He spreads it out. He drops flat on his gut, down on the towel, and hangs over the side. He reaches into the deep end. He reaches his arms right in -- like a surgeon, like an obstetrician -- and pulls it out: The dead underwater light bulb. His Shakespearean beard almost touches the glassy surface.
"It happens. It happens," he says sheepishly. "Sometimes in extremely hot weather ...
The sentence hangs. Poolman looks pained.
"I'll drop my screwdriver in the pool. I won't be able to get it out."
And, and ...
"And I'll have to go in."
There's an archipelago of pools across town -- kidneys, ovals, rectangles, Classical Romans, Grecians, free-forms, L-shapes. There are jet pools, lap pools, hot tubs, Jacuzzis and spas -- made of wood, concrete, gunite, shotcrete, fiberglass, concrete and masonry block -- across McLean, Potomac, Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park, Kalorama, Georgetown.
Montgomery County is flooded with them, and Great Falls is getting more. Wahler's firm, Poolservice Company -- the largest by far in the area -- maintains 300 residential pools a week, but there are about 1,700 in-ground residential pools in the District alone, according to the National Spa and Pool Institute (NSPI). Maryland has about 63,600 in-ground residentials and 67,800 above-ground. Virginia's got about 51,600 in-ground and 25,000 above.
Pools. Welcome to summer in America. No matter how much chlorine you pour into them, they stand for desire and danger, for Greco-Roman decadence, for the vanity of a tan and for the pursuit of pecs. And they stand for Zen contemplation too, and for the excesses of the rich. They call to mind lifeguards with lips burned stiff as Tupperware and arm hair bleached white as aspirin, poolmen who look like Jimmy Buffett. They give relief to arthritics, excuses for decorating with Tiki torches, green hair to blonds.
In Hollywood, you make deals by them. In books and movies, it's where you fall in love or -- almost the same thing -- get shot to death. Jay Gatsby dies in one, after all, and William Holden's dead body floating in a pool gives us the opening shot of "Sunset Boulevard." It's where Katharine Hepburn winds up with Jimmy Stewart in "The Philadelphia Story" after she gets drunk enough to think she wants to marry him, where Daniel Day-Lewis first sees Juliette Binoche in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," where Geena Davis first sees Jeff Goldblum in "Earth Girls Are Easy," and where Mel Gibson is introduced to Sigourney Weaver over gin and tonics in "The Year of Living Dangerously."
Violence and nudity. At the White House, JFK and Johnson both swam naked indoors, then Nixon filled in the pool and created the press room. A rat was swimming in the outside White House pool on the south lawn a year ago and George Bush drowned it in front of Barbara.
In the '80s pools meant health and exercise, but before -- in the '60s and '70s -- they stood for suburban indolence, money, alcohol. In "The Graduate," Dustin Hoffman tries out a new wet suit and later spends the summer floating around on a raft wearing his sunglasses. There are L.A. pools in David Hockney paintings, New York pools in Alex Katz paintings and Connecticut pools in John Cheever stories. In the movie version of Cheever's "The Swimmer," Burt Lancaster swims a lap in pools across his county -- and is offered a cocktail at each one. "Pool by pool," he says, "they form a river all the way to my house."
People and their pools. Paul Wahler, Poolman, has been skimming the surface for over 20 years, and repairing pool heaters, restoring old concrete, pulling sludge from filters. He thinks pool chemicals get a bad rap. "Some people do get freaked out -- they overreact -- about them," he says. "Like chlorine. Ever since World War I. Sure, once a season somebody at home mixes the chlorine with something else and gets gassed, but it's like everything else. Handling is the key."
His truck takes a turn down Foxhall Road. He stops by a retired diplomat's pool with white marble deck. He checks the automatic pool cover. He stops by another one, a huge rectangular pool -- 22 by 66 feet -- designed by Philip Johnson with 34 underwater lights, an overflow gutter and some outdoor sculpture.
He's drawn to a Zen-style pool in Cleveland Park. It's a free-form shape with a black bottom -- landscaped with natural rocks, flagstone and a weepy-looking pine. There's also a hutlike pool house. The bottom of the pool isn't really black-black. It just looks splotchy and watery and dark. The plaster is dyed black before it's poured, not painted. Gray pools, he says, are the "in-thing now." Also, real boulders stuck into the concrete.
Wahler cruises through Kalorama, big house by big house. Pool by pool. He finds his way into any back yard that he wants, it seems. Sometimes Wahler's hand finds a glob of muck floating like a jellyfish in the skimmer basket, or gum. There are mats of tangled hair to find too, and pine needles, leaves, pollen, flowers, slime. "Your basic grease scum," he says. "Just like a bathtub. Grease. Body oil. Suntan oil. All that."
Dead things also have a way of winding up in pools, especially when they're opened after winter. "In the spring, you'll find dead possums all the time," he says, "because they're very stupid. And very rarely, you'll find squirrels and raccoons and cats -- the ones who weren't smart enough to get out before they froze."
What do you find in the summer?
"In order of appearance? First there's chipmunks," he says. "Second, frogs, then snakes." The pools around Rock Creek Park, especially, get the chipmunks. "An old lady client of mine devised a wire-mesh chipmunk ladder to save the ones that landed in her pool. Worked great. I've used it a number of times for other clients."
Through a locked gate, Wahler finds an overgrown yard -- the family's away someplace better. The grass needs to be cut. This is the tragedy -- so many empty pools belonging to people who can also afford summer houses. Wahler points to a birdhouse full of white pigeons. "This is where I was attacked once," he says. "Right in the middle of Kalorama. By a rooster."
Wahler comes to another Kalorama house -- of another retired diplomat -- with a small, white, oval pool. There are two white chairs facing the sun like Easter tourists. Some white gravel. A closed umbrella. A bamboo grove.
"Old money," Wahler says.
Black squiggly things sit at the bottom of the old-money pool, like lines drawn by Hockney, like the pair of eyeglasses in the salt-water pool in "Chinatown." Dead worms, these turn out to be. "After a heavy rain," he says, "they float up from the soil, get washed into the pool and drown. Worms don't swim, despite what you may have heard."
The worms and the mire aren't exactly Wahler's calling. Does he have a calling? Like so many Poolmen, he fell into this. Wahler was a fine arts major at Rice University. He knows the Monets, Manets, Frank Stellas on the walls of some of his clients' houses. He was a theater technician before too, but he got tired of "not making any money," he says. The pool gig started as a summer job -- first lifeguarding, then pool management, then pool maintenance and repair. Since 1968, he's been one of four working partners of Poolservice Company. What holds him to it?
"You get to work outside," he says. "You don't have anybody hanging over your head. You're on your own. The clothing is casual. There's a variety in what you do -- a different job at every pool."
The Poolservice headquarters in Arlington is a fun, free-wheeling place. The metal desks are painted to look like rattan. The door is open. There's a breeze of a kind. A collection of ceramic and plastic frogs -- the company mascot -- sits on a ledge. A computer screen has a paper fortune from a Chinese cookie taped to it: You're soon going to change your present line of work. The 30 poolmen and poolwomen are calling in from their truck radios.
The trucks -- have they been mentioned yet? There's a fleet of blue, one-ton trucks -- like laundry trucks or ice cream trucks -- that say "Poolservice Company" in white letters. There's a big green frog too, painted on the side. It's a frog sitting on a diving board. He's holding a martini glass.
"That's been our logo since Day 1," says Wahler. "Since Day 1. I like to think that the frog is one of our customers. It's like he's thinking, Do I want to drink this drink or jump in the pool? It's open, of course, to interpretation."
Wahler's got good legs for shorts, calloused knees from kneeling on concrete, a khaki polo shirt with the frog-and-cocktail logo, sunglasses, Reeboks and a black NSPI baseball cap. There's great camaraderie among pool people.
"There are lots of neat people in the industry," says Kelly Reed, business manager of Contemporary Waterworks in Montgomery County, another pool service company. She knows Wahler and the rest of them.
They fall into this. Ron Callaghan at Capital Pool Service is a Georgetown University graduate -- a political science major -- who gave up politics for pools in 1976. "He was friends with someone," says his wife, Beth, "and they wanted to go into business together. They just bought a truck and a pool pole."
Wahler enjoys visiting with people's dogs. "I've only been bitten once," he says, "but I've been chewed out and spit out by several customers."
Columnist Carl Rowan has the most famous pool in Washington, Wahler says, and Rowan is a longtime client.
"Some of our guys went to open his pool," says Wahler. "When they knocked on the gate, Rowan said, 'Come on in, I won't shoot you.' He's great."
Wahler's got stories of nakedness too. There's some of it at the University Club's all-male pool. (Hey," says Wahler, "it's casual, you know. It used to be like that at the Pentagon until they went coed.") He mentions a senator who's always sitting naked in his hot tub, and then, the occasional topless woman. ("It happens," he says. "You just say you're sorry and back out the gate quickly.") He's got a couple of stories about the Soviets' Olympic-size pool at their complex on Wisconsin Avenue. ("They were draining all the water out every three weeks," he says. "They have a big commercial filter, but just didn't know what they were doing. It was like, 'Hey! You don't dump all the water out in America?' ") He was paid to train the Soviets to use their filter, to not dump the water, and got a bottle of Stoli as a present.
Stories. "Sit around with a group of pool guys," he says, "and they'll all admit to having cleaned the neighbor's pool by mistake."
Stories. He has heard "that in California, the poolman's like the milkman. Am I right?"
"Not here. In all my years, I've only known one guy who was servicing more than the pool."
He's tired of people always asking what he does in the winter. Some pool companies sell Christmas decorations, or deliver firewood, or push snow. "We've just tried to expand our pool renovation business," he says. Wahler mostly fixes pools and spas, but there are fountains, fish ponds, other water things. "I don't like to do baptismal fonts," he says. "No money in it at all."
It's time to move on. Another pool, another client. "This one," he says, "has more money than brains." They've built an indoor swim-spa -- 12 by 18 feet. "The latest thing," he shrugs, "is swimming in place." There's a soaring ceiling-high waterfall with three openings, real boulders, lava rocks, computer controls, remote controls, redwood walls, two-story windows -- all designed by a Japanese architect for the back of a bland-looking tract house in Bethesda.
Swimming in place. Something to contemplate. ("Not everybody's a swimmer," says Jack Cergol at the NSPI. "Some people just like to look at a body of water. It's very soothing and relaxing. Your blood pressure drops, some say, when people just look at oceans and lakes and a body of water that's moving.")
Wahler seems relaxed enough, and think of all the bodies of water he's seen. "I'm not that big on swimming -- to tell you the truth," says the former lifeguard.
Got a pool at home, Paul?