A good gutter man is hard to find.
I searched and searched. My Silver Spring YMCA bulletin board offers "Dream Group" therapy, Spiral Flight yoga, Imago couples counseling, instruction in Japanese, a natural health product from Tahiti, and 20 percent off on designer candles--but nary a gutter cleaning therapist.
As for the Yellow Pages, plenty of gutter companies are listed but on close inspection it seems most are mainly installers. I wanted a "pure" cleaner, a specialist who wouldn't be after me to buy a couple of thousand dollars worth of new tin.
I called likely candidates. Many phones were disconnected; other companies didn't call back. In one case, the guy who answered talked, all right--and kept on talking, covering a wide array of topics. Eccentricity has its place, but I hope not on my roof.
Then, after a few days, a message on the answering machine--polite, direct, calm: "Hi, Mr. McCombs, my name is Josh Capon, returning your call from yesterday in reference to some gutter cleaning needs at your home in Silver Spring. Call us back at your convenience."
Josh, it turned out, runs Capon Cleaning Contractors Inc. in Bethesda, which he started years ago with his brother and a cousin. He got into this line of work in junior high, when he wanted to do something to make money other than by flipping burgers. The trio walked door to door in residential neighborhoods, offering to clean gutters and windows.
Now Josh, 37, has 30 employees. They do residential and commercial windows and gutters, cleanup at construction sites and so on. Josh's brother split off and merged what used to be their commercial window cleaning division with a Virginia company. The cousin is now a medical doctor in Aspen.
Josh agreed that it's tough to find good workers, and when he does he tends to hang onto them. "I look for trust and honesty," he said. "Because we work inside or around people's homes, we have to be comfortable with who they [the workers] are."
He sent me out one morning last week with one of his best, Oscar Morales, who's cleaned many a gutter in 13 years with Capon. Morales, 39, is a cheerful, energetic guy from El Salvador who arrived stateside in '79. He worked briefly in a tire factory in L.A. before coming to Washington, where for several years he was a cook at Blackie's House of Beef.
He found it boring. "You get tired, being inside all the time," he said.
So Oscar became a commercial window cleaner, dangling from ropes to scrub high glass for several companies before hooking up with the Capons. Eventually he decided to stop the real high stuff, however. He was married by that time, with a couple of kids.
Besides, he added with a chuckle, "I'm old."
He sure didn't seem it the other day. I watched from the safety of the ground as Oscar and his partner, Jose Hernandez, 28, scampered up their 28-foot ladder to a high porch on one of those huge brick homes in Potomac. They were careful to steady the ladder for each other, either from the bottom or top.
Jose carried over his shoulder pieces of another ladder, which he then assembled on the porch and used to climb on up to the main roof of the house. Oscar had brought up a five-gallon plastic bucket and a hose, attached to a spigot below.
It was a cold, sunny morning and a film of ice had formed in the gutters. The men worked carefully, in perfect tandem--a high-wire act performed with speed, grace and confidence.
The way they worked: Jose, squatting near the edge of the roof, reached down and scooped leaves and twigs into the bucket. Oscar had preceeded him with the hose, to melt the ice, then followed him with a final spraying to get any remaining debris, plus build a volume of water in the gutter to test the downspouts.
"See how the water's coming from that downspout?" Oscar shouted. "You have to make sure it's running like that. You can clean the top part, but the most important thing is to make sure the downspouts aren't clogged."
Not falling off the roof, I'd thought, was pretty important, too.
As we went on, the day warmed and gutters ran free of ice. It took the men less than an hour for each house; fees ranged from $65 to about $100, depending on the size and complexity of the job. Oscar told me he generally works a 12-hour day, six days a week, and can do up to a dozen houses a day. He makes $55,000 a year.
I asked him about the risks, and he agreed that, "It is dangerous. But I've been doing this so long, I'm very careful and I trust my fellow workers. You have to trust yourself, too. If you don't trust yourself, that's a problem."
Later, Josh told me, "We try very hard to be safe," and they've never had a serious accident. The men don't work in the rain--too slippery. On high, steeply sloped roofs, they tie themselves with ropes.
I called Jim Boom, a construction safety specialist at OSHA, who termed this kind of work "extremely" dangerous. It's easy to fall, and a 20-foot drop can kill you. Anyone working over six feet above the ground, he said, should be strapped into a safety rig, but he added that it's hard for OSHA to police small companies.
"Unfortunately," Jim said, "we respond after the fact--when there's an accident or fatality."
Much as I admire Oscar and the other Capon gutter guys, I decided to clean my own this year. I'll get a pal to secure the bottom of the ladder, use some safety devices, and proceed with caution. Maybe I'll gain some self-knowledge, learn to trust myself.
Like any good gutter guy.