My short, round and well-armed friend Lester is not a joiner. He has always preferred to sit in his shed of an office and wait for the phone to ring. When it does, he listens to the tale of woe of his customer and growls. This is because Lester hates his customers with a passion like no other.
Once he realizes that, if he is to eat, he actually has to go see this customer, he slides off his folding chair, clambers into his beater of a van and clatters down the potholed street. He is the yin to my yang. Whenever I am feeling better than I deserve to feel, I visit Lester. He could find evil at a child’s birthday party.
Recently, Lester moved his business, and well, himself, into his local Planet Fitness. This happened not long after he heard a news story about how turning down the thermostat can help people lose weight. Before this revelation, Lester had been selling heavy, “Ethan Allen” boilers. He based the size of these boilers on the quality of the furniture in the house. If the folks had a nice couch, they were getting a six-section boiler. Case closed.
But after reading about the health benefits of being chilly, Lester started pushing “Jenny Craig” boilers on his tubby customers. These are ordinary boilers but half the size of what the building needs on the coldest days. Lester has been very successful with this because he is irresistible. You either let him install what he wants or he begins to look like that photo of the young Charles Manson.
At other times, Lester looks a lot like the actor Danny DeVito, but not as slim, nor as handsome. He’s also armed to the teeth.
The move to Planet Fitness came when Lester saw an ad in the newspaper soliciting membership. The place stays open 24/7, has showers, massage chairs, tanning booths and lots of tubbies. Lester could have all this for just 20 bucks a month. That was much cheaper than the rent he was paying on his shed of an office, so he moved his tools into his van and moved himself into Planet Fitness. When he’s not sleeping in the massage chairs, he’s telling the porkers on the treadmills they’re all getting Jenny Craig boilers.
Helping the unlicensed“This is a good thing you have here,” I said from my recumbent bicycle. Lester was on the bike next to me, but he wasn’t peddling because his legs are too short to reach the peddles. “So many potential customers. And more are signing up each day!”
“And you can’t beat the rent,” Lester said.
The manager was watching us, but when Lester turned his turret of a bald head toward him, the guy found something else to do. Lester growled.
“I went to a plumbers meeting the other night,” I said.
“Why would you do that?” (As I mentioned, he’s not a joiner.)
“They invited me,” I replied. “They’re nice people.” Lester’s lip started to twitch so I stopped talking, which was a good thing because I had nearly forgotten that the only thing Lester hates more than his customers are his competitors.
“OK, what did they talk about?” he finally asked.
“Unlicensed plumbers taking food off their table,” I said. “It’s a bigger deal than ever, what with the economy being what it is. Apparently, there are lots of unlicensed guys driving around in unmarked vans and doing work on the cheap. The members were quite upset.”
“I like to help those guys,” Lester said.
“The unlicensed guys,” he said. “And their customers.”
This surprised me because Lester’s idea of helping a competitor would be to perform a hard and low Heimlich maneuver on the guy when he didn’t happen to be choking. His idea of helping a customer, on the other hand, would be to give that person a free gallon of high-octane gasoline, but only if that person happened to be on fire.
“What do you mean you like to help those unlicensed guys?” I said. “You hate those guys. You have licenses. This is Long Island. To work here legit you need more licenses than the Motor Vehicle Bureau has.”
“I’m a nice guy,” Lester said.
“I am. I like to help.”
“Lester, you think plumbers who work without licenses should swallow fitting brushes and die screaming.” His lip twitched.
An overweight woman with Buick-bumper breasts walked by. Lester watched her pass and mumbled, “She’s getting a six.”
“So how do you help them?” I asked.
“The unlicensed guys,” I said.
“I help them be totally unlicensed,” Lester said.
“You’re scaring me.”
Lester slid off the bike. “Come with me,” he said. I followed him downstairs and into the locker room. One of the nice things about Planet Fitness is that the lockers are free. You just have to bring your own lock. And since they don’t specify how many lockers you may use, Lester uses lots of them for his inventory. He opened one of the lockers and I saw a stack of New York State license plates.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“This is my way of helping the unlicensed plumbers,” Lester said. “I take these off their trucks when they’re working in the houses.”
“Nah, about half of them. The other half are from their customers. I figure the customers are as much against licensing as the bums they hire are against licensing, so I’m helping them both. I’m a helpful guy.” He gave me a wink with more dirt in it than a slum.
Up on the locker’s shelf was a wicker basket. I took it down and saw dozens of dog licenses. I raised an eyebrow.
“While I’m helping the people achieve a greater state of unlicensed consciousness,” Lester said, “their dogs sometimes try to interfere.” He didn’t need to say more. Lester is scarier than any dog that ever raised a leg. One good look at him and the pooch gives up the license.
“This could be the answer the plumbing-and-heating industry has been seeking,” I said.
And that’s when he showed me the stack of drivers’ and marriage licenses.
You gotta love this guy.