It was February, and I was cold. Growing up in southern California, I’ve still never really gotten used to winters in the midwest. One hand gripped the steering wheel, the other held my phone in an attempt to find the restaurant for my next appointment (I know, I know, I shouldn’t). I held it near the heater vent, because again, I’m cold. I’m in Lee’s Summit, so I have no idea where I am. It’s 6:30am and I’m pounding coffee.
I finally say uncle and pull over to text my friend Curtis. That’s who I am meeting. “Where you at? I’m in the Aldi parking lot.” His reply is quick: “I’m in the Perkins lot in the big truck. Can’t miss it.”
I look around and immediately see Curtis’ truck. It’s big and white and paneled with compartments and drawers, each filled, I think, with tools and supplies I have never even thought about, let alone used. And there is Curtis, standing out in the cold. Smiling and waving.
I pull up, park the car, and get out. I shake Curtis’ hand. He’s already got a whole cart full of stuff unloaded from the truck. “Ok. Let’s get to work.”
Curtis is a plumber. At this moment back in February, he was studying to be a master plumber, a certification that would increase his pay and opportunity. I’ve known Curtis for a long time, almost the whole time my family has lived in Kansas City. I’d even had him out to my house a few times to help with our kitchen drain that always seems to clog. But I had never visited him at work.
When I asked, weeks before, if that were possible, I did so with fear and trepidation. I knew it would mean a job-site visit, working with my hands, trying to help (emphasis on the “trying”). I didn’t want to slow Curtis down or put him in an awkward spot. But of course, he said yes. That’s the kind of guy he is.
So we walk into Perkins, a small restaurant. Lots of regulars. And Curtis points out the store manager. She’s got her hair up, sleeves rolled, ready for work. She is managing staff, filling out a ledger, and helping customers at the counter all at the same time, when she catches eyes with Curtis. She looks both exhausted from the morning’s to-do list and grateful that Curtis is there. They exchange a witty banter, and I realize that they know each other pretty well. This is Curtis’ fifth or sixth trip to the store to fix the same problem: a bad sewer smell in the men’s restroom.
As Curtis tells the manager what we are going to do, she gave me a quizzical look, and you are? Curtis saw and quickly said: “Oh this is Andrew. He’s my pastor. I’m going to teach him how to actually work today.” She laughed. Looking at what I was wearing and the uncertainty with which I pulled Curtis’ supplies, she knew what he meant.
We put a sign on the door that we were working and corralled the cart into the men’s restroom. That was the first time I really noticed what was in it: a new urinal. The other thing I noticed right away was the smell. It was not pleasant.
Curtis started explaining the problem to me. Months ago, when he’d first been called in, the manager told him that this smell had been a problem for years. They just could not diagnose the source. So Curtis began telling me everything he had done up to now: smoke tests to find leaks, discovering shoddy drywall work that had punctured holes in pipes, all the way to this urinal. He thought it might not be sealed well against the wall, so he’d bought a new one with every kind of wax seal imaginable, just in case.
He walked me through how to do the job. It was incredibly simple for him and really hard for me. I’m not the handiest guy in the world anyway, so this was a stretch. What stood out to me throughout was that every instruction and explanation Curtis gave along the way related to something I had just never thought about before. The way this screw on top regulates the pressure. Why this washer has to go here and not there or the seal won’t work. Eventually I realized that I use a bathroom every day. Multiple times a day. And I never knew how intricate, how nuanced, the equipment is designed to be.
When we got the urinal installed, we tested it a few times. Seemed good to go. I told Curtis I couldn’t smell the odor anymore. He laughed and said, “that’s because you’ve been in here for twenty minutes. Leave and come back, it’ll still be here. We need more time to know if it worked.”
As we exited the bathroom, the store manager talked more with Curtis. He showed her the bill for his work, and she happily signed. Of all the work they had done on that bathroom, she said, Curtis had made the most progress. I just hoped that my presence wouldn’t break the streak.
The store manager thanked Curtis again (as had a few customers who knew what he was working on, one of whom had come in the bathroom earlier and said, “Oh yeah! That smell’s been here forever! You’ll be my hero if you fix it”). You could tell, even as the manager scampered away to put out another fire, that she liked Curtis and knew that he really cared about solving the problem, making the restaurant a little bit homier, serving the customers a little bit better.
I don’t think being a plumber was Curtis’ first choice for career. He even considered the pastorate at one point. But he was good at this, had lots of opportunity in it, and it provided for his wife and three kids. He also senseed God’s pleasure in it: helping solve real issues for people in very tangible ways.
As one who lives and breathes in a lot of white collar circles, I completely understood his point. There just aren’t many jobs anymore where you turn off the lights and look back, and there’s something done, fixed, accomplished. Curtis had that.
Of course, it had downsides, too. Bad customers. Hard work. Frustrating issues that challenged and defied his expertise. Hours beyond his control, and a weekly schedule that changes all the time. But despite the brokenness, I got the sense Curtis really likes what he does.
We spent more time together with one of his suppliers and talked a little more. Eventually, we looked at watches and realized it was time to go. He had more jobs to do around the city. I had a sermon to write. I tried to share a few thoughts with him and encourage him in his calling for the common good. We prayed together, bro-hugged, and parted ways.
I’ve done a lot of workplace visits, and I love every one of them for lots of different reasons. But even now, months later, this one keeps coming back to me. Or perhaps I should say, God keeps bringing it back to me. There’s something here God wanted me to see, and perhaps say to Curtis himself. Something maybe I missed when we were together at Perkins that day.
After lots of thought and reflection, I think that something is this:
“Curtis, going into messy places, places people avoid, don’t talk about, don’t think about, to solve complicated problems that take years to fix, requiring patience, endurance, creativity, and a strong stomach, in order to meet real needs of people who may never thank you or acknowledge what you’ve done, with an infectious and inexplicable joy, might be the most Christlike job description I can think of. And you, Curtis—and countless like you—do it every day. Stop shaking your head! Just let me finish. On your best days, maybe you see that. On your regular days, like the rest of us, it probably just feels normal. Most of the time, you see it as an honest day’s work. For one day, because you let me in, I saw the restoration of God’s good world. We can both be right.”
P.S. I can happily announce that Curtis is now a certified master plumber! But he’s still working on that Perkins problem. Say a prayer for him, will you?