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Intersections: A clean Bill of sweeping chimneys

February 19, 2014|By Liana Aghajanian | By Liana Aghajanian

In a blue Dickies jumpsuit and a black cap, Bill Saltzman greets me with a firm handshake.

It's 9 a.m. on a recent Thursday morning and we're on a quiet, idyllic street in La Cañada Flintridge, walking towards the door of a house with a blanket, vacuum and a brush which looks like a fuzzy, flattened top hat fastened on a pole.

“You can't make an honest living doing this,” Bill says, his salt and pepper beard neatly outlining his warm smile. “Believe me, I've tried.”

For 35 years, Saltzman, or “Chimney Sweep Bill” as he's known, has serviced thousands of chimneys from the streets of La Crescenta, where he was born and raised, to cabins near Mt. Baldy, where the fireplaces are used for more than just atmosphere.

Most chimney sweeps last only a few years, packing up shop due to lack of work or moving on in an attempt to lure residents with repair scams elsewhere, but 54-year-old Saltzman's longevity in winterless Southern California has outlasted most.

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As part of a dying industry made largely famous by Dick Van Dyke's cockney chimney sweep in Disney's “Mary Poppins,” his success comes down to old-fashioned honesty and expertise. It's what's earned him stellar Yelp reviews from customers who call him out to service their chimneys time and time again.

It also helps that at heart, Saltzman is a people person. He'd be in and out of each job in almost half the time, he confides, if only he could stop talking.

While he lays down the blanket on the brick fireplace to protect it from ashes and inserts the brush in to give for a good sweep and inspection, he talks and I listen, the conversation in a stranger's living room satiating my curiosity about this centuries-old trade, which prompted me to call Bill in the first place.

“I like people. I like meeting people,” he says, chuckling. “I like to make sure that people are comfortable with what I've done and they're comfortable with me walking away knowing how to use their fireplace.”

A full-time senior electrical system dispatcher for the city of Glendale, Saltzman works as a chimney sweep on his off days — his city job comes first he says — driving his van full of sweeping equipment wherever the calls take him — Santa Clarita, Long Beach, Pasadena, Eagle Rock or Frazier Park.

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