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It's the Tops, Says Sweep

December 13, 1985|PATRICK MOTT

If you hear the tread of carefully measured footsteps on your roof this month, and hear a scraping sound coming down your chimney, and the neighbors call to tell you there's someone in a garish costume up there, and it isn't Dec. 24, you could be listening to Cindi Steward at work.

Dressed like a sooty Mary Poppins, complete with a black straw hat with a dead flower stuck in the band, Steward makes sure that when the most celebrated December rooftop visitor arrives, he won't get his red suit dirty.

Steward, 24, is, to her knowledge, the only female chimney sweep in California. She and her husband, Frank, 28, run their business, Red Hot Chimney Sweeps, out of their small home in Costa Mesa. And during the season when cozy fires in the hearth become more frequent, so do the number of calls on the Stewards' kitchen phone.

"We're in business 12 months out of the year now," she said. "In the summertime, we live on hot dogs, but business picks up around this time of year."

As business climbs, so does Steward. In the wintertime, she estimated that she, her husband and the three to five other sweeps who work for them scale as many as 20 roofs a day.

It's a job, she said, that requires specialized knowledge, specialized tools, good balance, steady nerves and a bit of luck.

"That's what the hat is for," she said. "Good luck. It's to keep you from falling off the chimney." The traditional top hat and tail coat worn by male sweeps, she said, "were originally meant to upgrade the reputation of the sweeps. Sweeps were poor and somebody got the brilliant idea a long time ago to go to the undertaker and ask for old worn-out tail coats."

For her part, Steward wears a plain, dark Victorian-style dress but abandons older footwear for more modern--and safer--rubber-soled shoes.

Steward, a full-time sweep for about nine months, after an earlier period of training with her husband, said: "I haven't got my roof legs completely. You get up there on the roof of a two-story house, and it can get scary. And some of the older houses in Orange County have roofs with these incredible pitches. You get up there and your legs start doing this sewing-machine action. I let Frank do those, and I handle it from inside the house.

"Every time you get on a roof you get the butterflies," she said. "But it's like being an actor. It keeps you sharp. It's a good kind of nervous tension."

She has swept an estimated 300 chimneys and has never had an accident on the job, she said.

History of Sweeps

Had she been plying her trade 100 years ago, she would be considered an elder of the profession.

"In the 1800s, the life expectancy for a sweep was really short," she said. "They weren't expected to live past 19 because of lung disease. There were some really horrible things that went on in Europe. People would sell--actually kind of rent--their little kids to sweeps. They were called climbing boys or climbing girls, and they'd shinny up inside the chimneys and clean them out. And if they didn't do it fast enough to suit the sweep, the sweep would beat them with the brushes."

Modern sweeping, however, holds few of the terrors of those days, she said.

A typical job, said Steward, begins with trundling a large, powerful vacuum into the house and laying down tarps to protect furniture and floors. The sweep then scales the roof and sweeps from above with long, U-shaped brushes attached to fiberglass poles. The chimney is then swept from below, the sweep often disappearing into the hearth from the waist up to clean behind the damper. ("That's when I have to wear my space suit--my respirator," said Steward. "I hate it. It makes me look like a conehead.") After the dislodged soot is vacuumed up, the sweep then checks for any structural damage and oils any moving parts in the fireplace mechanism.

The bill: $50 for a single-story chimney, $60 for a two-story one.

"But the expenses are a lot higher than you'd dream," said Steward. Insurance, she said, cuts the largest hole in the budget, the rates pushed up by the fact that chimney sweeping is classified as a solid fuel industry because it involves the use of combustible materials.

The high insurance rates keep the numbers of sweeps down, particularly in areas with moderate climates, Steward said. She estimates there are fewer than 10 "qualified" sweeps working in Orange County; however, there are 600 in California and 7,000 in the United States, she said.

'Pack Mule' for Frank

Steward is herself an apprentice sweep, but Frank is classified a master sweep by the National Chimney Sweep Guild, which is headquartered in New Hampshire. A sweep rises in ratings in direct proportion to the number of chimneys he or she has cleaned, according to Steward.

She said she became fascinated with the work more than a year ago while acting as a "pack mule" for Frank, who was then her boyfriend.

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