A Mustache Jungle of Cob Webs and Chimney Soot

There must be something about slicing your thumb clean off after 15 years of working in a molding factory that gets you saying things like “I think I’ll start my own business.” For Mike, it was about the only option he had at the time. So like the linear guy he displays, he sewed that thumb back on and got right to work. It started small and sweat, with a newspaper ad, and continues today with an entire line of vans, pot bellied, cap wearing handymen and a strong, developed integrity to not be another complete rip off like the norm is in a little tourist town like South Haven, Michigan. Smart move, because within 5 years, Mikes Heating and Cooling quite literally beat out all those other little heating and cooling joints in the area. There’s still a few left today, the big ones, all sort of competing annoyingly with how cheap Mike can get a job done.

How he’s able to do this has a lot to do with what he’ll take instead of money. If you devote labor to supplies you’ll need for more labor, well that’s a good amount of cash saving. Cash you can use to charge people under 100 bucks for a complete installation. In a “cashew sized” nut shell as he’d say, that’s how Mike’s entire business operates. But boring you with this would be deadly. The heart of interest with Mikes Heating and Cooling lies charmingly with well, Mike

When you’re standing knee high in a pool of what might as well be liquid must, your feet and legs begin to tingle. That’s because the irradiated water is seeping through your cloths and harvesting your skin cells. Oh well. At least you’re not a stumbling mess as you make your way through a basement floor covered in adult diapers and stale pork rinds. You’re doing this to get an old water heater up a flight of stairs and into a junk yard full of creepy old men who will make sure you laugh at their jokes. “There’s not much to heating and cooling,” or so Mike tells me. “It’s when you slap that plus on your title that it starts to get real interesting.”

You can easily assume situations like these, let’s call them unique, come from personal experience. They did. Having worked for Mike off and on throughout my adolescence, I figured naturally, a guy who’s seen nearly 20 years of this “uniqueness” will have something to say about it.

My plan, or as much of one as I had at the time, was to just swing by his office and ask him some questions, just get the interview done with more or less. He was busy. I could have easily assumed it. I asked him where he was going. He told me he needed to take a job on the west side, a water heater replacement actually. He seemed reluctant, but he asked if I wanted to tag along. Sure…why not. Mike threw a latter in the van and we took off.

It was about 10 minutes down blue star until we turned into a back alley behind South Haven High School. I helped him haul some supplies out of the van and we stumbled into a set of double doors. Mike told me this was the old school house that was left to collect dusk back in 1949. When the new school building got up and running, this old school house naturally became the junk drawer. Like most abandon school houses, it had a sort of creepy loneliness to the inside, like so much energy was there back then, and now…nothing. The water heater was in the basement. I was glade because the upstairs was pretty saturated with junk that was going to be used to convert the place into a museum about year from now. Seems like this town is always looking for ways to attract those rich old Chicago retirees. It was kind of ruining the worn out 50’s vibe if you ask me.

I struggled with the latter down a wood stair case all the way into the main room before I had a chance to take a look around. Aged wood was tossed everywhere. In old school desks, bleached chalkboards, rotten plaques, huge, thick doors that leaned up against the grey, weathered bricks. Old texts books were still sitting inside the shoe cubbies that were torn out of the plaster while they hid behind a sheet of cob webs. But before I even had a chance to take in any of it, Mike came cursing down the nearby hallway dragging that old water heater behind him. He looked like a lumberjack dragging a tree through the woods.

“Well that didn’t take long,” I mumbled. He just looked at me and laughed like he’d done this way too many times in his life. I felt like I was literally in the 50’s down there. It was an awesome thing to just stand there and look around. Mike acted like he’d seen this stuff every day. The staircase leading the main floor was winding and it would have been a trick lugging that heater up there, had we not had the homeless guy from the ally help us out. Another last minute, money saving tactic. He’s full of ideas. “Want to do another one?,” he asked me.

Usually, cruising down Monroe Boulevard means you really have nothing else to do but check out how busy the beach is or how many people are venturing the forty mile an hour gusts on the pear. For Mike and I, it was tracking down 2 Dobermans and an Irish setter. Jack is an 80ish year old war time vet that lives along the bluff overlooking the lake. Those are his dogs. He’s bedridden and his sitter apparently let the dogs loose after she opened the front door to leave. Being a childhood friend of Mikes, chasing down these dogs for Jack is “just…kind of a special call,” as Mike put it. He when on saying, “As odd a job as this seems, being so far from heating or cooling, id do just about anything for this man.” I smiled. But strangely, he never considered this a favor, just another call.

Now the Setter only has three legs so I didn’t imagine finding her would be too strenuous. As Mike potty mouthed on his walkie talkie I scanned out the window at the beach and sure enough, there she was, limping in the sand with all that energy seeming out of place for so few legs. Mike stopped so I rushed out of the van and scooped her up on all threes.

As I pushed her in the back of the van, Billy, one of Mike’s employees came hunching over holding the two Dobermans by their collars. He shoved the two in the back and we were done. Billy happened to be on a call in the area and spotted them. “Nice to get away from work huh,” I asked Billy. “Hey, if Mike calls me, its means I’m paid and that means its work” he laughed back. Sounds familiar. Anyone who’s worked for Mike knows he’d rather talk with money than words when things need to be done. Mike hand shook Billy a twenty and we were off to Jack’s house.

I take it Mikes over there quite a bit, because we just went on in without a knock. Jack’s eyes lit like Christmas morning when we let the dogs loose onto his bed. We all chatted a bit. Apparently this wasn’t the first time this had happened. I asked him what made him call Mike of all people to catch his dogs for him. Without missing a beat he said, “When you get to be my age, you don’t have too many friends left, Mike has always been loyal to me and even though I appreciate his help with say…my furnace last week, this is what I really appreciate.”

Mike’s Heating and Cooling kind of reminds me of a front. Not in that classic “hiding what’s really going on” sort of way but in the sense that heating and cooling really only serve a title. What Mike’s business is really all about is…just about anything he wants it to be about. He’ll do anything within the goodness of his personality to earn your buck or to make a genuine impression on you. Either way, both ends benefit. He’s knows that both are equally important for success because his reputation is built on them.

Mike describes this method of money making as “a snowball effect,” because one “nice to meet you” hand shake will lead you to another. Meet people, talk to them, ask them how you can earn their buck. Do this enough and you’ll be doing chores for people like a 12 year old on a mission.