How to read the furnace

At one point, I lived in Montreal with several other musicians, above a restaurant. The building was taken over by someone who wanted to raze it, and so took no steps to maintain it. One bitter winter morning, we awoke to discover that the furnace had expired. An inspection revealed plenty of oil in the tank, so we called a repair service. They put us on the list, but said it might take a while, because of the blizzard in progress. So we gathered around the space heater, in our coats, and swapped stories. Ten AM, noon, 2 PM, 4 PM, still no repair person. We called again. They assured us he was on his way, but having a very tough time getting from call to call, because of the snow.

Six PM, 8 PM; 10 PM; midnight; finally, at half past midnight, we realized that he wasn’t going to make it, and retired to the bar down the street. The beer was cold, but at least the building was warm, compared to our sub-zero dwelling.

About 1:30, a small, quite unassuming man came in, and walked directly to our table. Without hesitation, he asked if we would like to have our furnace repaired. With groggy shock (and alacrity), we agreed. Trudging back up the street, we asked how he’d found us. He explained that he came to the address, looked at the restaurant and the two stories above it, deducing from there that several people shared the accommodation. When no one answered, and given when the original call came, he concluded we must all have gone somewhere warm. He looked for the nearest open establishment, and came in. He saw that one of my friends still had her coat around her shoulders, and so knew at once which table was ours.

Digesting this rather surprising bit of shrewdness, I conducted the man to the furnace. This meant going directly from the front door through the restaurant and into the basement. He never saw the inside of our dwelling. When I brought him to the furnace, however, he immediately saw the furnace problem, and while fixing it, remarked that the building had been built in 1916, and also that where we lived had been a cathouse. At this, I was finally outright amazed; we had found out from a taxi driver that our address was indeed once a house of ill fame; how on earth had he dsicovered this? Did he know this building?

No, he had never been in the neighbourhood before. In fact, part of what took him so long was that he had to drive 35 miles to get to us. So how had he figured out the precise year of construction? He pointed me to three separate components of the furnace, mentioned the various war-time restrictions and availabilities, and explained that this particular conjunction of three parts could only have been achieved in 1916, and no other year. Alright, I said, but cathouse–how did you ever get that from looking at the furnace? Again he pointed me directly to some components of the furnace, showing me patterns of wear that are consistent only with consistent, higher-than-average temperature usage. Such usage is virtually never found except in houses of prostitution (who keep such temperatures, since their clients are usually naked). Since we were obviously not ladies of the evening, the high-temperature usage was likely not recent–he showed me the worn parts, but I didn’t entirely follow what he said–and he had noticed two stories of rooms above a restaurant, he concluded that the place had been a cathouse, but was no longer.

He had concluded his repairs. He refused to take a penny more than the regulation fee for a service call, which was twenty or thirty dollars. When I protested that he had driven for several hours in a blizzard, and now faced an equally long drive home, he simply said that this was his job. I started to protest again, but quickly realized that he meant what he said, and would not accept further payment. He was back at the wheel of his van, about to head out. By now deeply moved as well as amazed, I thanked him profusely for his generosity in helping us, and told him outright that I felt truly fortunate to have met such a wise and compassionate man.

This led to the last and greatest surprise. Far from being flustered by such praise, yet equally far from merely (and vainly) taking it as his due, he answered with what could only sound in cold print like platitudes. I don’t even recall exactly what he said; each of does the best they can, something like that. I retain instead an utterly indelible impression of the most exalted wisdom, of a man serenely possessed of an understanding I had never encountered before. He spoke not long, but said this: you are looking, too, and very hard; eventually you’ll see what you need to. Again, banal in print, but a moment of the greatest weight in my life. With that, he was gone.

MW Morse