Homage to Brian Blumberg

by Thom Elkjer, December 23, 2013

Economists use the phrase “essential utility” to describe something so important to a community that it must be owned or regulated by the community. For Anderson Valley, Brian Blumberg was an essential utility who regulated himself. An expert plumber in a valley short on plumbers, he knew that if he did not respond to a water emergency at someone’s home or business, they were probably up a creek without a paddle. So he would respond, even when he didn’t want to.

Even when he really didn’t want to.

But Brian won’t be responding any more. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack on December 18th. He was home alone at the time, on his Clow Mountain property, just weeks shy of his 60th birthday.

The first time I met Brian, he rolled his rig onto the property my wife Antoinette and I had bought on Anderson Valley Way. We had every plumbing problem you could imagine. Everyone we knew recommended Brian. A few people added that he didn’t need us nearly as much as we needed him. In the big city, you can open the yellow pages and take your pick of a dozen plumbers any time of day or night. But that’s not the way it works in Anderson Valley. Here, the contractors hold the cards and the rest of us better play nice.

So when the white plumber’s truck came in the driveway, I dropped what I was doing and made haste to greet the man behind the wheel.

He turned out to be a jovial-looking guy sporting a San Francisco Giants baseball cap and biker’s leather jacket. I immediately relaxed. We obviously had a couple of things in common, and he was also around my age. We exchanged pleasantries, and then he asked about the work I had in mind. When I rattled off a list of routine household plumbing items, Brian stayed pleasant but didn’t mince words. “I’m not really into that kind of plumbing anymore,” he said. “Got anything else?”

It was the only time in my life I was ever grateful for crumbling infrastructure.

“Oh, sure,” I told him. “Our whole water system is falling apart. Are you into that?” He was, and that was the beginning of our relationship.

After touring the grounds, Brian informed me that our crummy water system was even worse than we thought. I invited him into the house for a beer to discuss the situation. Of course he spotted a new sink and fixtures sitting in the corner waiting to be installed, but he did not say anything about them. Instead he promised to come back the next day and take a closer look at the water system.

That night, after supper, Antoinette and I installed the kitchen sink ourselves. We had almost no experience with household plumbing, but we were strangely happy to do it. We knew we had Brian Blumberg coming to tackle our water system, so we were coming out a mile ahead.

When he arrived the next morning, we started with a cup of coffee in the kitchen. While I got out the cream and sugar, he ran his hands round the edges of the sink where it met the countertop, and then opened the cabinet under the sink to check out the water lines.

Undoubtedly he could have pointed out flaws in our work, but he did not. Instead he said, “Nice install.” Only later would I realize that this was Brian in a nutshell: thoughtfully generous, but so low-key and casual that you almost didn’t notice it. “Let’s get that water system sorted out,” he continued, “then we’ll tackle the house.”

Over the next dozen years we did a lot of projects together, both inside and out. Antoinette is an exacting artist, and I like to think I’m precise with language, but we agreed that Brian’s work – even inside the walls where you can’t see it – is some of the best work on our property. One man’s plumber is another man’s artist.

When we built a new pump house a few years ago, Brian plumbed it in one day so that our garden would not be deprived of water in the middle of summer. I have never seen an artisan work so fast with so many different types of technology – pumps, electrical, filters, softeners – and produce such a technically impressive and visually attractive result. For months after he finished that project, we would bring visitors out to the pump house to show them his work. It never failed to elicit awe.

Whenever we heard stories about him doing projects for people without pay, or working long hours on weekends, we were not surprised. He was always hungry to stay home and work on his own place, but he was not about to leave others in the lurch.

After a while we understood why. Brian had high standards for himself not just in his craft, but in his hobbies and friendships and everything else. If he let you in, he let you all the way in. If he played music, he played the hell out of it. If he grew something in his garden, it was blue ribbon material. And if he was going to have a girlfriend, it was going to be one of the highest-quality ladies in this valley.

If his customers, friends or neighbors needed him, he was not going to let them down.

I started going up to his place after he laid his Harley down on Highway 20 between Ukiah and the coast a few years back. It messed up his shoulder pretty bad, and during the rehab he was happy to have help on the property or company in the evening -- preferably both. I got to notice how meticulous he was as a caretaker and a small business owner.

But more than anything, I got to know his inimitable sense of humor. It could be raucous, devilish, or bemused. Sometimes it was all of those at once. Often Brian turned jokes on himself, inviting the rest of us to share in the laughter with his broad grin and artfully angled eyebrows. It was pretty much impossible not to laugh along with him. Somewhere along the line, one man’s plumber had become another man’s friend.

The last time I saw Brian, not long before the fateful day, he came over to tell me about an idea he had, related to one of his hobbies. Before he even got in the door he uttered a single made-up word that condensed all the crazy wisdom, amazing insight, and satiric joy the idea contained. I laughed so hard I literally bent over double. Then we went inside and worked on the technical details for a merry hour. It was vintage Brian Blumberg: taking care to do things right, while being brilliantly creative and outrageously funny.

Now I think about all the things Brian will never do.

The property he wooed and won, and then poured his heart and soul into, will never again know his thoughtful and thorough touch. The friendships he made and sustained will never again know his generosity and humor. The valley that has depended on him to keep its water systems safe, clean and reliable will now have to find another essential utility and pray that it regulates itself like Brian did: for the benefit of the community.

He would not have said it that way, because he usually joked about himself as a reluctant contractor who didn’t like serving other people. But that was just a tough leather jacket covering up a big heart and a gentle soul.

One man’s plumber is the whole valley’s loss.

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