Lars Larsen, the Hot Tub Mad Max of Chicago, the roving, go-to repairman for many a hot tub emergency, is not a glamorous figure. He does not dawdle or like small talk or ingratiate. He works every day, early in the morning, late into the night. He is long and rangy and looks a bit like Lee Marvin, with a toothy grin and hard blue eyes. And the work — not as thrilling as you may think. You know how you woke up today wondering about the state of the American hot tub? I know I did. I thought this was a perfect story for Valentine's Day. I associated hot tub culture with sex, and so I asked Lars to let me follow him on his rounds. For some reason, this sounded like a good idea. But there's nothing romantic about hot tub repair.
Or hot tubs.Advertisement
Not in 2017.RELATED: TRENDING LIFE & STYLE NEWS THIS HOUR
You start your day with a hot tub repairman and antiquated ideas, thinking you'll be attending backyard bacchanals in Schaumburg, and you end up standing beside a 58-year old guy doing electrical work and turning screws, listening to "Let It Be" on repeat. You daydream of Fleetwood Mac and Laurel Canyon, of steam rising inside of redwood barrels stuffed with well-oiled hedonists, and you find yourself with mud collecting at your feet on a 6-degree night, watching pool water rush inside the cuffs of Larsen's pants and chill his bare hands.AdvertisementAdvertisement
You find yourself admiring a handyman, a guy who fixes the culture we throw out.
Over his shoulder, his hands deep into the guts of a hot tub, he says he has repaired in recent weeks an old iMac, an ice-maker, a blender, a microwave oven, a shower, a boiler, a pedicure chair. He tried fixing a TV, but it was too wet. He imagines being paid $5,000 to fix the revolving doors at his doctor's office, which are always broken. He says people want him to fix everything. They hear about him through word of mouth. "Still, most people'd rather buy new these days. Because of China. Now it's mostly hot tubs."
His Wednesday begins, as usual, eating spaghetti at 1 p.m., at Jimmy's Restaurant in Des Plaines. He's described by friends and family as disorganized, though like many disorganized people, he's a creature of habit: He wakes, drinks coffee, takes a shower, coffee, dresses, coffee, goes to Jimmy's, sits at the bar, never drinks alcohol. Spaghetti on Wednesdays, turkey on Thursdays, halibut on Fridays. This day, across the bar, regulars watch TV. A luge competition is happening somewhere. A young woman enters with bright eye shadow, cat's-eye glasses, argyle sweater. She sidles up to Larsen.
They're friends. She asks if he's off to hang around with naked models in hot tubs.Advertisement
Larsen rolls his eyes.
He says he has never seen a naked model at work. He works in sleet, rain, heat and snowdrifts. If your hot tub is freezing and about to crack, you get priority. His van is always ready, a 2000 GMC Safari, not so much white as the white of unwashed tennis shoes. In back is a clothing dresser reworked as a parts supply cabinet. On the floor, everything else: wires, receipts, tools. The smell is a pack-a-day stale.
He thinks out loud. "We're going to two clients today. One in Burbank needs a new spa pack, one in Wilmette needs a new pump — let's get that guy's hot tub working again! And by then, it'll be 6 or 7 or later. I did one already today, before Jimmy's. Usually do three a day. Seven days a week. I work sick. I have to. Woman on the South Side been asking me to come out for a month now. Maybe we'll find the time to go out there too."
When I was growing up in New England, I tell him, a spa was a convenience store.
Never heard of that, he says. To him, a spa was a place to get your nails done. First time he worked on a hot tub, the client called it a spa. "When I get there? It was a hot tub."
He still sounds surprised.
But like coin-operated arcade games, VCRs and typewriters, the hot tub never entirely vanished. And if you still have one, it will break. Yet Larsen didn't know much about hot tubs when he started fixing them in 2007. He knew what everyone knew: It had been a cultural totem of the 1970s, and like Lululemon workout pants and yoga mats today, certain lifestyle cliches came attached. The hot tub suggested you were, well ... open to new ideas. But like everything swallowed by pop culture, its meaning morphed, from lifestyle to therapeutic to, today, a blend of health and parody. Bunny Slope, a new retro-ski lodge bar in the Acme Hotel in River North, offers frozen mulled wine and a hot tub. According to his biographer, Hunter S. Thompson started his day in a hot tub with a Dove Bar, Champagne and a bowl of fettuccine. These images of decadence, however dated, didn't help when the Great Recession struck. The number of hot tubs sold today (about 180,000 a year) is half what it was a decade ago. But the good news, at least for Larsen, is that Illinois is now, surprisingly, the fourth largest hot-tub market in the U.S.
Plus, competition among repairmen is small.
"The hot-tub repairman in Illinois is a lone wolf," said Bob Vanecek, of Berwyn, who has been fixing hot tubs since 1996. "There can't be more than a handful of people in Illinois who fix hot tubs, maybe because if you can fix a hot tub, you can fix anything. So you need to be part motor repairman and electrician, a carpenter and a plumber." Asked about Larsen and his peers, a spokesperson for the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals, the hot tub industry group, said, "What we really need are more like them."
Larsen brings in a fellow repairman, his foster son and a brother to help out when there are too many hot-tub disasters for one lone wolf. He named his business All Spa Repair to diversify, because he thought it might attract traditional spas. He tried to call it American Spa Service because its acronym would have been memorable. But a porn company beat him to it. To be honest, he said, he never thought much about hot tubs before he worked on them. "I thought of hot tubs as a thing for rich people. I had seen that show — 'Jersey Shore'! That was my image of the hot tub."
The hot tub arrived in our cultural imagination in the 1960s, via California. From there, it spread across the country, promising West Coast permissiveness, a three-way in every subdivision. But as the conservatism of the 1980s crept in and the AIDS crisis exploded, the hot tub came to signify sleaze and indulgence. Think Al Pacino in "Scarface," slumped back in his vast hot tub, TV remote in one hand, Cuban cigar in the other; Eddie Murphy on "Saturday Night Live," wearing a gold Speedo for "James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party." By the Clinton years, the hot tub itself went from wooden barrel to sculpted acrylic and was rebranded a therapeutic "spa." Nevertheless, the hot tub became a cultural shorthand for time warp ("Austin Powers," "Hot Tub Time Machine") — not to mention a popular spot for TV murders. In a way, everything you need to know about the state of the hot tub in pop culture is summarized in a news headline from December:
"Police seek Amazon Echo data in Arkansas hot tub murder"
Larsen fiddles with his iPhone's GPS and merges onto the highway not far from his home in Park Ridge. Looking across the lanes, he says: "I remember a lady on one job. Movie star eyes. Had a new hot tub. I told her she shouldn't go in alone, especially the first time. Nothing happened. I do get guys who say, 'My girlfriend is coming over. I need this thing working,' but I never see anything. People treat them like boats, use them once a year." After decades of promoting health benefits, the APSP said marketing studies suggest playing up romance again. Yet Larsen said to me: "Hate to burst your bubble, the hot tubs I service are owned by people with sore backs, firemen, tradesmen. Not many young people."Advertisement
He swears at his GPS.Advertisement
"Wrong, lady! 'Turn left on Central'? No! No hot tubs down there!"
We arrive in Burbank a few moments later and drive into the alley behind a small home in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. The alley is unpaved and muddy. Larsen goes to the back of his van and slips on kneepads and grabs an aluminum case full of tools, a small space heater, a small speaker for music. "We're going to be here awhile," he says. The owner, a law-enforcement officer who is not home, is selling the house. Larsen has to install a new electrical control system. The dog in the yard next door runs up angrily and barks, pushing its nose through the chain-link fence. Larsen removes the lid from the hot tub and steam wafts across the deck. Then he removes the panel to the controls. As he drills, he bares his gums — the way Jordan would stick out his tongue as he dunked.
The sun pokes in and out. The day holds at 11 degrees. Water bursts from a pipe and soaks his coat, and he barely seems to notice. He checks the water temperature and wiring. There are long waits as the computer inside the hot tub reboots. Waiting, Larsen breathes heavily and smokes. He tells me about the River North tub that was a giant ice cube and about running across a highway to recover hot tub parts. He says he thinks of himself as part Sherlock Holmes, part MacGyver. He says he can fix anything but parking tickets and broken hearts.
He tells me his life story.
"My father was a rocket scientist during the Cold War, worked at Bell Labs, at MIT. We moved from New Jersey to Washington to Boston. My mother had 12 kids and was a music teacher — she's 95 and still driving. We moved here when I was 17. My father went back to school and became a patent attorney. I didn't realize how smart he was when I was young. I just knew I didn't want to sit in an office, that I had the type of mind that was curious about the ways things worked. I have a natural affinity for blue-collar work. I was fixing bicycles when I was 12. And when I was older, I was good at sales. I sold Electrolux vacuums door to door. Made decent money that way in my 20s. I sold commercial printing, and I was a booking agent for bands in Chicago. I started fixing spa equipment — the tubs and chairs and so forth — around 2000, before the hot tubs."
He cranes his head and reads the temperature.
"It is romantic sometimes. Time slows in a hot tub. People put out candles, nice curtains blow in the breeze. It's magic ... wait, I think I gotta go to the bathroom. Let's hit Dunkin'."
Larsen puts on salsa music in his van and shimmies as he drives, albeit so imperceptibly it's hard to tell if even he's aware that he's dancing. But here's the thing about Lars Larsen. He may be the wandering, all-day-all-night-24/7 Hot Tub Mad Max of Chicago, but what he really wants to do ... is dance. In fact, if you get his answering machine, he explains in his message that he fixes hot tubs all day and dances all night. He dances most Wednesdays at Hubcaps in Schiller Park and every other Saturday at the Drake Hotel. Merengue, mambo, swing, jitterbug, country two-step. He's been dancing for years. His latest partner is a woman he calls Connie Corvette, "because she's quick and smooth."
He calls her as we head home for a hot-tub part. He gets a message, leaves a message, says he's going dancing tonight. Then he hangs up and sighs. He's tired. It's late in the day. We drive without talking.
"'Hot Tub Time Machine,'" he says finally. "Need to see it."
His home is a small white box. A Virgin Mary sits in the front yard alongside a Buddha. Larsen runs inside to get a tub pump for the Wilmette job. The place is vaguely a home. Sam Licausi, his (adult) foster son, says, "Though Park Ridge is considered a richer town, we never lived above our means, and I often wondered if we were making our means." He calls Larsen's house "more of a workshop," a collection of benches and scavenged parts that comes with a kitchen and bathroom. Larsen lives here in theory. Most of the time, he rents rooms to friends and acquaintances, including his own bedroom. He sleeps at his girlfriend's. It keeps a steady stream of cash coming in, he says. "I don't need a living room," he says.
Larsen is the old kind of unpretentious, the kind that doesn't call attention to itself. He's funny and casually smart and seems to work on instinct. He stands outside his home and smokes before moving on to the next hot tub. Inside, Steve Werthe, one of his sometime helpers, tinkers at a table, fixing a hot-tub circuit board. He himself has owned an auto-repair shop and worked as a musician and a maintenance man at a pet resort. He later tells me that Larsen "is a very good man, to a fault. He likes to put people under his wing. He keeps this circle of Stooges. He's kind of the Moe. He thinks it's his job to keep people safe and employed. He doesn't know how to say no. He has enough to survive. He takes work calls at midnight. He lives in the moment. It's an envious place to be, I suppose."
On the road to Wilmette, the sun sets. Cold whistles against the van doors. Larsen puts on music, and over the sway of Ben E. King, he describes the stuff he's pulled out of hot tubs. Dead skin and dead leaves, coagulated suntan oil. Nothing horrifying. No, the big problem with most people's hot tubs, he says, is no heat — this time of year especially.
We drive in silence.
If you only occasionally hear about hot tubs in the news, I say, you might think the big problem is homicides and freak accidents. He nods and shrugs. According to the Consumer Protection Safety Commission, from 1999 to 2009, there were 800 hot-tub deaths in the United States. In 2015, a Canadian couple attending their daughter's destination wedding in Mexico were found dead in a hot tub: They were having sex and the husband had a stroke, died, collapsed on the wife and drowned her.
Larsen tells me, yeah, he died once — sort of. It was in the news, he says. And indeed, it was on TV, in the Tribune, etc.: "In 2009, I had a heart attack at the Pickwick Restaurant in Park Ridge. I collapsed while eating. It was my cholesterol." A high school teacher (who had been a lifeguard) performed mouth to mouth, then a paramedic arrived with a defibrillator to shock him. He had a pair of blocked arteries — about 95 percent blocked. He had no health insurance. Still doesn't.
As he says this, an empty pack of cigarettes sits at his feet.Advertisement
We stop in front of the Wilmette home, which Larsen realizes just before we stop, is actually on the Evanston border. The home is pretty and large, and the hot tub is in the backyard, beside a strand of Christmas lights strung across a garden frame. The client, a friendly middle-aged guy, is already outside and looks relieved. He says: "Finding someone like Lars is hard. This tub is older, and a lot of companies don't want to work on it. Lars does!" It's hard to tell if Larsen hears him. He's running an extension cord around the tub and resetting a pump, then casually holding a hand against an open pipe as water streams through his fingers, across the concrete patio and around his knees. He works a small heat gun back and forth, between softening the tubing and warming his palms.
I mention the cold, the water.
"Yeah, but I like working," he says off-handedly in the dark, as if repeating a mantra. "Work is my friend." He doesn't like to work and talk, and later in the van, he completes his thought: "Look, even if I had a million dollars, I'd be a guy driving a white van. I waste money on food, not on big trips, flashy cars. I live within my means. I'd rather fix than buy new. I'd rather take everything apart and save what I can before throwing anything out. Things were once more valuable than labor, and now it's the opposite."
It's the closest he's come all day to a mission statement.
He says he won't retire. He says his lungs are in "pretty good shape." He says work provides plenty of exercise. He says he'll probably die suddenly anyway, like his grandfather. "I just hope it's on the dance floor and not while I'm repairing a hot tub."
That night he goes dancing, to the Drifters and Elvis and the Righteous Brothers. It's Wednesday. He does what he promised he would do. He leaves it all on the dance floor.
email@example.comAdvertisementAdvertisement Advertisement Advertisement