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It's Just What I Do


Some years ago, a wholesaler hired me to do a seminar in a New England hotel for about 100 of his contractor customers. After the seminar, the owner of the company invited me and a bunch of his employees out for a nice dinner. There were about 15 of us.

We started with some cold drinks and a lot of talking and laughing. It had been a good day. I was meeting many of these people for the first time and I was enjoying getting to know them. New England folks are fun.

When it was time to order food our waitress began with the owner, who was seated at the head of the long table. I think she had figured out who might give her a nice tip when all of this was over.

The big guy ordered and had some specific things he wanted done with his meal. The waitress focused on him like he was the only person in the room; and she wrote nothing down. That caught my attention.

Then she moved to the big guy’s right and continued to take orders, working her way around the rectangle and never once writing anything down. By the time she got to me I was enthralled.

“You’re not writing any of this down,” I said.


“Hey guys,” I said, grabbing the floor for a moment. “Excuse me, but are you watching what she’s doing? She’s not writing any of this down. Some of your requests are pretty involved. You want your steak cooked medium, medium well, whatever that is,” I said to the guy seated next to me. “And you don’t want mushrooms even though they’re on the menu for that steak. You’re all making special requests and she’s not writing it. Isn’t that amazing?”

They all looked at her and smiled.

“How do you keep track of all of this without writing any of it down?” I said.

Her face lit up and she beamed a smile you could pour on a pancake. “It’s just what I do!” she said.

The whole table applauded.

“You’re amazing,” I said.

She shrugged. “I’ve been working here for a long time. It’s just what I do.” She smiled again and scurried into the kitchen.

Before long, the food runners appeared like ninjas. They distributed the meals and vanished.

I looked at my plate. It looked delicious, but it wasn’t what I had ordered.

“I think I got the wrong plate,” I said.

“Me too,” the guy next to me said and laughed.

Then half the people at the table started laughing. None of them had gotten what they had ordered.

They all looked at the big guy up there at the head of the table. The waitress came out of the kitchen and this is when the most delicious part of the evening happened.

“Is everything okay?” she asked our host.

“Yes, it’s just fine,” he said. “We couldn’t be happier. Thanks.”

“Great!” she said. “I’ll check back in a bit. Enjoy!”

“The food looks good to me,” he said to all of us. And then in a stage whisper, accompanied by a wink, he said, “Let’s not ruin her evening, gentlemen. Enjoy!”

And that was a meal I will never forget. Nor will I ever forget him. He cared more about that human being who was serving us than he did about the food. Let’s not ruin her evening.


A contractor once posted this question on The Wall at “Can I convert an old gravity, hot-water boiler into a steam system, leaving the old piping and radiators in place?”

Now you have to admit that is one unusual question. These days, most contractors would be asking how to best convert an old steam system to hot water. Or maybe they’d be asking how to make an old gravity, hot-water system more efficient. Which circulator should they use? What changes should they make to the near-boiler piping? But this guy seemed to be moving backwards in time. He was going from hot-water to steam. So one of the Wallies asked him why he would want to do that, and this is what he said:

“The issue I have is that I am an idiot. I went to see the job and just took a fast look at the basement, and being an idiot, I went ahead and thought the system was steam. I ordered and installed a steam boiler.

“I found out when I saw how the radiators were vented, and the steam boiler was going off at 5-psi pressure. There were no steam vents on the radiators. Just coin vents, like you have on a hot-water system. I ordered two main steam vents for the two returns. I installed them and got rid of the open expansion tank in the attic. It seems to be working now. Every radiator is getting hot. But I’m wondering if it will keep working, or will it just fill up with hot water because it’s actually a hot water system.”

He then posted photos of the boiler he had installed. It was a hefty one. He did a fine job of installing all the near-boiler piping in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions; and it would have been perfect except for that one issue of there being an old gravity, hot-water piping system attached to it.

Another of the Wallies, who is a homeowner and not a contractor, posted this:

“Did you ask the customer if they want their system converted to steam? It’s their house. I really don’t see how you think you have the right to make dramatic decisions about someone else’s house like this. It’s dishonest at the minimum. Does the homeowner even know how badly you messed up? What did you think when you tore out the expansion tank for hot water? What did you think when draining the entire system of water? I can’t imagine on any planet how with all those clues coming up it never dawned on you this was a hot water system.”

I was waiting for the original poster to say, “It’s just what I do,” but then something beautiful happened. The contractors gave the guy a menu of options and very good advice. Could he convert to steam using the existing piping? Yes, in fact he said in his earlier post that the radiators were getting hot once he installed those two main vents. There’s more to it than the main vents, but you can do it.

Could he convert the boiler to hot-water by changing the trim? Absolutely and here’s how you do it. He didn’t know that was possible, and then he explained that never in his life had he come across a gravity, hot-water system.

At some point in our lives we were all seeing these things for the very first time. Remember? Think back to that dopey kid who used to wear your clothes.

But the Wallie who is a homeowner came bashing back:

“These questions still stand: Did you ask the customer if they want their system converted to steam? It’s their house. I really don’t see how you think you have the right to make dramatic decisions about someone else’s house like this. It’s dishonest at the minimum. Does the homeowner even know how badly you messed up? As a homeowner, this whole situation has my blood boiling. I am knowledgeable and know better, but this homeowner I'm guessing does not. You are trying to pull the wool over their eyes and get away with something instead of being honest about it. You made a mistake so fess up to it and make it right. And making it right could mean a whole new, properly sized and installed hot-water boiler. This is a hot-water system. You should not be attempting a conversion unless you have explicit written permission from the homeowner. And as I said above, this is dishonest at a minimum. We all make mistakes; it's what we do afterwards that makes all the difference.”

That last statement made me smile. It’s true, but what’s also true is that the original poster said he was an idiot. Mea culpa. He knew he screwed up. He was looking for help. He approached that job the way he usually does, in a hurry. It’s just what he does. That was his biggest mistake. And he knows that. He knows. He’s reaching out for help now.

And I know that he should have gone to the homeowner, but that’s not what he went to The Wall for. He went for heating help, and he got what he needed from the generous contractors who hang out there. I just wish the homeowner could have been more like that big guy who sat at the head of that dinner table all those years ago. That man showed grace. And it all worked out in the end.

Be gentle with people. We all make mistakes. Help if you can. It’s what we should do.


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