Confessions of New York City’s Traveling Pool Guy

Confessions of New York City’s Traveling Pool Guy

He only works three months a year, and doesn’t even live in state any more. How do we get his life?
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Recently, as I was working on a story for Dwell about people in cities who are dedicated to the aquatic lifestyle, a Brooklyn pool owner mentioned he had a guy: Bryan, I was told, made the journey to New York from the Midwest around Memorial Day every year to tend to the city’s summer needs before returning home to "chill." That the city isn’t particularly known for its pool culture aside, it seemed remarkable that someone had figured out to work only a few months a year—and in an entirely different place than he normally lives. So I called up the 43-year-old Bryan, a particularly private born-and-bred New Yorker whose sole occupation is opening and closing above-ground pools. He was kind enough to chat during his busy season about how exactly a person manages to turn a niche urban service into a summer job that sustains them 12 months out of the year.

Dwell: So how did you get into the pool business?

Bryan: So in college I was working part-time at Macy’s, where I met my now-partner in the business. And he was working for his brother doing swimming pools, he’d been doing it since they were kids. And he asked me if I want to work in the summertime. And I said, Yeah, sure. It sounds a lot better than working at Macy’s. I started with him that summer. That was in 2001.  

I kind of picked up on it right away and how to do the work. And a few years later, we wound up breaking off: His brother was the boss back then and we went out on our own. So that was like 2003 or 2004. Basically we do Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn. We do above-ground residential installs. Since I moved, I don’t do as many installs. I do a lot of openings and closings.

So you moved—you were raised in New York and then moved out to Omaha?

I was born and raised in Queens, New York. We got married in like 2017, in August. And after my closing season, that year, we moved.

Why Omaha?

Well we wanted to get away from the cost of living and housing prices in New York. And my wife’s from South Carolina and didn’t want to go back down south. Anywhere along the coast is very expensive. The Great Lakes area was too cold. And Texas is Texas. So it kind of left the Midwest. We went around checking out a bunch of cities in the Midwest and we liked Omaha the best, so.

So what do you do the rest of the year? Do you have dates that you definitely just show up in New York for and then definitely leave for or is it more client based?

It’s pretty much always the same time every year. All of May and then usually half of June is when I try to get everybody done. So the big push is like now right until Memorial Day. Most people want their pools open for Memorial Day. And then in the fall, I’m here about a month. So pretty much right after Labor Day I’ll start.

You said you were crazy busy this time of year. How many pools are you opening a day?

We probably average around eight to 12 a day. And it might be less, but we like our big days. If I can schedule it so I’m not in the car a lot, if I can do one neighborhood, we could definitely do at least 12 a day. And maybe like another couple small jobs, if it’s a filter repair or something like that. And then you know, you lose some customers every year. People move, they take the pool down. But then more people find me. Generally every year it ticks up a little bit. So when I moved, it’s probably around 250. And now I’m probably closer to 280.

And so when you’re done, and you go back after Labor Day, what do you do with your life? Do you have another job?

No, this is pretty much my life. When I go home mid-June I spend, you know, the next three months in Omaha. I play golf.

That’s awesome. So you’re basically just working like a solid two or three months out of the year?

I know. It’s about three solid months. It’s about eight weeks, really, in the spring. Then I come back for a weekend in April and do a little bit of work and then I go back home and chill out. But mainly it’s like the six to seven weeks around this time right now.

Okay, so what else do you do besides play golf? You can’t just play golf nine months out of the year.

No. I mean, my wife and I do a little bit of traveling. We have our house and we enjoy working on the house. We’ve got a dog. You know, it's kind of hanging out. I do play a lot of golf. We have a bunch of friends. We don’t have any kids. So we’re kind of, you know, free to do whatever and travel as we please. So we try to go on like one or two trips a year.

Where do you stay while you’re here?

I stay in the house I grew up in, I stay with my father, in Flushing, Queens. I literally sleep in my old room. They did change it though—the Metallica poster isn’t on the wall anymore.

Are there certain pool jobs that are more annoying than others, or particularly demanding customers where you’re like, ‘Oh God, not this guy again’?

Yeah, you know, some people are a little more particular. I like to use that term, particular. [laughs] But as the years go by, people trust me a little more in my work, they're not as on top of me. Sometimes you wind up with some jobs that are just difficult. And it’s not anybody's fault. It’s not the customer’s fault. It’s just how the setup is.

You know I’m doing work in Brooklyn and Queens, where their backyards are small, some pools are the size of the entire backyard. So we’re climbing on top of the pool to get the cover off and all that. And there’s definitely some difficult people out there. But for the most part that’s a low percentage. My customers, I’ve known them for a long time. I know all their dogs. So it goes pretty smoothly.

Can you give me a quick summary of what’s involved in opening and closing a pool? You take the cover off, you throw some chemicals in? I’m sure it’s gotta be more complicated than that.

It’s not that much more complicated. You know, it’s about getting the filter set up properly, getting the cover off and if the cover is garbage, we’re gonna bag it up. If it’s still in good shape for another season, we make sure we clean it off real good. And we’ll pack everything away. I probably know more about where all the supplies are at my customers’ houses than they do. We get the filters working properly.

We don’t do any, like weekly service, like people might think about pool guys. So I try to make sure that their filter systems and their automatic chlorinators are set up properly on a timer so that they don’t have to call me with any problem. I’m just making sure they’re happy with everything.

It sounds like you've had a lot of clients for a long time. Are you just word-of-mouth?

So when I used to do installations, there was a big store in Brooklyn that sold pools and recommended us. It wasn’t subcontracting: It was just recommendations. It worked out well, because about the same time I decided that I was going to stop doing installations, they closed their physical retail location and became an online-only store.

But since then yeah, it's pretty much all word of mouth. I’m very well known on a lot of neighborhood Facebook groups. And I don’t have a Facebook page, we don’t have a business page. We don’t have a business website. All we have is our faces, our names, and our phone number. There are a lot of pool guys out there that either don’t do a good job or charge an arm and a leg because they’d rather do three jobs a day instead of six. Some of my customers I’ve had for close to 20 years.

Is there anyone else doing this, like, do you have competitors?

It’s an underserved industry everywhere. So if I lose a customer, it’s most likely going to be just because they’re doing it themselves. Any pool guy that’s been doing it as long as me or longer, we all kind of know each other. And we all do different types of work. I just picked up some supplies from a friend of mine that was doing pools for probably 10 years before I started. So we always help each other out and pass customers along. I did have one friend who moved his business from Brooklyn into Staten Island, and he had a bunch of existing customers that he wanted to sell to me. I said, Why should I buy your customers? They’re gonna find me anyway. Eventually he was like yeah, you’re kind of right.

It’s kind of crazy that you have this booming business based on the one thing that I just wouldn’t expect to be like a huge industry in New York City. You know?

What I tell people is: Go on Google, Google Earth or Google Maps. And look at neighborhoods like Howard Beach, Queens, or look at Marine Park in Brooklyn. Those are two of my biggest neighborhoods. You can tell the difference between in ground and above ground when you’re looking on the maps and you’ll see how many pools there are.

Why do you think so many people in those parts of the city have an above-ground pool?

I think the cost has a lot to do with it. A Disney vacation for the family is gonna cost probably $15,000. And it’s a week. A brand-new pool install is gonna cost a fraction of that, and the kids have it every day. That’s the only thing I could really think of. And there’s so much traffic, like where are you gonna go to the beach? If you live in Brooklyn, you go to Coney Island. Which is fine. It’s not a bad beach. But it’s not really where you want to be lugging the kids every day.

Yeah, absolutely. So it’s mostly families?

It’s mostly very middle class families. A lot of city workers. You know, two kids. Kind of the New York nuclear family: I would say it’s like the firefighter marries a teacher or a nurse. That’s kind of what you see. Unfortunately, every house right now is a million dollars plus. I’m seeing a lot of that kind of thing disappear.

I call those neighborhoods like urban-suburban. I grew up here in Flushing, Queens. I have a driveway. I have a backyard. I have a garage and I have a neighbor next to me. You know, it’s not just apartment buildings. But the people that live in Omaha, they hear I lived in the city and I do pools—it took a long time for them to wrap their heads around what I do. Or even figure out if I was lying.

Right, like they think you’re actually up to some shady business in the big city.

I’ve been asked if I was in witness protection. Like not even as a joke, like straight to my face.

…are you in witness protection?

I’m not in witness protection. That would make me a snitch. And I couldn’t be a snitch.

No, no, of course not. Do you have a pool at home, though?

I don’t. We have a pool not far from our house. We belong to a club. So my wife spends time at the pool at the club and I golf. And honestly, like, I just don’t get it. I don’t get jumping in the water and, like, splashing around and stuff. I just don’t. I get it for kids, maybe.

Yeah, but you do know how to swim though, right?

Yes, I’m a good swimmer.

Just checking.

No, but that is the joke I use with my customers. They’re like, Oh, do you have a pool? I’m like, I don’t even know how to swim. Just to kind of move the conversation along.

Well thanks for taking the time, I know this is your busy season. Oh! And what’s your last name?

For the article? I’d rather not use my last name. You can just call me Bryan The Pool Guy.

Top illustration by Andrea Bojkovska.

Related Reading:

Making Pools in Strange Places

Everything You Need for an (Actually) Enjoyable Beach Picnic


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