TAOS, NEW MEXICO—Population 4,700. Gets hot, right? In the summer, yes. But at an elevation of almost 7,000 feet it sure freezes in the winter. And despite all that snow we’re always short on water. Conservation is key. A plumbing contractor (systems plumbing, not clog-plunging) must be a scientist, and so commands high fees. In a town with perhaps more plumbers per capita than any other in America, people whisper of one who commands a six-month waiting list: Cowboy plumber Frank Perry.
What’s special about plumbing in Taos? The fact that we use radiant heat, and houses have to have complicated boiler-heating systems as opposed to crappy old forced air. It’s cold, so plumbing has to work and be protected. I work on high-end houses that have plumbing that is complicated to do—which works out for me.
Would you call yourself a cowboy? Yeah. Cowboy’s an attitude. But the reason I let myself say I’m cowboy a lot is I was raised with cows and horses. I think I’ve got the attitude too.
Are there other cowboy plumbers in Taos? Around Taos they could’ve been. They’re country boys from a small town. They’re a lot more hunters and stuff than I am, but that’s not my gig. My motorcycle is kind of cowboy, too. One of my mottos is, “I ain’t never had too much fun.”
You’re always wearing form-fitting Atlas pipe fitter’s gloves. What’s special about these gloves? They protect your hands. My hands look like a surgeon’s hands. And they give you much more grip and come in an insulated variety, which I’m using now. They add a whole new dimension to your sex life.
How did you get those surgeon’s hands? They’re mechanic’s hands, and a surgeon is just a mechanic with clean hands.
I bet you get a lot of people who do their own contracting and want to do part of the work to save money—or who at least look over your shoulder and try to learn something. How do you deal with the employer-apprentice? In reality, employer-apprentices are a minority of what happens in my business, but when they do happen they are somewhere from competent to very good. My best example is a dentist here in town, Ed Cooper. I never could’ve asked for better. He never asked anything twice. It was his house and he was working like a dog and made sure he was jumping ahead of me, which was good. Ed was fantastic.
He’s a dentist, so—He’s a mechanic. He uses his hands. What’s the difference in twisting pipes and twisting teeth? It’s mechanics, a using-your-brain-in-that-way thing. Car mechanics, plumbers, dentists, surgeons might have it, although I’ve known an orthopedic surgeon who couldn’t set a thermostat. But possibly he wasn’t a mechanic. He was a man who learned a job—I suppose that was the case, as opposed to somebody who had an aptitude.
Is there much rivalry among Taos plumbers? There are like 60 plumbers in the book. Unbelievable.
Isn’t that a high proportion? Unbelievably high! De Queen, Arkansas, where I’m from, the population is about the same and I think there’s probably two plumbers. I don’t know how they survive with that few. Or how Taos does with so many.
But you can still be very selective with the jobs you take on. Taos is boomin’, and it always has been. When one job finishes you’ve got three working. You’re like the kid drinking out of the spittoon. And someone says, “Kid quit that.” And the kid says, “I can’t—it’s all one stream.” It’s been a real good gig for me.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 15, 2005