His family called him “Fish,” an eccentric among eccentrics who, for 67 rollicking years, swam in a school of one. His habitat? Toilet bowls from Reservoir Hill to Dundalk and nearly every block in Charles Village.
Christopher Michael Jensen — “Chris da Plumber” — was a lovable if often cranky goof, as homegrown as a rowhouse tomato plant, as Baltimore as a shirtless man crossing the street with a can of beer in August.
“He was a wild specimen,” said Baltimore cartoonist Tom Chalkley, who drew the plumber with the butt crack logo for Jensen Plumbing. “Intense with a great, quirky sense of humor, a good eye for art and an authentic [white] working-class Baltimore accent.”
Like the time he showed up late for a job at Chalkley’s house in Arcadia and said, “Fuel pump went up in my truck.”
Jensen “went up” July 13 in the basement of his longtime home at 28th and Howard streets. The 101-year-old house (smashed by a reckless motorist last year, the glass-enclosed porch still boarded up) was known for a rooftop manger scene in which a glowing green alien stood holiday watch with Mary and Joseph over the baby Jesus.
“I once had a photo assignment and wanted to borrow the alien for the shoot,” said photographer Jim Burger of Remington. “When I asked, Jensen said, ‘The alien must be shared!’ ”
The house was a menagerie of local art, much of which he received in trade for work; Crabtown kitsch (he had a thing for Catherine Pugh in her glamour-puss days); musical instruments; the tools of his trade and copper pipe welded into his own creations.
His grandfather, William O. Jensen Sr., was given the property in 1927 as a wedding gift from his father and died there. Chris’ dad — William Jr., a former state delegate — was born in the house, and Chris began living there in 1991. Though Jensen had no children, the house will probably remain in the family.
The second-oldest of five siblings raised in Parkville, he never got over the recent, back-to-back deaths of his parents: mother Patricia, a pediatric nurse, in 2021, and his father last year.
“We used to go over to his parents’ house in Carney all the time to have dinner and watch TV,” said Catherine M. Brilhart, Jensen’s girlfriend in the late 1990s. “We called them our best friends.”
By then, Chris appreciated anything his mom prepared, old-school American meals like pot roast with mashed potatoes or pork chops and green beans. A picky eater as a kid, he was known to hoard cans of Spaghetti-Os in his room.
The state medical examiner reported the cause of death as heart disease, to which grief, depression and reckless self-medication could be added. To the grave, Jensen took aches and pains from decades of kneeling in cold, filthy water, sliding on his back under sinks and turning wrenches on bolts as recalcitrant as he was.
With him went the misery of multiple surgeries — including a major, debilitating one on his back — and a loneliness that only those closest to him were aware of. He became reclusive in the last year or so and had aged appreciably.
“I tried to throw him some work the last couple of years,” said Michael K. McGuire, a Jensen “helper” who went on to a career in the trade. “When I asked him why he kept showing up if he couldn’t do the job, he said, ‘I’m in pain if I’m home and I’m in pain if I work. I’d rather work.’ ”
In his prime, back in 2004 when he billed himself as “the Toilet Whisperer,” he was named Baltimore’s Best Plumber by the City Paper. A go-to faucet and clog man, his on-the-job stand-up routines helped snare the honor.
“The great thing about Chris is you could call him up at 11 in the morning for something simple and he’d be over in 15 minutes,” said artist John Ellsberry, who painted the alligators mural on the 28th Street Bridge in 1987. “But then he’d ask you to help him — hold this, go get me that. You wound up being his assistant.”
Never married, Jensen left behind a knotted string of overlapping broken hearts, the unruly lawns of neighboring houses that he cut without permission because he couldn’t stand anything untidy and a business model not yet taught at the MBA level.
“He came over once to fix some annoying small issue,” said Lisa Morgan, a producer and host at WYPR radio who was renovating a house in Reservoir Hill at the time. “He stayed way too long, talking and caressing the drainpipes, wiping them down lovingly.”
Then, she said, he wanted $200 for the minor job, saying they could flip a coin for the bill. “If I won, no charge,” said Morgan. Not liking the odds, she gave him $100 and called it even.
Jensen, however, seemed more interested in the “tasteful” nude portraits of Morgan’s mother in the house. “I thought he was flirting with me until he saw those,” she said. “His obsession with my mom lasted for years.”
The coin toss was not an isolated thing. McGuire recalled the time Norman Mailer factored into the settlement of a bill. Jensen showed up at the home of a Johns Hopkins University professor without his toolbox, rummaged through the man’s house for whatever might be useful, flipped a coin for uncompleted work and walked away with $100.
He returned later with his tools and finished the job. When the professor asked what more he owed, Chris asked the guy to name his favorite novel. And went home with a copy of “The Naked and the Dead.”
More than 100 people attended Jensen’s memorial party Aug. 12 at the Peabody Heights Brewery — friends, fans and customers — many of them on the receiving end of Chris’ provocations. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be “he was a pain in the ass, but I loved him.”
Said Jackie Yeagley, one of his three younger sisters, “This is the kind of send-off Chris would have organized. It’s like he’s going to walk in at any moment.” She said Chris took her to see “The Exorcist” back in 1973 when she was too young to go by herself. While she “covered her eyes” for most of the film, “Chris was sitting next to me laughing.”
The sendoff featured brisket and barbecue, and lots of children too young to really know “Uncle Chris.” Butt crack “Jensen Plumbing” T-shirts were sold to support the Village Learning Place on St. Paul Street, which he supported through an annual “Spaghetti Disco” holiday fundraiser.
His older brother, Bill, led a band playing classic rock, and at one point, said Jackie Yeagley, they played a Rolling Stones song that she knew was one of Chris’ favorites. Overcome by the number, she had to turn away for a spell.
A chestnut from ‘64.
“It’s All Over Now.”
Rafael Alvarez is the author of “Don’t Count Me Out: A Baltimore Dope Fiend’s Miraculous Recovery.”