The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Screwdriver, Melted

Saturday, February 11, 1989

Jack wants me to wire an illegal rental he's building behind his house in Mountain View.  He's a Lockheed space engineer on medical disability.  I get the sense that the disability is in the psychological realm.  Like, he's half crazy.  It's in the eyes.

He wants a bid, but I tell him I can only do this on a time and materials basis at forty dollars an hour.  Cash.

He seems stunned.  "I've never paid forty dollars an hour to anybody in my entire life."

I don't budge.  I'm not cutting my rates on an illegal job for a crazy man.  He shakes his head and paws his boots along the gravel and finally agrees.  Good.  I need the money.

As I work, Jack loosens up.  He tells me his two boys, now at UC Berkeley, want to be an artist and a bass guitarist.  "All that schooling."  He shakes his head.

It's a cold day.  I'm wearing three shirts plus a hooded sweatshirt.  Metal is frigid to the touch as I open his electric panel and flip the main switch.  Then stupidly without testing for voltage, I insert a screwdriver and - ZAP!  FLASH! 

The screwdriver smokes, half melted.  An ozone smell.

That could’ve been my finger smoking, half melted.  Or my heart.  The circuit breaker was defective - it didn’t turn off.  I push it again.  This time it clicks off - but later, when I try to push it on, it won’t go.  Jack has to go to Orchard Supply Hardware and pay $99 for a new Zinsco 100 Amp breaker, which doesn’t please him.  "That's a dollar an ampere," he says incredulously.

That's two dollars a year for my life, I'm thinking.  Never trust a switch.  Test, then touch. 

The day never warms.  In fact, it gets colder.  A raw wind.  I crawl under the house pulling wires.  I drill holes, drive staples, climb ladders.  Freezing fingers strip the insulation, twist the copper.  To stay warm I work fast, but even so it's a twelve-hour day.  I have a vision of my father, shaking his head.  All that schooling.

No regrets.  You make your choices.

It's $480 for labor, $120 (rounding down) for materials.  Jack says, "I'm going to deduct a hundred dollars for that circuit breaker." 

I say, "It was already busted or else it would've shut down the first time I flipped it.  That thing could've killed me."

"The hell you say."

"Jack, I'm getting pissed."

Still, he hesitates.

I say, "You'd better hope nobody tells the Mountain View Building Department what you're doing here.  An anonymous tip.  That's all it takes." 

Jack rubs his chin.  His eyes dart about.  Then he counts out six Ben Franklins.

Some jobs you like.  Some, you bear.  Some days, it's a tough world.  And you're part of it.

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