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

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Bill (Part Two)

Monday, April 2, 1984

For seven and a half hours Mr. Lunder follows me around through the five apartments he owns in Mountain View.  He says, "I had a handyman before you who charged half as much."

"So why isn't he your handyman now?"

"It got sticky," Mr. Lunder says.

I don't say so, but his previous handyman did shoddy work - and I'm fixing it.

I'm happy to have owners watch me work, ask questions, chat, as long as it's of a friendly nature or out of a genuine curiosity to learn what I'm doing.  Mr. Lunder is neither friendly nor curious.  He's standing over me, checking his watch and frowning.  I'm beginning to see why it got sticky.

Among other chores, I patch a foot-size hole in a wall.  Mr. Lunder says his previous handyman could have had that wall patch mirror-smooth in one pass.  I say you can't do that.  You have to let it dry, then come back and finish it - and his handyman would have done that, too.

In the morning before I came to this job, I called Mr. Lunder.  Because space was tight in my truck that day with a cabinet I was delivering, I asked if I needed to bring my plumbing tools.  No, he said.  Now he asks me to replace a sink drain.  "Can't," I say.  "I didn't bring my plumbing tools.  You told me I wouldn't need them."

"No, I didn't."

I install a timer for a recirculating hot water pump.  Mr. Lunder only wants the water to recirculate when people are likely to use it.  This man is cheap, which is okay, but irrational, which isn't.  The price of the timer and the labor to install it will cost more than he will ever save on utility bills.  And saving money is the only motivation - he couldn't care less about the environment.

When I finish with the recirculating pump, the thermostat quits working.  I try to test it, but Mr. Lunder is fussing, distracting me: "What happened?  Did you break it?  Don't you know how to put it together?  Can't you do anything?" 

"Please be quiet so I can think."

When Mr. Lunder talks, he doesn't meet my eyes.  He's short, so he's talking to my chest or else looking away toward a wall.  He says, "Have you ever worked on a recirculating pump before?"

"Yes.  Once or twice."

"Did you break those ones, too?"

"I didn't break this.  Please be quiet so I can think."

"I'd better call a real plumber."

The man has me thoroughly rattled.  I give up.  "I'll have to get a new one," I say.

"You'll pay for it," Mr. Lunder says.

"I didn't break that thermostat.  But I'll go out right now and get a new one.  Let's see how much it costs.  Then we can talk about it."

"Just leave," Mr. Lunder says.  "Don't come back.  This whole job is a botch." 

"What did I botch?"

"The wall.  The thermostat.  You didn't even bring your plumbing tools."

"I'm not charging you for plumbing.  I didn't do any plumbing.  But I will charge you for the work I've done."

"I don't think I can pay you."

"Why not?"

"It's a rip-off.  I'll have to call my mother about this."

At this moment, I realize I'm dealing with a sick man.  Sick in the head.  Which doesn't give me one bit of sympathy toward him.  He is one irritating little fart.  I write out a bill.  I raise my voice as I say, "I'd like you to pay me right now."

Mr. Lunder flinches at the raised voice.  Interesting.  He says, "I have to call my mother.  I don't think she'd approve paying a crook."

I raise my voice another notch.  "Mr. Lunder, I am not in the business of ripping people off.  I've been doing this for eight years now.  I can give you a list of references as long as your arm.  I have a waiting list.  I have to turn away jobs."

"Don't shout at me.  I have a heart condition.  Don't get me excited."

I raise my voice another notch.  "You're questioning my honesty.  My integrity.  Your previous handyman probably installed that thermostat wrong and it would've stopped working no matter who touched it next."  I'm so angry I'm shaking.

Mr. Lunder backs off a bit.  He looks fearful.  "This bill is unprofessional," he says.  "You wrote it in pencil."

"Got a pen?  I'll write a new one."

"You should have a pen.  You should be more professional.  I'm not paying you for the time we spent talking."

"I already wrote the bill.  This talk is free."

"We spent time talking before the job."

"Of course we did.  You had to show me what you wanted me to do."

"I shouldn't have to pay for talking."

"God damn you annoy me."

"Now you're shouting.  I'll pay you half.  This is hurting my heart.  I'll pay you half just to get rid of you."

He's right - I'm shouting.  He's also right that it was unprofessional not to bring my plumbing tools.  And the time spent talking would normally be negotiable but not with this man.  Not now.  I continue shouting: "CALL YOUR MOTHER!  TELL HER I'M TAKING YOU TO COURT!"

"Keep my mother out of this."


Mr. Lunder is clutching his heart. 

I feel cruel.  I don't care.  "PAY ME NOW OR I'LL KEEP SHOUTING."  This isn't me, I'm thinking.  But it is.

Still he hesitates.

"I'll knock off fifty dollars.  Okay?  Now please pay the fucking bill."




One Mississippi.  Two Mississippi...  Ten Mississippi.  "All right."

With shaking fingers, Mr. Lunder writes a check.

I drive straight to his bank and cash it.  As the cashier counts out the money at the teller window, my own fingers are trembling. 

A few weeks later, examining a similar thermostat, I realize that I had reversed the wires in Mr. Lunder's device.  If he'd just left me alone for a minute, I would have figured it out.

There is no redeeming way to end this story.  Physical work isn't just physical.  There are personalities involved.  Personal chemistry.  The wrong mix can explode.

To my credit, I was never tempted to lay a hand on him.  And yet I almost killed that man.  Death by shouting.

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