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

Monday, May 9, 2011

Knob and Tube

Friday, May 9, 1986 

Lyle, the homeowner, a manager at Lockheed, keeps me waiting a half hour and then arrives without apology.  A bad sign.  He shows me the job: install two low voltage lights to spotlight the Steinway piano in his large living room.  His wife will be giving a recital here.

Easily done.  The only surprise is knob-and-tube wiring in a house that was built in the 1960's.  Not a problem, just unexpected.  Knob-and-tube started phasing out in the 1930's.  When properly installed it's safe but more costly, more trouble, offers no advantages and has several disadvantages including a relative incapacity for expansion as the electrical needs of the house increase.  Lyle bought the house already built, so it wasn't his decision.  But for the original builder, why knob and tube?  Why would somebody choose a method that's more expensive and less adaptable?  Nostalgia?  For wiring?

It's as if the house has a birth defect hidden in its core, relatively benign, a central nervous system that can function adequately as long as no sophisticated demands are placed on it, an inability to grow and adapt.

When I finish, Lyle is pleased.  The lighting is dramatic and effective.  As I'm about to put away the ladder, Lyle points at three faint fingerprints that I left on the ceiling. 

"Sorry," I say.  "I'll get that."

"I'll do it.  Hold the ladder."

With a moist sponge, Lyle climbs the ladder.  He rubs.  The fingerprints smear.  He rubs harder, the smudge deepens.  He's rubbing the stain into the flat paint.  It's a blue sponge.  Maybe some of the blue is joining the paint.  Maybe the sponge was greasy already.

He's taken barely notable fingerprints and created a big mess.

"Here, you fix it," Lyle says, handing me the sponge.

With paper towels and some spray cleaner I try for salvage, but Lyle has already embedded a stain and removed half the paint.

"I want you to repaint my ceiling," Lyle says.


"Those were your prints.  This is all your fault."

"You did the rubbing, Lyle."

"You're the expert here.  If you saw I was doing it wrong it was your job to stop me."

"Oh, come on, Lyle."


He hasn't paid.  If I walk away, I'm kissing off $235.  That's his point of power.  My point of power is that I'm a grown-up.  Lyle is suddenly an out of control four-year-old. 

Two years ago, I let Mr. Lunder get under my skin.  I've learned a few lessons since then.

I speak calmly, soothingly.  "Lyle, for an electrician Rule Number One is 'Don't get electrocuted.'  Number Two is 'Don't cause a fire.'  Number Three is 'Make it work properly.'"  I smile; he glares.  I continue: "Yes, part of my job is to leave a clean site, but it's down around Rule Number Fifty-six."  Again I smile.  He softens.  "That doesn't excuse me, but let's acknowledge that I fulfilled the first fifty-five rules."

Lyle is calming down.  His eyes were darting about.  I think he knew he was losing control, and it frightened him.  I have a four-year-old at home right now, my third time down this path.  A kid will test the limits - throw a tantrum - but ultimately be reassured that the limits held. 

At this point I think there's no recourse but to repaint.  Fortunately the ceiling is divided by faux wooden beams, so with a good color match it should only be necessary to repaint one two-foot wide section.  As soothingly as possible, I explain this to Lyle.  We can share the responsibility.  I offer a compromise: if he will take a paint chip to the store and get a color match, I will come back another day and do the painting.  There should be plenty of time before his wife's recital. 

As I'm speaking, it occurs to me that Lyle's pent-up anxiety about this recital has just been released in full fury at me.  Unwittingly, I've served a purpose.  I've released his tension.

Lyle agrees to the compromise.

I'm pretty sure the new paint won't look like a perfect match even if the color is right.  It will be cleaner, fresher.  I've deliberately structured this compromise so that Lyle is responsible for the color, not me.  And given his sponging ability, I am responsible for applying the paint, not him.

We proceed as planned.  A few days later, I paint the section of ceiling between the beams - and as I expected, the fresh panel looks slightly glossier, even with flat paint.  Lyle doesn't notice.  It's his color.  In his knob-and-tube mind, he's incapable of making a mistake.

Two hours setting up, painting, cleaning up.  Which is two hours of psychotherapy, unbillable.  But I get my $235.  Sheesh.

A few months later, Lyle calls.  "The recital was magnificent," he says.  "Now could you come over and install some new outlets in my kitchen?"

He has no idea that I was furious at him.  Either he's clueless, or I'm a master of self-control.  In either case, my answer is the same.  I love children.  But I won't work for them.  "I'm really busy right now, Lyle.  I'll call you when I have time."

Somehow, I never find the time. 


  1. Great post. I've worked for some demanding, petulant, self-obsessed assholes during my time in Hollywood, but I'm beginning to think you've got me beat in that department.

    Better you than me, brother. My first instinct -- which I would never act upon, of course -- would be to go back that night with a five gallon can of gas and burn the bastard's house down...

  2. Yeah, we all have revenge fantasies...

    I may be giving a distorted view by writing about problem clients. The good ones are all good in the same way, the bad ones make unique stories.