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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Like a Hammer

Tuesday, August 17, 1993

I begin the day with Amelia, one of my favorite clients since 1977.  She follows me around her house gratuitously filling me in on her life.  "You remember Lyle?  My son?  Always in a snit?"

"He wasn't always in a snit."

"It seemed like it.  Anyway, he's at UCLA.  Pre-med.  Can you believe it?  I just got laid off."

Amelia is over 50 but still looks great.  She remarried two years ago.  There's a new Jaguar in her driveway.  She could retire now with more money than I'll earn in my lifetime, but she tells me she's taking classes on how to get a job.  She approaches every project as a hammer approaches a nail.  She's one of those people who are born to work.  Like me.  Which is part of why we like each other.

I tape some wallboard, put molding around a window, weatherstrip two doors and install a threshold.  Amelia is comfortable with my style of workmanship: creative, quick, not too fussy but never sloppy.

When I finish, I tell her that once again I've raised my rates.

"Oh, good," she says.  "It's so great to see you again."

I treasure these clients.

From Amelia's I drive to the coastal town of Montara and a gigantic house by the ocean that a couple living in Los Altos uses as a weekend getaway.  Talk about money - wow!  Fine wines in a rack, great furniture.  Twenty yards from the beach and not a speck of sand indoors.

Her name is Briana.  She's a referral from Isabella, my favorite decorator.  I'm replacing a gaudy chandelier with a high-end track light which, I discover, requires some problem-solving.  Briana wants the track located a few inches away from the existing ceiling box.  The wire won't reach.  Normally this would require a splice and an ugly cover plate, but I come up with a solution that involves cutting drywall, then patching and coating.  An ordinary electrician wouldn't do this.  It's where I excel, and I'm darn proud to say so.  It's why decorators hire me.

Briana studies the completed job.  "I don't like the rings," she says.

The lights cast a lovely pink halo around their cones of light.  It's charming, a special effect.  It's the reason Isabella chose them.

"You'd better talk to Isabella about that," I say, and I present her with my bill.  After three hours of ladder work, my back is killing me.  All I want to do is go home.

Briana squints at the bill.  "Seventy-six dollars for a dimmer switch?  You're really gouging me."

I explain that it's a special dimmer required for low-voltage lights.  I have the receipt in the cab of my truck.  I could show her — but I don't.  It's a character flaw of mine.  Sometimes I become a grouchy bear when people accuse me of gouging, and I'm not going to show them the proof that I'm not.  Grrr.

Back home I take three ibuprofen and draw a hot bath.  From the tub I make a phone call to Isabella and warn her.  "Incoming," I say.

"Oh no.  What happened?"

I tell her she'll be getting a call about the pink rings.  Then I unload about the price-gouging accusation.  "Don't send me back.  I'll never work for that woman again."  I'm choosy at this point in my career.  I accumulate Amelias; I discard Brianas.   

Isabella says, "She doesn't have children."

That's it of course.  Isabella believes raising children is the ultimate lesson in realistic expectations.  Unfair, untrue — yes, yes, she knows that — but a useful shorthand.  "I'll talk to her," she says.  "Don't worry.  You'll get your payment."

"I want my pride."

Isabella sighs.  "Just take the money," she says.

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