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

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How to be a Fly in the Milk

An Evening in May

I'm a dinner guest among about a dozen people at a home in Palo Alto.  A house down the street is owned by, let's just say, a world-famous billionaire.  It's that kind of neighborhood. 

My hosts have lived in this home for less than a year.  It's a comfy old place with high-end conveniences tucked into a relaxed decor.  Knowing my interest in houses, the husband gives me a tour before we sit down to dinner.

I scarcely know these people, though I like them instantly.  I'm a guest because of relationships, though we're not related — it's complicated — and the hosts are gracious enough to include me as part of the package.  Among this small group are a Federal judge, two attorneys, and a Superior Court judge.

During dessert served with an exquisite French tea, the hostess notices that I'm staring at the ceiling of the dining room.  She follows my eyes.  There's a circular wave in the surface, about twelve inches in diameter, like a ripple on a pond.  It's subtle.  There's no discoloration, no crack.

I should have looked elsewhere.  I can't help it, though.  I notice these things.  And I know how to read drywall.

"What is it?" she asks. "Do you think the roof has a leak?  Do you think the ceiling is wet?"

Standing on a (lovely) chair, touching it with a finger, I say, "It's wet.  Isn't there a bathroom directly above?"

A minute later, the hostess is watching as I crawl into a space behind the shower and bath.  Parting some insulation, I place my hand between joists — and my fingers feel a puddle.  "Uh-oh," I say.

It's a huge bathroom with two sinks, a steambath/shower, and a separate Jacuzzi, all encased in elaborate marble slabs.  "Best case," I say, "it just needs recaulking."  I point to some areas of peeling sealant.  "Worst case, you need to repair or replace the Jacuzzi, which would require pulling out all this marble."

"Who do I call?" she asks.

This is exactly the kind of job that used to be my specialty: too small to interest the big contractors but too complicated for a handyman.  With my bad back, I just can't do it anymore.  Unfortunately, the only tradesmen I'm familiar with are people who lack the plumbing skills or else lack the, uh, social delicacy to work for such high-end clients.

"Well, thanks for looking," she says.

Back at the dining table, all eyes keep checking the ring on the ceiling.  "I wonder if it will collapse on me," says the Federal judge sitting directly underneath.

I whisper to my wife: "I don't think they'll ever invite me again."

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