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

Friday, November 2, 2012

Paying for Power in Palo Alto

Monday, November 2, 1981
A pleasant street in Palo Alto.  Plush lawns.  A man asked me to repair the wooden fence that separated his property from his neighbor.  A small job.  He said he'd pay me in full: "My neighbor should pay for half of it, since we share the fence, but Bella's such a cheapskate, I don't even want to deal with her."

When I show up, there's a problem: the man isn't home; his house is locked, and there's no outdoor power supply.  I need to use my electric saw.  Next door, Bella has an outlet on her porch.

I ring the doorbell.  She's an old woman living alone in a nice house.

"I'm repairing the fence," I say.  "Could I borrow a cup of electricity?"

"Whose paying for it?" Bella asks. 

I'm surprised.  Never been asked before.  But: "Okay," I say.  "I'll reimburse you for all the electricity I use."

She narrows her eyes.  "How will you know?"

"Hm.  I tell you what.  I'll keep track of how long the saw is running.  It's rated at thirteen amps, so at a hundred twenty volts I can calculate the number of kilowatt hours.  Then we can calculate the cost."

From the look on her face, I can see that she doesn't know an ampere from a volt from a kilowatt hour.  But she nods, pensively.  "Okay," she says.  "Cash."

I try to look as serious as I can.  "I shouldn't pay cash," I say.  "This will be a business expense, so I'll have to write you a check from my business account.  Otherwise my accountant will get angry."

Bella thinks it over for a moment.  "All right," she says.  "I'll take a check.  But then the IRS will think I'm getting taxable income, so you'll have to add twenty percent."

"Um, okay."

"Make it thirty."

"All right.  I'll add thirty percent."

I repair the fence.  It takes a couple of hours, which includes about five minutes total of running the power saw.  Let's call it six minutes, which is an even 1/10 of an hour.

I put the tools away, coil the extension cord, ring the doorbell.

"I'm ready to pay," I say.  "Shall we do the numbers?"

"Go ahead," she says.

I press buttons on my calculator, walking her through it: 

13 amps X 120 volts = 1560 watts, or 1.56 kilowatts. 
0.1 hour X 1.56 = 0.156 kilowatt hours of usage. 
Current electric rate [this is 1981] is 6 cents per kilowatt hour. 
Therefore I owe you 0.156 X 6 cents = 0.936 cents. 
Adding 30 percent for tax purposes, 0.936 X 1.3 = 1.2168 cents.
I can see she doesn't follow any of this.  "So you'll pay?" she says.

I write a check.  Generously, I round the 1.2168 up to a full 2 cents.  Signing it with a flourish, I tear the check loose and hand it to her.

Holding the check at arm's length, squinting, she makes a careful study — date, signature, amount. 

"Fair and square," she says. 

Money in hand, stepping back into the house, Bella closes the door.


  1. I bet she lived through two world wars and the depression, maybe even on a farm like my Grandma. We used to make fun of Grandma's extreme penny-pinching behind her back, but now when I am making pies with yard apples or pawing through the junk drawer looking for a piece of rubber to fix something, she comes back to me in a flush of fond memories and admiration.

  2. Could be. Could also be a strong sense of fairness, that I should pay for what I use. I don't think it ever occurred to her that I was repairing HER fence, too. For that amount of money, I wasn't going to argue about it. It's better to laugh.