Tuesday, January 15, 1991
Bertha on the telephone gets my total attention with her first words: "You remember that dimmer switch you installed? It caught on fire."
Before I can go to Bertha's house, I drop the kids at school. On the play field there is a Peace Circle - parents, teachers, kids all standing in a circle, heads bowed, holding hands. The deadline for Iraq - the line in the sand for Saddam Hussein to begin withdrawing from Kuwait - is tonight. I've been maintaining that there will be no war - that Saddam will withdraw, that he isn't stupid. The sight of the Peace Circle moves me to tears - it seems so touching, so naive, so earnest - but I don't join them. I have the damage of a fire to put out. My client is upset; I'm upset. Looking back, though, I wish I'd lingered a few moments instead of rushing off. I wish I'd held hands with my kids and their teachers in a silent circle of peace.
Two years ago when I installed Bertha's dimmer switch, I knew the risk. The rating was for 1000 watts, and the lights added up to 975 watts. A higher-rated switch would have ugly cooling fins exposed outside the wall, looking like heavy industrial equipment in Bertha's nice kitchen. At the time of installation I told Bertha that if the switch failed, I'd replace it with a higher-rated one and only charge her for the cost of the switch, not for labor. In retrospect it was a well-meant but stupid decision. I didn't realize that failure could mean catching on fire. Fortunately I'd used a steel box and sealed it correctly, so the damage was limited to inside the electric box.
Bertha doesn't even blame me. In her mind, it was simply a defective switch. She just wants her lights to work. She has no memory of my warning that the switch might fail or of my promise, should it fail, to bill only for the switch, not for labor.
I could charge her for the labor. But I don't.
At my next job, same day, Red is a psychiatrist and a heck of a nice guy. I've worked at his house several times. Today for the first time Red wants me to work at his clinic, which he shares with four other headshrinkers. They want sound-deadening flaps installed at the bottoms of each of their fancy office doors. Apparently, patients are uneasy revealing their darkest secrets when they can be overheard in the waiting room. People are funny that way.
"Your charges are always fair," Red tells me, "but this time you're charging the whole group, not just me. These guys…" He shakes his head. "You could pad the bill."
I like Red. He comes from humble origins. He thinks his colleagues are a bunch of rich jerks.
So do I pad the bill? Well, not really. But I do round a couple numbers to the upside.
After school I take my son to buy a new pair of shoes at a crappy discount store. We purchase a pair of hightops for him and a pair of jogging shoes for me. At the checkout I get confused - as does the cashier - and later reviewing the receipt I figure out that I paid 28 cents for some $21 shoes. Basically, the cashier shortchanged himself and I was pleased that the total was less than I expected. The cashier may have to pay for his mistake. He’s just a kid. I feel bad about it. I was mad at the store because the service had been so lousy - it was overcrowded, swamped - and I was confused at the register, but still, the bottom line is, I think I cheated the kid by not questioning the transaction at the time.
So I have a day of moral choices. Some I handle better than others. If only I'd joined that Peace Circle, just for a few moments… The total of all the little choices we make, multiplied by billions of people, becomes the world we live in.
The next day, when I turn on the news, bombs are falling in Baghdad.