Saturday, May 7, 1988
It's a 1950's ranch house. Before entering, Isabella my favorite decorator warns me: "The wife is a tightwad. And then the husband." She laughs. "He's a Superior Court Judge."
"He has a terrible time making up his mind."
We discuss options for updating their lighting. Judge Jack and his wife speak in code.
The wife asks which is "the simplest." I start to answer that recessed lighting has the lowest profile, but Isabella understands the code and answers, "Track lighting will cost the least."
Judge Jack asks in a Boston accent, "How can I retain options?"
Isabella answers, "Track lighting will leave you the most flexibility for future changes."
With those two answers, the outcome is a foregone conclusion, but Judge Jack and his wife find a dozen ways to ask the same two questions using different words, all code for cheapest and least binding. After an hour of questions and dithering, they announce their choice: track lighting.
Isabella orders the fixtures. I return a week later to install. To my surprise, Judge Jack follows me around asking questions. Unlike Mr. Lunder, Judge Jack seems genuinely interested in how wiring works, so I don't mind his asking. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to have a grasp for it. Wiring is so linear, so black and white, you'd think a judge would get it right away. Either it's right, or it's wrong. No ambiguity.
Not for Judge Jack. He seems confused and jumps to conclusions.
I say, "It's a three-way switch. It has an extra wire so you can have another switch at the other side of the room."
"Why is it called three-way if there are only two switches?"
"Because there are three terminals on the switch. There are three hot wires."
"But there are only two switches. And there are five wires. That white one. And that bare one."
"The white is neutral. The bare is the ground wire. It doesn't count."
"Why doesn't it count? It's a wire, isn't it?"
"It's for safety. It's like a an extra neutral wire."
"Like a backup," Judge Jack says. "Another option. In case the neutral wire fails."
"No. It's not exactly a -- "
"So is that why there are three hot wires? As backups?"
"Only two hot wires are hot at the same time. It switches from one to the other."
"So the third is a backup?"
"It's not a backup. It's an alternate route."
"Could you use the ground wire as the extra hot wire if the original hot wire fails?"
Tutoring him, I become so distracted that I waste an hour following a dead wire in the attic (with the judge crawling behind, peppering me with questions). I missed an obvious clue right at the outset: the problem wasn't with the hot wire but rather with the neutral wire, which was disconnected. Judge Jack, of course, suggests using the ground wire instead.
Rattled by my mistake, I tell Judge Jack I won't charge him for the hour I wasted on the dead wire. I could justify charging him for an hour of education, but I'm soft that way. Or I could at least charge for fifteen minutes - after all, I did fix the neutral wire.
The next day, Sunday at 8 a.m. the phone rings. It's Judge Jack: "Didn't you say you weren't charging me for an hour?"
"My wife says you were here for four and three-quarter hours. But you charged us for four."
"I guess I rounded it off." I'm soft. He isn't. "You can subtract fifteen minutes from the bill."
"I'll do that. Now one more question. Is it too late to consider a different color?"
"It's never too late. But once it's installed, you can't return it. You'd have to pay for the new fixtures and for the labor to install it."
"I don't believe that was disclosed to me at the outset."
"Isn't it obvious?"
"We'll give it further thought."
I'm sure they will.
Later, I realize that I left a box of 14/2 Romex in the attic. If I go back for it, they’ll pick my brain for an hour or argue about the bill for another hour. It's $20 worth of Romex.
I don't go back.
Three months later, Isabella calls. "They want bathroom lights."
"They want to talk about it…"
At least I'll get my Romex back.