The first electrician I called to put in an outlet for an electric stove brought a box of doughnuts for me, which made me wary. I was right to be wary. He (an employee of a big firm) did his free 25-point checkup and informed me (an older lady on her own in a big very tidy house with clean recently re-upholstered furniture) that my circuit breaker box was maxed out and needed to be replaced, along with the wiring from the outside, before he could even think of running a line to the kitchen for a stove. He gave me an estimate (which he generated and emailed me from his truck afterwards) that would have meant I was eating rice and beans for the next six months. So, because I still have a perfectly fine gas stove and I am not the exact kind of older lady he thought I was, I called another electrician for a second estimate.
The second guy didn’t bring a free box of doughnuts. Instead, he brought his wonderful chatty self. After he looked through my wiring, he sat down at my kitchen table with his estimate form, and we talked for half an hour.
What did we talk about?
- He used to be a respiratory technician but his family was all electricians, so when he needed a new career it was easy to make the switch.
- In his job, he sees a lot of people who believe the weirdest things. He says it’s like they have no common sense, no way to do a reality check any more. I told him about the carpenter who did my downstairs bathroom, who told me in a hushed and uneasy voice that he suspected my husband had voted for Biden.
- The electrician’s wife has cancer and he never thought she was going to go before him. I told him I was married for 46 years before Stephen died, and that’s about as good as it can get. We nodded at one another.
- He sees people with piles of photographs completely unsorted and they’re never going to get around to identifying and sharing all of them. It’s sad. He and I have both digitized all our photos and shared them with our kids.
- You ought to be able to commit suicide when you’re terminally ill, he said. I suspect he just wanted to get out before his wife goes. I told him about my mother and refusing to eat, and my mother-in-law taking what we suspect was an overdose of blood thinner.
- I’m right to go all electric, he told me. That’s the way it’s going. No one is going to use gas any more. We both nodded sagely. Hell if I know.
- Of all the many announced candidates for Philadelphia mayor, he likes the guy who owned the Shop-Rites because we don’t need another politician. I said I hadn’t made up my mind yet, but the current guy is just tired of being mayor. We nodded sagely again. At that point, I finally went into the kitchen and ran my coffee grinder to make him stop talking so he could write his two-sentence estimate.
He’s charging me about a third of what the first guy wanted, for the same work, because my circuit box is maxed out.
I will pay a price for my savings, though. I will have to take my hearing aid out and perhaps hide on the third floor when he comes over, because otherwise we will talk and no work will get done.
The thing that stuck with me (aside from great relief, because red beans and rice should stay an occasional treat) was what he said about the photos. I too know a lot of people who have saved piles of photos, who are waiting until the right time to sit down and reflect. There is no right time. The time is now.
I don’t just have photos. I have diaries. I write in a journal every day, and have for a few decades. At one point I had about forty full composition books, but then I realized they were taking up way too much space. When I tell friends that, their first reaction is to panic and tell me never to throw them out, as if my musings are the National Archives or some kind of immortality. I say it’s too late, because I already got rid of all of them, but I reassure them that I have kept excerpts.
I don’t write to memorialize anything. My journal is not a record. It’s a mixing bowl, maybe, or a toybox full of things I will never play with, fascinating to explore periodically. It’s not an attic, it’s more like a bulletin board. It’s a way to process what is preoccupying me. I have pages upon pages describing my various organization systems, or writing about my mother’s illness or my husband’s, or putting yesterday’s events in order so I can understand why I’m feeling the way I am. I’ve written short stories in my journal, and even big chunks of novels, but mostly I just write what’s in my head. I make a list of what the electrician and I talked about. Then I say, “Oh,” and I put the journal away until the next day.
Occasionally there’s a paragraph I want to keep, so I type it up and add it to a file, but when it comes time to review what I’ve kept, maybe a tenth of that is worth holding onto. Or not even that much.
As the electrician and I agreed, people believe some weird shit, when things get bad you can do something else instead, no one has the answers, electric is the future, and we’re all gonna die eventually anyway, so go through your photos and your diaries now. And don’t trust people who give you a free box of fresh doughnuts. Get a second estimate.