Most people are intimidated by anything that remotely resembles electricity. They behave as if even when an item is unplugged, electrodes remain inside and, at any moment, may leap out of the wires and attack them with the ruthlessness of a wolverine. It is actually quite safe and easy to fix simple electrical items, especially lamps. For one thing, the problem is nearly always the plug. You wouldn’t believe how many people bring broken lamps to expensive lighting places to be repaired and spend tens or even hundreds of dollars fixing them, or throw them out when the only problem is a 49-cent plug.
I click the switch back and forth, but the lamp does not turn on. It is my job at this particular hardware store to figure out why not, and fix the problem. I am good at fixing things. No one else in my family can even pick up a tool by the right end.
The phone rings.
Me: “Anderson’s Hardware Store.”
High-pitched voice: “Look, I’d like to buy a screen door…”
Me: (grabbing a pencil and a scrap of paper) “What are the measurements, sir?”
High-pitched voice: “Forty-two inches.”
Me: “By…by what? Forty-two by what?”
High-pitched voice: “Just forty-two inches.”
High-pitched voice: “No, round…it’s for my submarine. It’s a screen door for my submarine…Get it?” Uproarious laughter. “Why would you need a screen door for a submarine?”
Each of my fellow hardware store clerks is so under-endowed with the ability to be alone that he spends some part of every day he has off calling the store with jokes such as this. They behave like exiles from the Garden of Eden as if they can only be re-admitted if they pull a prank that makes the Gods laugh. When I am on the receiving end of one of these gags, I find it almost impossible to keep from shrieking, pulling off my hardware apron with its three sagging pockets and propelling myself straight out the door. Back to Los Angeles, I would go then to resume my abandoned college education.
These are the tools you will need to make your own small electrical repairs:
A pair of wire cutters
A pair of dikes (This is the proper name for the large, usually yellow handled, flat ended pliers with cutting blades that electricians use.)
A smallish Phillips screwdriver
A tester (This is a thingy with a small bulb and two wires that you stick into an outlet or across any circuit to see if it is live.)
A matt knife
At such times I forcibly remind myself of the reason why I left college, which is the guilt. There I was, smoking pot, taking LSD, and sleeping with boys while my parents were paying for me to get an education. Here’s an example: I go to the first meeting of my second-year psychology class, and the professor introduces himself with, “Don’t call me Professor, its just Adrian, Man.” Then we all go out and stand in a circle on the grass. Together we sing, “For every season turn, turn, turn.” We hold hands and sway. It is pleasant, and there is a cute long-haired boy in the class I already have my eye on. He has a motorcycle. Stoned as I am, it seems possible that this activity in which we are participating together might lead to real psychological insight about human beings and their emotions. The next morning, however, when I wake up in the boy’s dorm room, I have to face the fact that it was all bullshit. I withdraw in time to receive a full tuition refund.
Start by replacing the plug. If it is the sort that originally comes with lamps, it is molded to the wire, so you must cut it off with your dikes. If not, you may be able to take it apart. Either way, begin by unplugging the lamp. Obvious, you say? You would be surprised.
In truth, it wasn’t only my guilt that made me decide to leave college. There was also the feeling that something inside of me wasn’t right. Something felt like it was missing or not working. It’s not just that I wasn’t happy. Who’s happy? Especially at 19? Especially in 1975? None of the other misfits who were my friends at this taught-by-a-bunch-of-nuns-who-had-been-thrown-out-of-the-order-for-their-radical-ideas-about-education college were happy either. For example, a night just before Christmas that is forever afterward known as “Acid Friday.”
It is most likely the broken plug will be a snap-on plug, since they’re cheap and break easily. Remove it by grasping the prongs, squeezing them together and pulling the whole piece out of its housing. Then pull the prongs apart, and the whole thing will come off the cord.
Five of us friends take acid together. We spend the whole night until sunrise walking the hot, neon-lit streets of Hollywood past a wax museum of the famous and infamous, open-air pinball parlors, huge flashing signs for XXX neon porn shops, strip clubs, and Grumman’s Chinese Theater.
“Oh, look! It’s Marilyn Monroe. She’s still alive!”
“She’s with Patty Hearst. They must be friends.”
“It seems as if they’d get along well.”
We stroll the Walk of Fame, compulsively treading on each of its 2538 stars.
Everywhere we encounter lost people of all genders wearing tiny mini skirts, and platform high heels, and selling their young bodies for a nickel bag of whatever is available. We cannot tell which of what we see is a hallucination, and which is real.
Stomp! “Take that, Bing Crosby!”
“Look! Cher has enormous feet!”
We sing. “Hey, Babe, take a walk on the wild side, (and the colored girls go deep, dadeep, deep deep dadeep.)”
A bodybuilder in a skimpy bathing suit flexes silently on the sidewalk in the heavy darkness.
A tall black woman in size 18 white platform sandals bedecked with red paste jewels, wearing a tight white evening dress slit up to her thighs, her eyes emphatically purpled, her long fake eyelashes and beehive hairdo lavished with glitter, carries her big hands on her hips as she struts down the boulevard.
Look! Over there, you can buy a fake Christmas tree and have it sprayed with fake snow. You can choose snow in white, pink, or patriotic red, white, and blue. We purchase a small tree, cover it in pink snow, and take it with us.
An open-air photo booth. There we are, the five of us. The drug accentuates our acne. Or maybe it’s the lights. The boys have skimpy mustaches, big sideburns, and stone washed jeans; the girls’ sport Maxi granny dresses of India print fabric. Our long unwashed hair hangs down the sides of our faces like beaded curtains. We all grin maniacally at the camera. Rather, four of us grin. Darrel verges on hysterics. His will soon turn into a classic bad trip, complete with hallucinated insects crawling over his face.
To remove an Old-Fashioned Style Plug, pull off the cardboard spacer and unscrew the two screws inside. The wires will come free. Pull them out, and cut the wires back to where they look unused.
Beyond the general malaise of 1970s adolescence, however, something, in particular, is broken inside of me. So when my father calls and begs me to come home, says that he is sick and only I can help him, I am relieved to give up the struggle for independence. As soon as I have been home an hour, of course, I realize what a ghastly mistake I have made. I chose a college all the way out in California in order to get as far away as possible from home. Because my home is insane. For example:
My father sits down at the dinner table, enormous bright orange daisy wallpaper screaming on the wall behind him. He looks at his plate of food. He looks at my mother.
“Is there a fork?”
My mother, instead of scurrying to the drawer to get him the fork she forgot to set on the table, sits back easily in her chair and looks him straight in the eye:
“Sure. There are plenty of forks.”
My father frowns and says, maybe with a slight, over-polite edge to his voice:
“Would you please get me one?
My mother wordlessly points at the drawer in which we keep forks. Now there is definitely a note of warning in my father’s voice,
“I can’t eat my dinner without a fork.”
“Nelson?” She stands, “Fuck the fork, and fuck you.” She is absent for a week.
My father’s little red sports car catches fire and he arrives at our front door on foot, carrying what’s left, and crying.
My mother invites a young friend and her boyfriend to stay at our house for six months with their high-strung black lab mix. They introduce my parents to Ecstasy and LSD. Before Christmas, they take over our kitchen, make bright candles in cone shapes, and wrap them in tissue paper. I get to go with them when they take the candles downtown to sell out of grocery carts on the street. The three of us have to pack up fast and run when The Pigs come along. I think the boyfriend is sleeping with my mother, but I’m not sure. Eventually, they make enough money to move on.
I work at this hardware store to pay for the psychiatrist my father suggested. Apparently, psychotherapy doesn’t work unless you pay for it yourself. Her name is, unlikely though it seems, Dr. Goodfriend. My father is in analysis with Dr. Berger. He talks about it constantly. He’s proud to be crazy enough to need it. All the men are in analysis. The women’s problems are not important enough for them to need it, so they just go to their women’s groups. The greasy wheel of time slowly pulls them forward anyway, though. Along with all the other women, my mother is figuring out that she doesn’t have to stick around to take care of her suicidal husband for the rest of her life.
Dr. Goodfriend takes my entire week’s hardware store salary to sit in a chair for an hour and say nothing at all. Well, sometimes she says, “Tell me more about your childhood,” and I do. Doctor Goodfriend shows no interest in my father’s drinking or the fact that my mother is in the slow process of leaving him. I tell her my dream where my father and I are standing at the prow of a ship. We watch my mother row away in a bright yellow dingy, as our ship sinks into the foaming sea. The meaning of this dream is too obvious for Dr. Goodfriend to even bother interpreting it for me.
I recommend that whichever sort of plug you take off, you replace it with a solid old-fashioned one, which you can buy at any hardware store. Pull off the spacer, and unscrew the screws. Take the end of the wire, and using wire cutters or a knife separate the two wires. Strip about an inch of the plastic off of each wire using your matt knife. Twist the wires together on each. Stick the stripped wires up through the plug and wrap one wire around each of the screws. Be sure to wrap in a clockwise direction, so that when you tighten the screws, you twist in the direction the wire is going and the wire doesn’t pop out. Tighten both screws down and replace the cardboard spacer.
I am sleeping with two boys, one white, and one black. They work in the store. The white one is a musician, and he has a van that is tricked out in back with a mattress, a soft blanket, and a tape system. We park right outside my house, smoke pot and listen to his tapes. We rock the van with our delirious screwing. My parents don’t notice. I do notice my father spending lots of time alone with my mother’s friend Eleanor while my mother is out. She comes and goes, shifty brown eyes scanning the street.
If the plug is not the problem, you can bet your sweet goddamned bippy that it is the switch. Switches are part of the lamp’s socket, so just replace the whole part. Press in on both sides of the brass socket and the top pops off. Pull the plastic innards out. You will see two screws. Unscrew both and pull off the wires. Go to your local hardware store, and buy a lamp socket from the poor soul who works there. Take the new socket apart, the same way as you did the old. Strip the wires as described above, thread them through the socket and screw the wires onto the screws on the new socket, being sure to wrap clockwise (for reason, see above.) Put the socket back together and test with a bulb.
The black one has his own apartment, but he doesn’t seem to know that girls are supposed to enjoy sex too. I have no idea on earth how to tell him such a thing, so I don’t.
When my mother leaves, it will be just my father and his women, and me and my two boys. And Doctors Berger and Goodfriend, of course.
If neither of these fixes your lamp, give it up and bring it in to some loser who works in a hardware store and make her fix it for you.
I don’t know what wakes me but I know it is the final night, very late, and I am inside the white boy’s van out front. It’s not raining, but the air is drenched. From within our apartment, I hear a crash. Streetlight soaks me as I creak open the van’s back doors. Another crash, then silence. My mother struggles into view and I see what was crashing around. She drags a full army duffle bag while smoking a damp cigarette. Sticking out of the top of the bag is the foot of the Etruscan warrior statue they bought in Greece, which was going to be worth a million dollars, her black leather motorcycle jacket, and her mother’s big Italian spaghetti pot. She stops to breathe in wet smoke, looks up at the window, and keeps moving out to her Plymouth Duster. I know it is pale blue but it seems underwater grey right now. She tries to maneuver the duffle into the back seat, but it is too heavy for her. So she climbs in front and starts her up. She flings her arm up and back so that the lit cigarette flies in an arc of parting. She drives off on smooth rubber tires leaving the duffle alone on the curb.
Barefoot, I creep up. All the lamps are on inside so I can see him through the screen. He sits on the floor of the living room, head hanging down, an ashtray filled to overflowing, warm glass of Scotch and water near his hand, with all the ice cubes melted.
I have a full semester’s tuition in my bank account out west and all my clothes and other precious items still out there waiting to be sent home. I can go back and get a real job, or establish legal residency and go to a real college. I know I will break all the bonds of loyalty and love and lamp repair when I tread water up toward the streetlight and swim away.
A screen door for a submarine is, after all, useless because there are no insects under the ocean. Also, when you open the door of a submarine underneath the sea, leaving only the screen closed, the ocean rushes in through the screen, the submarine sinks, and you die. This explains why the Gods laugh.
© Amy Bernstein
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read Amy’s interview]