Problem: the sidewalk and garage door lights do not work. Both fell dark the same night.

Diagnosis: the bulbs were like an old married couple where one follows the other into the inky beyond. The latter is unlikely, since one bulb was advertised as having a seven-year life span, and the other is one of those drugstore house brands that has the longevity of a geriatric fruit fly. So the problem is the photoelectric cell that turns the lights off.

Solution: buy a new photoelectric cell. Cost: $13.90.

Now we’ve reached the impasse that always involves any electrical repairs. I do not trust electricity. I know that touching any wire will cause my skeleton to blink on and off, and possibly cause my intestines to spell out the words EAT AT JOE’S. Even if I set every fuse to the OFF position, I know that I will have missed some crucial detail, and the quick result of starting the job will be a mouth full of melted filings and a spreading stain on the front of my trousers. I won’t be at ease unless the poles have been felled and the power lines severed with an axe; even then I will heap suet around the ends of the wires, and watch squirrels feed on the mixture, waiting for a zap, a puff, a wisp of squirrel-scented smoke curling towards heaven.

Note: the above does not refer to changing light bulbs. Any more.

But! A friend who’s electrically inclined stopped over today, and offered to help. We couldn’t figure out which fuse ran the lights - there are 40 fuses in the box, and 10 have labels. So he decided to force the issue by causing a short, thereby tripping a fuse. Brilliant! And how will he do this? By touching live wires with a screwdriver until a fuse pops.

While he’s standing on a metal ladder.

Whose legs rest in a pool of antifreeze that’s leaked from my wife’s car. Say, mind if I stuff some raw bacon in your shirt pocket? I’m hungry, and it’ll cofryok up faster than putting it in the microwave.

I take refuge on the other side of the house, put on my smoked glasses, wait for the ZAT! sound and the sudden tang of ozone in the air; that’ll signal that he’s done. Whether “done” means “completed” or “well-cooked” we will soon discover.

He’s fine. It’s fuse #6.

So. He pulls the wires from the eaves. While he’s doing some diagnosing, I run to the store for some wire nuts. “Get the orange ones,” he says. Because he’s a nice guy he does not send me on a snipe hunt, and tell me to ask the clerk for “super-anticonductor orange wire nuts. From Italy. Make sure they’re from Italy. Preferably the Umbrian region. He’ll know what you mean.” I return. The new photoelectric cell is installed. Power is restored.


Hmm. Well, let’s follow the wires, and see where they lead. He traces the wires back to a Gordian Knot between the garage doors; the relevant wire is traced back through a metal tube to a junction box that was installed during the Truman administration. (First term.) The screws are turned for the first time in many years; they make a sound like someone prying Dr. Laura’s knees apart. We behold the handiwork of an electrician who was apparently a highly functional alcoholic, and whose work followed some internal logic he took to his grave. My friend says he’ll have to come back with some testing equipment to figure out just what leads from where to where. The sad fog of failure hangs over the garage.

When he’s putting everything back together he peers at another box between the garage doors. “What does this do?” he asks, pointing to a switch labeled SIDEWALK LIGHTS.

It makes an utter ass out of me, I think. All I can muster is a Lurch mutter.

“Someone must have brushed against it,” he says. I can imagine Gnat clicking it off, for fun.

All the wires are stuffed back into place. Power is restored. He puts a thumb over the electric eye.


Maybe the old electric eye - which obviously wasn’t broken - had some special properties? So the new one comes out and the old one goes back in.


Then there is light! So the new photoelectric cell wasn’t broken - there’s just a delay factor.

Total elapsed time: 1 hour

Total cost, including wire nuts: $14.40

Try getting that sort of deal out of a professional electrician.
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