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Lamps and Light
An illuminating tale of repair
I had to take a lamp to get repaired last week.
My youngest had pushed the table where the lamp rested, and it crashed with high drama. A fatal fall. A snapped neck.
I gathered the lamp up, muttering about our inability to keep nice things, and put it in the laundry room where it sat, bearing witness to other busy household machinery that still worked.
I wasn’t sure the lamp was worth fixing, but I did Google repair places and called around.
Finally, I reached Joe. He told me I could come by before 3 p.m. that day because that’s when he’d be closing, regardless of what the internet said about his shop hours.
I decided I’d knock this errand out on my way to my daughter’s game. A quick detour and something to check off my list.
When I arrived, Joe was waiting for me.
He took the lamp out of my hands with care, cradling her neck.
“Oh, I see. Ok. Let’s take this back to my work table.” The work table was six steps to the right.
He combed through multiple boxes of finials and screws on his supply shelf and then said, “Ah, yes. I have what I need. I can fix this.”
“Here, come around to my office.” Partitioned off in this one-man shop was Joe’s corner office, housing a big, ornate desk and a stately executive chair.
He hefted a big binder up to the service window in front of his desk, placing it between his tray of business cards and a tray of green and white wrapped hard candies. He wrote my name and phone number in pencil, adding me to the list of all the many people whose lives he’d illuminated.
He handed me a business card with great import.
“You can pick your lamp up later today.”
I explained I couldn’t do it today. I jiggled my keys in my hand to signal that I was in a bit of a rush.
“Okay, well Saturday can work. But only after my customer picks up all these lights over there.”
We walked to the other side of the room.
“Look at this light. It is so interesting. So modern.” He marveled at a chrome floor lamp. “The customer couldn’t find the on/off switch, so they brought it to me. But it doesn’t have an on/off switch! Just a dimmer!”
“Wait — it wasn’t broken? They just didn’t know how to turn it on?” I like hearing when other people are dumb because I once called an electrician thinking our bedroom overheads were broken, not knowing the three-way switch was just out of sync. The electrician walked into the room, hit the other switch beside the bed, and voila! An expensive fix to being dim.
“No, no. It was broken and it doesn’t have an on/off switch.”
I wasn’t sure if we were still only talking about lamps.
I returned a few days later and arrived to see my lamp sitting in the staging area with all of its newly repaired friends, like kids waiting for a pick-up after a week of sleep-away camp, changed, brighter, casting different light.
Joe showed me how he’d rebuilt the lamp’s neck, how it was now like new.
As I wrote him a check, I asked him if he’d always lived locally. No, no: he’d grown up in Egypt, the son of a ship captain. On summer breaks, he would sail the Red Sea with his father until one very scary stormy night. As waves crashed over the deck, his father sent him below to sleep.
“When I woke up in the morning…” I expected Joe to say his father and the entire crew had died overnight and that Joe awoke drifting alone at sea.
But instead, he said, “I decided I would never get on a boat again in my life. From that day on, I was number one in my class at every school I ever went to.”
He went on to be a structural engineer, building hospitals, roads and other important things throughout Cairo. He chased love and dreams to the United States, wanting to continue building. He could ace written tests but struggled in interviews because he could not yet speak English.
“Are you sure you have time to hear this?” I wasn’t sure because I am never sure I have the time for anything, a modern -itis of some sort.
But I lied, so he took me through his early years, his first marriage, and then his second, and told me of his son who lives in Edmonton.
Joe has visited him, but not very often.
“Oh because of the pandemic?” I asked.
“No,” Joe looked at me like I had a finial loose. “No, not that,” he said slowly. “Because it is cold.”
Joe bought this lamp repair business fifteen years ago on Craigslist. He is separated from his wife.
He paused, looking at his watch. “It is lunchtime. Would you like to join me?”
While Joe locked up with a Mr. Rogers intention, I texted my oldest: I’m having a funny day and am going to lunch with my lamp repairman.
She texted back to be careful.
Life translates so poorly into text.
While we walked two blocks to a hole-in-the-wall lunch place, Joe told me of his recent month-long trip to Egypt.
“Where did you stay?”
“Ah, it’s that my family owns an island. So I stayed there. I have a house on the beach.”
“Oh wow. That sounds amazing. How big is your family?”
“I’m not really sure,” he seemed to be doing some addition in his head. “Maybe 2,500 people?”
I asked if he would move back, picturing his big family eating freshly-caught fish beside the sparkly Mediterranean while he lives out his American dream, here alone.
He just might.
As we said goodbye, Joe gave me a big hug. He said he hoped we would see each other again. I flickered through thoughts of other lamps I could break.
Driving home, I thought about how I’ve Amazon-primed my way out of dozens of Joes.
How easy it is to rush through a task, a day, a to-do, a life in the name of getting something done, but that there’s a wide divide between busy and living.
And oh right: how doing something in real life is just that — real life.
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