My $14,000 Lamp
Great moments in building history: Who would have thought that a broken lamp would snowball into such an expensive repair job?
I didn’t want a $14,000 lamp, but that’s what I got.
It all started with a session of aggressive dusting. I over-Swiffered the lamp hanging above my dining-room table, sending it swinging. Little did I know that the housing, which masked the wire connectors at the ceiling, suffered from plastic fatigue.
The housing shattered into thousands of tiny white pieces no larger than flakes of red pepper. At this point, I felt lucky that this hadn’t happened during the dinner party planned for the next day. I’d just tell my guests, “Don’t worry, the bare wires aren’t dangerous.” But my luck ended there.
After an intensive month-long search for a replacement part turned up nothing, my husband said, “You know, I could make that part. I just have to buy one tool.”
“Great,” I said, once again feeling relieved. But once again, that’s where my luck ended.
The next thing I knew, a 2-ton, $12,000 lathe was being delivered to my husband’s workshop. “Well, I had to buy the right tool for the job,” he said, as if that was so obvious it needed no explanation. But did I get angry? No. I just sat back and patiently waited for my replacement part to emerge. But it didn’t.
“You don’t understand,” my husband said. “This is just the basic lathe. Now I need accessories.” It seemed that $12,000 lathe didn’t include the tools to actually make anything. With the glee of a kid with the Sears Christmas catalog, my husband started making a list of the toys he wanted. And for weeks, he sat at his computer ordering accessories—$2,000 worth of accessories. His credit card spent more time on his desk than in his wallet. Soon he knew the names of the order-entry clerks at Starrett, Enco, and Kent Industrial—and the names of all their children.
Next, an armada of FedEx, UPS, and DHL trucks invaded our cul-de-sac, and a barrage of plain brown boxes landed on our doorstep. Collets, reamers, cutters, taps, Morris tapers, drill chucks, tool holders. But although the accessories arrived on a daily—sometimes hourly—basis, my replacement part did not.
“Is that lamp going to be fixed sometime this year?” I asked, eying the taunting black and white wires, which hung there bold and bare.
“Soon. Very soon,” my husband said. “I just need a few more accessories.”
By now exasperated, I asked, “Frank, you do realize that originally that lamp only cost $29?”
“Yes,” he said. “But that was 20 years ago.” I did a quick calculation, and for his purchases to be cost effective, the rate of inflation between 1987 and 2007 would have to have hovered somewhere around 1500%, though admittedly, I didn’t major in economics. Also, I figured that with $14,000, I could have purchased 482 lamps or taken that grand tour of Europe I’ve always dreamed about. All this to replace a $5 part.
I felt trapped in a male version of the children’s classic If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you give a man a lathe, then he’s going to want a collet. If you give a man a collet, then he’s going to want a chuck. If you give a man a chuck, then he’s going to want a reamer…The possibilities seemed endless.
But then one day to my surprise, the deliveries stopped—and the lathe started. Two days and $14,000 later, I had my $5 replacement part. And although I’m happy to report that my husband did an excellent job and that my lamp looks as good as new, the next time anything breaks, I’m not even going to think about repairing it. I’ll just slip out quietly and buy a new one.
If I don’t, I’ll never get that trip to Europe.
Drawing by: Jackie Rogers