This old house is short on outlets, so we’ve added them whenever we’ve done anything to the house. But in the bathroom we were limited to adding only one, which gave us a whopping two outlets, and both of them are inside medicine cabinets (another addition), because that’s the only place they’d fit and we weren’t about to tear up the entire wall because, as anyone who’s ever worked on an old house knows, that’s the first step down the slippery slope that ends in taking a torch to the whole thing and starting over. But at least that brought the bathroom up to par with the rest of the rooms, which all started out with only two outlets per room. I guess people back in the day had to make a choice: recharge the iPod or plug in the toothbrush. In our bathroom is a 6-outlet plug that is plugged into a single-gang outlet so we don’t have to make Sophie’s choice with regard to our bathroom personal appliances. Those kinds of outlets end up wearing out and not working very well, and we use it only to plug in the hair dryer, Sonicare (a periodontal gift from Heaven to all mankind within shouting distance of electricity, and it does wonders on jewelry, too; I used to have a separate brush just for cleaning my few pieces of jewelry, but after a while I figured Captain OCD wouldn’t mind sharing his for such a noble purpose – those brush heads are expensive – and it turns out that he couldn’t care less), and curling iron. Today I bought a new 6-outlet plug so we wouldn’t have to jiggle the hairdryer plug to keep it working. At most, a 1-minute replacement job, which involves nothing more than unscrewing a center screw, replacing the expansion outlet, and screwing in the center screw.
Except not. For various reasons having to do with old houses, the remodeling process, and my short attention span, the outlet required a half-assed collection of shims to keep it securely fastened. The new expansion outlet wouldn’t sit flush and tight, never a good thing when plugging something in to and out of it several times a day. So I rigged up a different shim process involving longer screws and a series of nuts and re-screwed in the expansion plug. Then, like I always do, I went too far. Crap, stripped the screw.
Except not. When I pulled the plug off, the entire plastic part of the underlying outlet came with it, leaving just the 186-year-old metal guts, with wires attached, in the wall. If left this way, things could get interesting when plugging in the hair dryer if we happened to be sitting in a sink full of water. Or standing on a dry floor. Lucky for me, it was windy and the power was out, and had been for about an hour, which is why I’d undertaken this 1-minute job – the power was out so I had nothing else to do. But how long might it stay out? To turn off the power to this house, I have to go down in the scary, creepy basement, kick a path to the work bench, find something to stand on so I can climb on top of the greasy, dirty bench, climb up, give Jesus and God new middle names because I just kneeled on the sharp bits of an old irrigation clock, a broken pipe wrench, and what could very possibly be half a skeleton of an opossum, and try to not fall face-first into I-don’t-want-to-know-what-else is piled on that bench while I reach through the spider webs to flip all the breakers because nothing is labeled and the last time I flipped the main switch I then cut one of the baseboard heaters off the wall (220: because, apparently, back in the day 110 volts was for sissies) with a pair of pruners. Which is when I discovered that the main switch controlled everything but the 220 baseboard heaters, and there’s hardly anything “main” about that at all. A friend of Captain OCD’s was installing carpet in a back bedroom and he was slow to venture out to see what the flash and the bang and the “Shit!” was all about. He’s kind of shy and wasn’t looking forward to having to stand around while he waited for the coroner to arrive. But I’m not stupid: I made sure that I was holding on to the rubber-coated handles of the pruners while I cut a live 220 wire off the wall. I’d like to say that’s the last time that ever happened.
I obviously can’t leave the broken outlet as it is. The power is still out so here’s a good chance to wire in a new one without the risk of contracting rabies in the basement. But how long will it be out? Will I be in the middle of removing – with a metal screwdriver, in a metal box – two wires from the metal guts of an ancient outlet when the power comes back on? That wouldn’t kill me (or we’d find out what my heart was made of), but it would be damned uncomfortable. I’m willing to take my chances, though, because I still have a bruise (but not nearly in great enough proportion to the pain under it) from the last time I shut off all the power and stepped back down, in the dark now, onto the round valve box that I’d used as a booster step and missed, flipping the edge of the thick, dense plastic straight back into my shin.
There is nothing difficult in wiring an outlet. Strip the insulation off the ends of the wires, bend them into a loop, put them under the screws on each side of the outlet, screw the screws down tight, and you got yourself some accessible power. So the only reason I can figure out for why it takes me at least half an hour, per wire, is that I’m a moron. The wires I cut off (because I’m working fast lest the power come back on), done by someone who knew what he was doing long ago, have lovely loops that look as if they were factory made. I need to watch someone who does this for a living (or look for a how-to on YouTube) to learn what surely must be a trade secret. I’m good at stripping wires because I asked for nifty wire strippers for Christmas and my mom got them for me. But I’ll never make a living forming lovely loops. I can’t get the wire under the screws, or I put it in backwards (because I’m spatially retarded) and every turn of the screw forces the wire out from under it because my loop was so lame to begin with. A pocket knife (Wire strippers? For amateurs. But that’s me!), wire cutters, and a screwdriver, I’ve been told multiple times, are all one needs to make quick work of the procedure. But I have to make a dozen trips to various rooms to collect tools that all inexplicably become essential to my pathetic process.
Six thick nuts, two longer screws, a new outlet (again, looking forward to the search strings that hit this), a small piece of a plastic shim, and an hour and a half later we’re back in business. At least I hoped so, although I wouldn’t know for sure until the power came back on. But no surge of electricity had stopped my heart. For future reference, though, when your power goes out while you’re boiling a big pot of water for pasta, remember to turn the stove off before you leave to eat dinner somewhere in town where the juice is flowing, or when you pull back in your driveway a few hours later you’ll be happy to see the lights on, but you’ll wonder why all the windows in your house are steamed up.