I am not a handy man. As I see it, as a scholar I felt it was more important to enrich my mind than to learn how to fix things.
Second generation Americans lived by a sacred creed: Make sure your children graduate from college. Get that degree!
It seemed like a good plan. I gathered up college credits and went off to face the world armed with a degree and $40,000 worth of college loans.
I remember scouring the help wanted ads. “Thirty-five thousand salary plus benefits to the right candidate!” they would promise. I remember my first job interview.
“So, tell me Rick, what skills do you bring to the table? How can you help us here at Acme?”
“Well, I’m pretty good at trigonometry.”
“Son, we fix trucks here. What do you know about trannies?”
“Well, my Uncle Frank is a really eclectic dresser,” I said.
“We’ll call you.”
“OK, but I am going to need five weeks’ vacation and green M&Ms in my dressing room. By the way, my cosine said this would be a good day if I didn’t go off on a tangent. Get it?”
The guy shook his head sadly.
Needless to say, the call never came, nor did countless others. While I and the other smart kids languished in the schoolyard, Tony, Ralphie, and the like — the kids we thought were dumb — grew up and became rich. Tony is a builder. Ralph is a mechanic. And Paulie — jeesh! Paulie is a plumber. He’s like, a billionaire.
But there are very few openings for linguists, or trig or physics majors.
The truth is, I never took a shop class. Being in Catholic school, it was more important for us to learn about things that we could use in our grown-up years, like how many thousands of hours you have to spend in purgatory if you get caught stealing cigarettes from Murray’s Candy Store.
I have told this story many times and no one believes me, but it is true. I thought a Phillips head screwdriver was Phil Head’s screwdriver. Since none of the stores carried Rick’s screwdrivers, I never had one of my own.
Nevertheless, armed with this knowledge and a YouTube lesson, I attempted to fix the broiler element on my GE stove last week. I made the decision only because our appliance man retired and now lives in the south of France with several movie starlets half his age.
“Just Google it,” one of the guys told me. Yeah, that was easy. They wanted to know the model number of the stove. They wanted the part number of the broiler element.
Then they asked if it was gas or electric — god help me! As scholarly as I am, it is possible to stump me.
“Karen, do you ever smell gas?” I asked my wife, who frankly was more than a bit dubious I could fix the damn thing.
“Yeah, every night when we go to bed,” she answered earnestly.
Based on that information I ordered the wrong part, of course, and blamed it on Karen. It took two weeks to get the right parts. Now came the challenge — the installation.
“Pull the unit away from the wall and open the back panel,” the directions read.
I stared at the stove. On its right was a cabinet, flush against it. The dishwasher was right next to it on the other side. I couldn’t get my hand in between the two to move the damn thing. When I finally yanked the thing out away from the wall, I climbed behind it and went to take off the rear panel.
You guessed it. The screws were not the Phillips shaped I had so recently mastered. They were not regular screws. They were square. Honestly, in all my years I have never seen a screw with a square head. Even Phil Head would have been baffled, and he’s like, the Father of the Modern Screwdriver.
While I was mulling over my next move wedged into this tiny spot between the kitchen wall and the stove, Karen began vacuuming the floor where I was standing, the vacuum head slamming into my ankles and ripping flesh off my legs.
Thus, one of the great conundrums of American life surfaced. If the stove is flush to the dishwasher on one side, flush to a cabinet on the other, and flush to the back wall, how did all that food fall behind it and rot?
I ended up ordering a new stove, but I must confess I am a bit worried what is going to actually be delivered. The conundrum is like the chicken and the egg, or the one about the tree falling in the forest.
Is it an electric stove or gas? How does one ever really know the answers to the mysteries of life?
Rick Murphy is a six-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award as well as the winner of first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspaper Association of America and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.