In his new book of essays, “Hooking Up,” Tom Wolfe, that pretentious fop who wears white suits, white shoes and white kid gloves (even through slushy New York City winters) and who is, arguably, America's greatest-living writer, picks an electrician to typify the “new American” at the cusp of the new millennium:
“The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink. He spent his vacations in Puerto Vallarta, Barbados, or St. Kitts. Before dinner he would be out on the terrace of some resort hotel with his third wife, wearing his Ricky Martin cane-cutter shirt open down to the sternum…European labels no longer held even the slightest snob appeal except among people known as ‘intellectuals’…Our typical mechanic or tradesman took it for granted that things European were second-rate.”
American “highbrow” attitudes toward electricians seem to be leveling as electricians earn more money and seek more education. Like most casual observers, though, Wolfe seems to miss the crucial distinction between electrical contractor and electrician — that is, owner and employee. Even if you're a one-man shop, you're an owner. Electricians earn good money, but it's the owners who can vacation like sun kings if they work hard.
Better wages or not, tradesmen still suffer the slings and arrows of negative stereotypes. Dig this ridiculously snooty passage written by George Walden, a former Parliament member:
“My wife restores Old Masters. An electrician once came into a room in a large country house where she was working on a Renaissance portrait. Thinking she was painting the picture, he asked if she was famous. She said she wasn't. The electrician, a genial soul, said not to worry, one day she would be because she was a very good painter. Electricians are not deprived people. Access is not the problem, aspiration is the problem…”
Or try this snootily revised jab at electricians from English writer Michael Billington:
“Proust, you feel had an equal dislike for both the declining bluebloods and the emergent bourgeoisie. In Time Regained, he writes, ‘I had seen enough of fashionable society to know that it is there one finds real illiteracy and not, let us say, amongst electricians.’”
Though they were both written just last year, these effete (albeit British) snobbisms read like bad 100-year-old George Bernard Shaw British drawing-room comedies. It's funny how these stereotypes come from people who can't make it though a day without some sort of technical assistance.
“How many yuppies does it take to change a lightbulb? Two — one to mix the martinis and one to call the electrician.”
I like to think I have just enough skill to truly appreciate a competent tradesperson. I can change a light bulb myself (even when it involves unscrewing the fixture from the ceiling) and have even done some simple home wiring without killing anyone — yet — but I know my limitations and am always glad to pay the price for a competent professional. Besides, I can still run into trouble with supposedly simple straightforward tasks. Jump-starting a car recently gave me pause. I blamed the cable manufacturers for bad instructions and the carmaker for not labeling “positive,” “negative” and “engine block” better. But that's another story.
My older brother was a student filmmaker at New York University for a while. During the shooting of one of his films, his cameraman broke the camera and then she couldn't fix it, halting the shoot. “I'm an artist, not an electrician,” she said. Thankfully, everyone in earshot winced and returned “what-a-jerk” looks. Of course, this artiste was neither artist nor electrician, though some people manage to be both. The ultimate irony, of course, is that she would have had a much better shot at Hollywood had she had the technical knowledge to become an electrician.
Calling all clowns. For months we've been trying to inject some humor into CEE News — intentionally — but it's hard to find good, printable comedy about the electrical industry. Electrical contractors tend to be jovial-but-genteel souls, so we try not to offend. The first “funny” thing that comes to mind is a close call with electrocution, but that's only funny when an electrician's hair stands straight up, smoke rises from his clothes and black smudges mark his face. Otherwise, it's tragic. Unless, of course, there's a happy, funny-twist ending: When the Three Stooges accidentally grabbed a high-voltage cable, they winded up wearing white sheets and playing harps on a cloud.
Here's some electrician bumper-sticker lines I found on the Internet:
Electricians do it without shorts.
Electricians do it with spark.
Electricians do it to plug in.
You can see we need help. So please e-mail your best jokes and stories — all the better if they actually happened — to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll publish them (anonymously if you'd like).
Basically, we just need something better than this:
A master electrician asked his apprentice to climb up the stepladder and hold one of the two wires protruding from the ceiling. Can you feel anything?” the electrician asked. “No,” answered the apprentice. “Good. Just don't touch the other one — it'll kill you.”