The new lights on the stairs.

Center of the Universe (57)

Duncan goes electric. With the help of Wendy’s Steve, maestro of four strings and Romex wire. For the full load, chapters 1–57, all in one long scroll, flip your switch to here: https://medium.com/@robertduncansf/center-of-the-universe-1-7-3fa8c3c5b46c

//////////

Dynamo

Steve keeps an even keel. Today, raising his volume slightly, in spurts, he’s as excited as he gets. What he’s excited about is his pre-amp kit arrived from China. Christmas in October. Putting together a Dynakit with his dad is what got Steve started in all this.

All this is electricity. In addition to playing standup bass — acoustic, I’ll point out — with the redoubtable Ms. Wendy, Steve is an electrician. An accomplished one. He tells me when he applied to be an apprentice and revealed that, while he had no professional experience, he used to put together Dynakits, the master’s eyes brightened to about 1600 lumens, and the youngster got the job.

With Steve, the stories flow like 110. I know because, for this job, I’ve volunteered as his apprentice. I retrieve hammers, screwdrivers, wirecutters, staples and screws from his red canvas tool tote when he’s under the house or stairs. Sometimes I get to flip the breaker switches or help pull wires through walls. I have no known aspirations to become an electrician, but a week ago I did buy a tote just like my master’s.

Roni and I have been cleaning, sorting and fixing our house intensively for the last three months, ever since we officially dropped the shameful rental in the city, where we spent most of the last five years. Shameful, because we couldn’t afford it. More shameful, because we were cheating on a 34-year marriage to a wonderfully freaky village of 7,000 named for a wayward Scottish Lord, an exurban idyll in the redwoods, 23 miles northwest of Gomorrah. No doubt San Francisco was fun, going out to eat and drink and see cool new bands and contemplate German Art After 1960 and being carried along within the amped-up evening crowds in the Mission. And it was sure a mercy, when the merriment overtook you, to not have to climb in a car and run the law enforcement gauntlet on the other side of the bridge or drop a bundle on a last-minute hotel room. It was exciting (a word I tend to use somewhat indiscriminately that Steve is now using indiscriminately, while denying it is ridicule). Tons of fun. But in the end left you a little hollow.

Electrically speaking, Steve has transformed our world. He has replaced the outlets in Josey’s room that got burned out — actual flames shooting from the socket — years ago when a tree knocked out the transformer at the ramshackle, rundown house across the cul de sac — the hippie house (as opposed to the ramshackle, rundown house right next door — the racist house). One of the tenants rushed over to assure me he’d take care of all costs. Everything will be cool. And if I always suspected that crazy crashpad harbored shady enterprise, I became simultaneously more suspicious and more disarmed by the offer. Later, when I showed him the full extent of the damages, and the estimate, he became less interested, even resentful, like I was trying to scam him, and abruptly moved away. Steve has fixed the three-way wall lamps on either side of our bed. On Roni’s side, you could only turn it on by meticulously dialing to a spot between clicks. On my side, the bulb had exploded and, as a neglectful, unhandy homeowner, I had left the jagged stub in for five years. Maybe ten. He extracted the debris and somehow made the lamp work again. And if I’d long ago given up reading paper things in bed — the busted bulb just one more excuse to switch to books on the iPad — it was still a revelation to see the mess that’s my half of the bedroom.

Steve made the exhaust fan in our bathroom work — the GFI switch had been tripped, five years ago. Ditto for the electric heater. In addition to Josey’s carbonized outlets, Steve replaced the pair in the living room floor that would no longer grip the vacuum cleaner plug or the lights for our Festivus pole. He added a more convenient, and grounded, outlet in the guest bedroom and a circuit to the sub-panel. He made the lights on the lower deck work (corroded connections). And this afternoon we’re midway through installing new lights on the outside front stairs (so no one breaks a neck) before we, before Steve, installs more on the back stairs and path. There used to be lights on the front steps, but the carpenters who replaced the rotten stairs made the executive decision not to replace them, and I didn’t notice till years later. Too caught up in Gomorrah.

Steve doesn’t just work with electricity. He loves electricity. As he toils, he doesn’t talk about sports or girls. He talks about men — dead men, electrical engineering geniuses like Nikola Tesla, who pioneered x-rays, wireless and alternating current (the AC without which, among other things, the Australian band might have gone half-named) and Philo Farnsworth, who invented TV on Green Street, four blocks from our former apartment. Talk about Farnsworth leads to talk about Marconi and the Marconi Conference Center in Marshall, the local landmark that used to be the telegraph receiving station for the entire west coast and was later taken over by the Synanon cult. We talk about how Tesla (without whom Elon’s cars might be called Muskmobiles) died broke, ripped off by General Sarnoff. And it becomes as clear as halogen that Steve doesn’t just love the work and science. He loves the whole package.

Steve’s family arrived in the Bay from Iowa when he was 13. And when you listen to his stories for a day or three, you have no doubt about the cliche that you can take the boy out of the country, but not the country out of the boy. One afternoon we were making a dump run in Steve’s El Camino — his wobbly, rusty 1972 El Camino (no Dream-Cruise showboat for Steve) — and he told me how he got together with Wendy, a piano player who’d lost her bassist.

Even when it was world-famous, heyday of the Dead and Van Morrison, the county’s music community was small and tight. So it wasn’t long before someone mentioned Steve to Wendy, and, musically speaking, it clicked. After all, Steve’s really good. Weekends they’d gig, including the back room at Sorellas Saturday nights. Wednesday afternoons he’d pilot the El Camino north to her place in Fairfax from his in Tam Junction — a half-hour, in good traffic — and they’d rehearse. One day after practice she offered to cook him dinner and, for accompaniment, poured a couple glasses of Napa’s finest. He wolfed the dinner, but turned down the wine. Anyone else, you’d guess they’d been pulled over a bunch. Maybe even done a night inside. Learned a lesson. But, with Steve, it just seems like one more Iowa thing: an earnest, Midwestern respect for the law. The weekly dinners went on, without the vino, but then one day, without comment, the piano player plunked another big glass in front of her bassist.

Steve protested. No, sorry. I can’t drink this. I have to drive, he said.

And Wendy looked at him.

And Steve said, I have to get home. If I drink this, I won’t be able to.

And Wendy looked.

No, really, he explained, in his earnest, even-keeled way. If I drink this, I’ll have to stay here.

Now Steve is fully aware that — for all his nights in the wild and wooly precincts of jazz and pop, for all his hepcat lingo about cats and gigs and bad scenes — he remains, deep down, an unreconstructed hayseed. It’s certainly part of his charm. But eventually, with Wendy, he got it. That was five years ago.

But his charming naivete is nowhere more apparent than in the other romantic tale he tells — between tales of electricians. Turns out, Steve was married once upon a time — but married like a guy in a blues song. And, just like the songs, exactly like the songs, as if the songs were her instruction manual, the bride took all his money — via his credit cards — as well as his car and, in the middle of the night, without warning, lit out for parts unknown, leaving Steve no forwarding address, a teenage daughter from her previous marriage and a sheaf of unpayable bills. Yet somehow — aw shucks — he doesn’t even seem mad.

Speaking of passion, a long time ago, in the early days of personal computing, when I was getting started as a writer, with a newborn and my own unpayable sheaf of bills, my father and brother collaborated to buy me a computer. A 40-pound “portable” called a Kaypro. At first, I resented the thing — and them — because I thought I would’ve been much better off with the cash and my old typewriter. But the Kaypro forced me to learn about computers and, more importantly, within a few weeks enabled me to write faster and more efficiently, to cut and paste and revise to my black heart’s content, without benefit of Wite Out or scissors and glue. In the end I came to love computers — not in the way Steve loves electricity, perhaps — and I just assumed, as an electro-phile, Steve would feel the same. When he shrugged that he didn’t know much about these latter-day marvels of electricity, I assumed it was Iowa modesty talking. Later, we sit at my desk ordering light fixtures online. I slide the laptop over to Steve, because he’s the one who knows best. He touches the trackpad, and it jumps to another tab. He touches it again and sends us from low-voltage lighting units back to major appliances on the home page. Flummoxed, he drags his index finger impossibly slowly down the trackpad, and I grab the laptop back — a turn of events he greets, not with pique, but relief.

Iowa strikes again.

But Steve wasn’t just any country boy. Yes, they lived in a big farmhouse — Steve, two brothers, a sister, mom and dad. But it was at the edge of a small city, a place where Steve’s grandpa owned the radio station. KWDM (Western Des Moines), second floor of an old two-story downtown building. Think about all those wires and plugs and dials and guys wearing urgent little headphones. Imagine a big microphone with the station’s call letters. Picture the “On the Air” sign lighting up as you walk by holding mom’s hand. And then imagine your grandpa puts your dad to work running all this. As son of the KWDM station manager, son of the dad in charge of all those wires, dials and guys in headphones, here in west-central Iowa, not a pancake-flat mile from vast, lulling cornfields, how could you not fall in love with electricity?

Steve’s dad seems like an interesting guy. After Grandpa sold the station in the early sixties, his father, a high-school grad, decided to go to college, emerging with a Masters in Divinity. Found a job as a preacher in Des Moines — Steve remembers him searching for peace and quiet to compose his sermons. And then the preacher — surely a progressive one, perhaps too much so for west-central — was offered a job in faraway Northern California, running the regional office of Planned Parenthood. That’s when they all moved to Tam Junction in Mill Valley.

Steve liked rock ’n’ roll. He listened to it while he smoked the pot he also liked. He adapted well to life in the late sixties and early seventies in California. He went to Tamalpais High School, where he decided to play bass and had a teacher he loved and admired (and eventually played alongside) who said to start with standup. Electric bass players are a dime a dozen. Standup players are hard to come by. So you’ll always have a gig. And that led to Steve joining the Tam High jazz band and liking jazz and, well, always having a gig. These days, more than he can handle — five nights a week in bars and restaurants, plus afternoon weddings, company parties and the like. He’s that rarest of musical talents: one who makes a living. Does electrical work just to get himself out of bed.

Steve keeps an even keel. But he’s excited about the new CD he recorded with the esteemed Bay Area pianist Dick Conte that he brings to us one October morning. The album, Blue in Green, is a treatment of Bill Evans material and was recorded at Fantasy in Berkeley, where the master also recorded. Dick Conte, Steve tells me, used to live next to Bill Evans’s heroin connection. Sometimes he’d see the great man stopping by. Steve loves Bill Evans. So do I. One time I checked my iTunes stats and discovered my number 1 through 3 most-played songs were by Evans. Wendy and Steve play “Waltz for Debby.” They’re playing tonight. Needless to say, we’ll be there.

/////