I once wrote a column called “The $100 Surprise” that was mildly popular. This was less because of any intrinsic merit than because it drew attention to an intrinsic truth. Every month you seem to be on budget, all’s right with the world, and then out of nowhere — bang — The $100 Surprise. Car repair. Appliance repair. Unexpected medical bill. Baby needs a new pair of shoes. You name it.
Of course, this was several decades ago. Inflation being what it is, we are now in the era of The $1,000 Surprise, if we’re lucky. But it is still true that, as sure as you begin feeling cheerful about your finances, a costly surprise emerges from out of the blue and rains all over your parade.
My latest deluge involved a shower stall. A couple tiles had developed cracks. I figured the house had shifted a bit since there were a couple little cracks elsewhere suggesting as much. So we had a tile guy look it over, and he said it might be a two or three day job costing as much as $300 depending on our luck in finding matching tiles. He’d be able to be more precise after he peeked under a couple tiles, the shower equivalent of looking under the hood.
“Fine. Go ahead,” we said.
Famous last words. Two weeks and ten times as much dinero later, I have a refurbished shower stall. The big surprise was not in the tiles. A near perfect match was easily located. (Easily, but not inexpensively). The surprise was the cause and the extent of the damage.
Turns out the jokers who did the original tile work had applied it directly to dry wall rather than over a water resistant concrete backing. Removing the tiles disclosed a Dantesque nightmare scene of mildew and rot. The floor had also been incompetently laid so the cracks in the floor tiles were but an outward sign of a deeper malady requiring major surgery before new tiles could be installed. The greater extent of the problem also ran up the tile bill and will, of course, require the repainting of the room. Ca-Ching!
If that weren’t enough, the attempt to vacuum up the dunes of dust produced by the long, messy operation burned out for good an already geriatric vacuum cleaner. Ca-Ching! But that’s the end of the problem at last. The shower stall is fine. Except for one small sharp corner on a single floor tile that doesn’t fit quite right.
But by now I’m afraid to do anything about it. Trying to fix it could morph into a $10,000 Surprise. It might require me to buy a new roof. Anything’s possible since this episode has amply demonstrated that a tiny problem has the ability to balloon into the thing that devoured your savings.
I prefer to treat the small tiling imperfection as if it were akin to the intentional incorporation into the strict symmetry of Islamic art — weavings or tile work — of one tiny flaw, as an act of humility on the part of the artist since only God is perfect. I admit the tile guy didn’t seem particularly Muslim, but I can’t afford perfection at this point. The $1,000 Surprise for August has turned into enough surprise for September and October too. “Let sleeping tiles lie” is my motto.
So all is well. Except it’s time for my annual state-mandated car inspection. God knows what horrors that may produce. And the refrigerator is on the fritz for the third time in as many months and is no longer under warranty. And I have been warned that my eight-year-old computer is obsolete and on the brink of implosion.
If eight years were the lifespan of people, I’d be working on my fourth daughter by now. Has anyone else noticed that the more modern and high tech our gear gets, the closer its lifespan approaches that of a mayfly? When we were children our parents’ low-tech, clunky, cast iron, non-interactive, no frills appliances may have been crap by today’s standards, but they seemed to go on not just for months or years but for decades.
No more. As a result, my monthly $1,000 Surprises seem to be stacking up like jumbo jets on a busy day over O’Hare Airport. I can see my budget crashing and burning well into 2016 at this point. I’m afraid to turn on any appliance, device, machine for fear of the fresh hell that it may be poised to rain down on my Job-like noggin.
I may simply take to sitting in a tub in the marketplace like Diogenes, looking for an honest appliance. Of course, as far as history records, Diogenes had little luck in his quest, and I don’t consider my chances very much better.