On Edge

Today my grandmother has been on edge. Typically she takes one, sometimes two naps during the day — one during the morning, one during the afternoon and early evening. Not today, though. She’s been too agitated today. So she’s spent the afternoon rearranging the kitchen cabinets. The reason?

I was installing a new phone line in the basement.

My parents, as I might’ve mentioned at some distant point in the past, moved into my grandmother’s basement. They’ve spent the past week scrubbing down the cinderblock walls and layering them in primer. Their plan is to repaint the entire basement in a cantelope color. One problem with making the basement liveable is that it had no phone lines. Oh, there are phone lines running through the basement beams, but no phone jacks, which means that oftentimes phone calls are missed as the ground floor phones can’t be heard.

They wanted a phone jack in the basement. Not a problem — I’ve wired phone jacks before. It’s actually about the easiest wiring job there is. No circuit breakers to throw, it’s incredibly difficult to get wrong as you just match the wire colors, and then you’re done. No fuss, no hassle. A quick trip to Home Depot later, I had one phone jack, and 100 feet of Cat-3 phone cable.

The wonderful thing about the basement is that it has no finished ceiling. The wooden beams are exposed, and running through them are any number of electrical cables, some thick, some not so thick. My mother indicated where she wanted the phone jack to go, and then it became a question of getting the phone cable from where I wanted it to go — the channel outside to the phone junction box — to where she wanted the phone jack. So, I started wiggling the end of the phone cable through the holes drilled in the basement beams where electrical cables ran and then pulling it through, until I got the end of the cable where I needed the phone jack to terminate.

After about ten minutes of this, and about the time I’d gotten the end of the cable where I needed it and I was about to strip the wires and wire the jack, the door to the basement opened and my grandmother peered down, then came down a few steps. “What’s going on down here? I was working in the back of the house, and I heard something. It sounded like something scraping against something.”

She was looking right at me — I was very near the base of the steps, and the phone cable was hanging from the beam above me — so there wasn’t any point in denying anything. “I’m wiring a phone jack down here.”

“What?”

“A phone jack. I’m installing a new phone jack down here, so there’ll be a phone in the basement.”

“You can’t do that. Only the phone company can do that.”

“The phone company could install a phone jack, but they don’t do that anymore.”

“Yes, they do! Yes, they do!” She gestured at the wires running through the ceiling. “They installed the phone lines a long time ago.”

I shook my head. “And now I’m installing another one.” I said it in such a matter-of-fact, don’t-argue-with-me way that she turned on her heel, went back up the steps, and slammed the door.

I didn’t tell her that I’d already added another phone jack to the network — the room upstairs that I’m going to turn into my office had no phone jack, so yesterday I wired in a jack upstairs, only that required only running a line outside straight down to the junction box.

I went back to what I was doing, namely stripping the ends of the wires and wiring the cable to the jack.

The door opened again, my grandmother came down a few steps. She said, in a voice that might’ve stopped me in my tracks when I was ten, “Allyn, you’re going to learn there are things you just can’t do here. You just don’t do them.” And then, back up the steps, and the door again slammed, leaving me alone with the phone jack and the vague thought that I had absolutely no idea what she’d just meant. I screwed the phone jack onto the beam, affixed the cover in place, and then went to figure out how much phone line I’d need to go back out through the channel outside and into the phone junction box. Then I allotted myself six extra feet, just to be careful, cut the line I’d just laid from the roll, and went to run the new end I’d made back through the channel.

It didn’t work. The channel, unfortunately, was too narrow. There was simply no way to get the phone line outside and wired into the box.

Fortunately, on the other side of the basement there was the relic of some previous experiment with the phone lines — a strange junction box mounted onto one of the beams. That box connected a line running from outside and a line running from the kitchen. Could I wire the new jack into that junction box? There seemed to be no reason why I couldn’t? It’s a junction box, after all — that’s what it’s made for.

So, I undid all the work I’d done — took the jack off the beam, unhooked the wires, pulled the line back through all the holes drilled in the beams, and then began, from the junction box to lay the wire through the beams on that side of the basement in the direction of where’d I’d first placed the new phone jack.

In what must be counted as one of the great cosmic coincidences, the length of phone line I’d cut based on my first, thwarted laying of the line was precisely the length I needed to run from the kitchen junction box to the place in the basement my mother had chosen for her phone jack. It took about twenty minutes to lay the line the second time, and to figure out the crazy color scheme the original installers used to wire the kitchen phone some thirty or forty years ago. Red — >Yellow and Green — >Red. Doesn’t make any sense to me, but that’s how the phone was done.

Through all this, my grandmother was agitated. Something was going on in the house, something over which she had no control. What could she do, except rearrange the kitchen cabinets? And because she was agitated, she couldn’t take a nap — she’d get no sleep if she tried.

Occasionally, she’d stop what she was doing and yell at anyone nearby over slights, real or imagined. The only thing to do, in circumstances like that, is to ignore them.

She’s taking a nap now, even though it’s well past seven. The kitchen, however, is a wreck from the leftover items from the cabinet rearrangement.

The phone line in the basement works. And works beautifully. It’s a short-term solution — I still want to redo the old phone lines, and that would mean putting in a new wiring block in the basement. But that’s not a problem for today.

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