We were having sneak-out-of-work-early drinks at Al’s, and I was explaining to my fellow shirkers why we paid an electrician to change the lightbulbs in the Cortland house. “Look,” I said, “it’s not like you just stand on a chair and screw in a GE 60-watt. The recessed art-lighting fixtures in our house are like a Rolls-Royce jet engine, one-third scale, with wires and tubes and transformers running all over them. And we have 12-foot ceilings. Who has a ladder that tall? Then the bulbs are some kind of special-order, only-to-be-found-in-New-York type that you can’t just run over to Elliott’s and have one of the old men point you to the right aisle.” I flagged down Danny for another round. “Plus, I’m too busy.” There were appreciative murmurs of assent to that comment, and we all looked at our Blackberrys to see if things were blowing up back at work in our absence.
“Except that, like everything else,” I continued, “it’s gotten way out of hand.” I recounted the conversation I had had with my wife the previous evening. Me to wife: “I noticed in Quicken that we paid $1,400 to the electrician last year.” Wife: “Well, that was one check.” Me: “What do you mean, ‘one check’?” Wife: “They come out once per quarter.” Me, suddenly engaged in the conversation: “You mean we spend $5,600 per year changing lightbulbs?” Wife: “Probably closer to six, so figure $500 a month.” Me: “You’ve got to be [freakin’] kidding me!” Wife: “But you have to remember, that includes the lightbulbs.”
Laughter. It was a great line. My wife is a genius at them. And it lessened some of the sting of the ridiculous expense to share her line with my friends. “It’s almost like he’s on your payroll,” Phil said. “Next thing you know,” I said, “he’s going to be asking for stock options.” “No, seriously,” Phil insisted, “how many people do you have on your payroll at the Cortland compound? I see people crawling all over that place every time I drive by.”
“How do you define ‘payroll’?” I asked. “Twelve grand a year,” Ed volunteered. “Anyone you’re paying more than a grand a month is officially an employee.” “Well, then, the electrician is out,” I said, brightening. Danny came over, unbidden, with another round. There’s a reason we go to Al’s. “What’s the number?” Phil wouldn’t let it go. “Three,” I said. “The nanny, the housekeeper, and the yard man.” I paused. Hadn’t done the math until just then. I added, “Thank God for illegal immigration! Can you imagine if we had to pay what the job was really worth? When something is that beautifully broken, you need to just leave it alone.”
Phil said, “Under Ed’s payroll definition, you would have to include me as an employee.” Phil is a hedge fund manager, and I have a modest chunk in his fund. Phil has a 2-and-20 fee structure. Phil qualifies on the 2 percent management fee that he scrapes off my money each year before he even gets out of bed in the morning. “And yet,” I noted, “it would be far easier to replace you than my nanny.” A silence fell over the table as we all contemplated the horror of having to find a new nanny.
After a few moments: “Four. My wife’s and my personal trainer. And he’s got you beat on fees,” I said to Phil. Ed asked, “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to have the yard man work out the wife?” I ignored him. “Five,” I said. “Technically, you’d have to toss my architect on the pile. My wife has him drawing up plans for a re-do of the kitchen, the conservatory, and my office. I’ve paid him thirty grand in the past two years, and we’ve got nothing to show for it other than a bunch of rolled up plans cluttering the closet.” Ed started to make a joke, but I stared him down over the rim of my highball glass.
It’s crazy, I know. I pay more in personal staff wages than I earned my first year on the job, by a factor of three. My wife and I refer to it as Cortland Incorporated. It costs a lot of money to keep our life running in the style in which our neighbors expect. Bernanke should call me to see if I’ve increased payroll before the Fed raises or lowers interest rates. But what’s the alternative? Do all that work myself?
It was time to go, and we had Danny pull a credit card from a stack of them we had shuffled under a napkin. It was mine, naturally. “Six,” I said, as I scribbled a tip. “You have to add Al to the list.” Thankfully, though, that includes the drinks.
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