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The Last Time I Climbed a Ladder

© November 2008 Anthony Lawrence

Last week I got called into Boston to install a JetDirect print server on an old SCO system. This was not my direct customer; I was contracted by someone else.

They asked me to be there at 9:30, which is a fairly lousy time to get to Boston, but what the heck, what isn't a lousy time? Boston traffic always sucks, so fine, 9:30 it is.

I arrived a few minutes early and found a busy retail/wholesale store. Someone asked if they could help me and I explained that I was sent to install a printer. Sure, he knew about that and brought me to a point-of-sale desk with an old Wyse terminal and a brand new OKI printer still in plastic. The terminal was hooked up and working and there was a labeled network jack ready.

I looked at the adjacent desk. Same setup, but with a JetDirect in place. It was a little odd: there was a 5 port switch between the network jack and the print server. One wire in, one wire out. No reason for the switch, but oh well..

OK, so where's the Jet Direct for the new printer? He had no idea.. I stepped outside and called the guy who had hired me. I explained the situation. "No, it's there", he insisted. "Carol knows where everything is."

I went back inside and asked for Carol. Carol wasn't in yet. Carol never comes in before 10:00. Great.

Maybe someone else knows? We went off to find one of the owners. Busy guy, didn't seem happy to see me. I explained that I was here to install the printer and that we were missing some stuff. "I can't be shut down!", he warned.

Okey dokey. I'm just hooking up a JetDirect. No reason to shut him down. But what about the print server? He had no idea, but I happened to look up and I spotted a new 170X box on a shelf in his office. "That's what I need", I said.

Suddenly it all made sense to him. "Oh, then you need this, too", he offered, pulling out a new 5 port Netgear switch. Well, no, I wouldn't need that.

No, he was sure that I would.

I suppose I could have just taken the Netgear and wired it in for no reason at all. I have no idea why the others had been done that way; maybe originally someone threw in a switch because they thought more computers or printers would be added later. Or maybe the person who first installed it was just clueless. What I found amusing was the owner's insistence that I needed it to make the printer work. Of course he has no idea how any of this stuff works; it's all magic to him. That's the thing about magic though: you don't have to understand it, you just repeat the right words in the right order and things happen. Like a dog spinning around to flatten grass that isn't there, the formalities must be followed. We always put in Netgear switches when we add a printer, therefore you must need this switch.

I firmly told him the switch was unnecessary. He was still unsure, but decided to let me go make a fool of myself without it.

There were things I did need though. A printer cable and a patch cable. He didn't have either of those. I had patch cables in my car, but no printer cable. Well, that's not going to stop me: I'll hook it all up, test it with a cable borrowed from the next desk, and they can run down to Radio Shack or where ever later. I headed back toward the sales floor.

As I approached, the owner's partner was standing near the printer. He had observed me previously but hadn't gotten involved in helping to find anything.

"Look at this guy", he said, "Been here half an hour doing nothing. Who's paying you?"

From the tone of his voice it was obvious that this was just a little show for the employees. He'll intimidate me to show them that it's not just them that he controls; watch how he shows me who the boss is.

Well, yeah, except that I'm not going to play along. "Joe Smith is paying me", I said, and smiled brightly at him. Why the hell should I apologize for any time he thinks has been wasted? That flustered him just a bit, but he recovered quickly.

"Who do you think is paying Joe?", he asked, looking around at his employees to make it plain that of course everybody knew the answer. I would have to obsequiously admit that it was his precious money that was being squandered. Except that again, I don't care.

"That's not really my problem", I answered pleasantly, and walked by him.

I don't like people like that. I'm not going to cause real problems with that type, but I'm not going to let them play their little power games either. Yes, you may be lord and master of the few dozen poor souls that work in the 8,000 square feet of your dominion, but you aren't my King. Not even temporarily. You'll get whatever you paid me to do, but you'll get no fawning.

Anyway, I hooked up the JetDirect and the printer but I had no connectivity. Obvious suspicion was that the jack isn't patched in back at the main switch, so I asked where that was. Surprisingly, my man knew and took me there immediately. We had to walk by Lord and Master again; he said nothing this time.

The patch panel and switch were conveniently located in the center of the building. That's fine. Both were wall mounted, a nice professional job. Nothing unusual, except..

They were twelve feet up the wall.

As I gawked at this unexpected site, my guide dragged over a large and rickety looking step ladder. I'd have to climb the ladder, and clamber on to the roof of a little office that was under the panel and switch. "The roof will hold you", he assured me cheerily.

I hesitated. I'm 60 years old, but I'm in good physical shape. There's no reason I couldn't do this, but on the other hand it definitely didn't look safe. I could see that I'd have to stand on the very top step of the ladder to transfer to the roof. Now yes, I'd have my hands on the roof already by then, so that wasn't completely idiotic, but still.. I don't think OSHA would approve. And also, I knew I'd get my clothes dirty scrambling onto that roof.

I probably should have said "Hell. no", handed him the patch cord and told him where to stick it (port 35, of course - what were you thinking?). But.. sheesh, damn it, oh what the heck.. up we go.

Transferring to the roof was as unpleasant as I had guessed. The ladder was shaky and I had to do a bit of a cantilever from the top step. The roof was dirty, of course. I had black pants on and now they were streaked with dust. The roof did seem solid though; I wasn't concerned about walking on it. At least it wasn't bending and creaking..

After plugging in the cord, I realized that I'd have to slide off backwards and blind, feeling for the ladder with my foot. This is definitely not something anyone my age should be doing because it's not something anyone of any age should be doing. If I fell, I knew I'd be hurt badly. I briefly thought that suing the "Who's paying you?" guy was a pleasant thought, but not pleasant enough by far. I held on to the edge of the roof and waved my foot around carefully. I found the step, I didn't knock over the ladder, the steps didn't break, and a moment later I was back on the ground.

I went back to the printer, borrowed the parallel cable, tested and put the cable back where I found it. Carol showed up, a very pleasant woman. I explained what I had done, showed her what kind of a cable she needed and left the building.

As I drove off into Boston traffic, I thought again about climbing that ladder. That was beyond stupid, I decided. I'm never doing that again. Next time, I will tell them where to stick it. Even if it isn't port 35.

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-> Ladders, respect, magic and so on


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Sat Nov 1 13:44:02 2008: 4712   BruceGarlock

Wow! I got stressed just reading that. Sounds like that place has a management issue. I totally sympathize with that situation. I have had to do plenty of non-OSHA approved "installs", usually involving multiple extension cords (which OSHA really dislikes). However, it usually takes one accident to finally get people to clean up their act. Unfortunately, that usually means someone gets hurt. It's too bad some people can only see in two colors, and just react to situations.

I bet Carol doesn't get in until 10, because she likes to miss all the morning flare ups when the "big guys" are really fired up after a few pots of coffee.

The part of "throw more hardware" at the problem made me chuckle. Actually, I laughed out loud a little.. :-)

- Bruce

Sat Nov 1 15:22:23 2008: 4713   BigDumbDinosaur

The patch panel and switch were conveniently located in the center of the building. That's fine. Both were wall mounted, a nice professional job. Nothing unusual, except..

They were twelve feet up the wall.

What sort of idiot would be responsible for such a dumb arrangement? A real pro would know that the switch and panel should be at eye-level when standing on the floor, not a ladder. I'll bet the blustering boss had something to do with this. <Grin>

I hesitated. I'm 60 years old, but I'm in good physical shape. There's no reason I couldn't do this, but on the other hand it definitely didn't look safe.

Well, had it been me instead of you I would have declined. One fall for someone with a chronic bleeding disorder would be probably fatal. Even for someone healthier than me, a fall from a flimsy ladder would be serious at best.

I sure hope who ever hired you to handle this little chamber of horrors promptly paid your invoice.

Mon Nov 3 15:36:28 2008: 4734   rbailin


When you mention "top step" do you mean the topmost step that's really a step, or that top plank of wood on a ladder that's always labelled "NOT A STEP, DO NOT STAND OR SIT"?

If the former, you took a calculated risk that I wouldn't have. If the latter (no pun intended), combined with a rickety ladder (which I've had to deal with too often), you should have your head examined!


Mon Nov 3 16:46:08 2008: 4736   TonyLawrence

I mean the "really still a step".

Wed Jul 11 12:55:22 2012: 11192   bkw


When you first said no connectivity I thought the switches were going to turn out to be magic polarity fixers because neither the main switch nor the jetdirect will auto adapt but the netgearwould. Can you go back and change the story into one where it's about having to go back and use the switch after all so the customer thinks you were wrong but really you just don't want to get into rewiring the faulty house wiring or leaving him not running when there was a work-around available? No wait, never mind I've lived that story already.

It's less about getting hurt than it is about your capacity to recover these days. You'd be damaged for life today from some of the same things you'd have bounced back from in a month or six 20 years ago.

Wed Jul 11 13:08:09 2012: 11193   TonyLawrence


Not house wiring - good sized business :)

No, I've never been back. I don't think I would take any work there now.


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