May 5, 2024

Sabatino and Mario are friends.

I met Mario first. The other day as I walked our younger dog on the sidewalk by our house, a man  emerged from a house across the street. That house changed hands last year, and the new owners, who I think are architects, are doing a lot of work on it.

“Hi,” said the man, who was a bit older, perhaps 70, and did a good job filling out his work clothes.

“Hi,” I replied. “What are you up to?”

“We are rewiring this house,” he said.

“Oh, so you are electricians? Are you available?” I asked.

“I am not the electrician. He is coming out in a bit. You can talk to him when he comes out,” he said. He said his name was Mario. We shook hands.

A few minutes later a second man came out of the old brick house and walked through the yard to the sidewalk, and then down the street a few paces to where he’d parked his white panel van alongside the chocolate factory, across from our house. The second guy, whom Mario introduced to me as Sabatino, could not have been more physically different from the first. Mario is portly and of average height; Sabatino is tiny. They seem about the same age.

I told Sabatino my tale of woe. In our house we have a small third floor. At the bottom of the little staircase that leads up there is a light, to illuminate the stairs. There is a switch on the wall next to the light, to turn it on and off. On the third floor is another light control. The third-floor control has three light switches. One switch controls the ceiling light on the third floor. The second switch allows you to turn on or off the light at the bottom of the stairs. The third switch doesn’t seem to control anything.

This means that you can control the stairway light from upstairs or downstairs.

The third-floor switches themselves had become cracked and dirty over the years, and my wife asked me to replace them. I was at Home Depot so I bought three new switches, and replaced the cracked switches. Looked great, but the switches no longer controlled the lights at all. It turns out that three-way switches are quite complicated, and even require a special kind of switch that has three terminals to which one attaches wires, compared with two terminals on a simple switch. I had thoroughly messed the situation up. I went to our local hardware store, Lisboa Hardware, and the friendly lady sold me three three-way switches. My friend Mike dropped off a copy of Fix-it-Yourself Lighting and Electricity, a Time-Life book of which he was the editor. I took the whole switch apart again and I tried to follow the instructions to fix the switches. No luck. My wife, whose office is on the third floor, was not impressed.

Enter Sabatino and Mario. Sabatino wrote his number on a scrap of paper and I called him a few days later. He agreed to come in a couple of weeks and, on Saturday morning, he rang the doorbell. There he stood, with Mario. They both took off their shoes and went upstairs.

I showed them the situation. Sabatino went to the third floor and took apart the switches. Mario sat on the stairs and looked at the vestibule bulb, and told his friend whether the light was on or off.

But it turned into a long job, because Sabatino had to figure out which wire went where. So I got a chance to chat with Mario. Mario is one of nine children born in Italy. All of them emigrated; three to Canada, some to the United States, some to Australia. “When I go to the U.S. or Australia, I stay with family,” he said. “In Italy I stay in a hotel.”

On his first night in Canada, 56 years ago, Mario met Sabatino at a coffee shop on St. Clair Avenue, an Italian neighbourhood. Mario then worked 30 years at the Toronto Transit Commission. When he retired, he got another job with a vitamin-manufacturing company that has plants in Scarborough and Markham. Mario worked there 15 years, and finally retired a few years ago. Now he goes around with Sabatino.

“I don’t know anything about electricity,” said Mario. “I mostly keep him company.”

Mario said he and Sabatino, in all those years of friendship, have never had an argument. Several hours later, Sabatino got the switches to work. Mario helped him to carry his ladder back to his van. I paid Sabatino and shook everyone’s hand. Mario got in the passenger seat of Sabatino’s van, and they drove away.

A friend is a good thing to have.