Friday, January 10, 2014

Just Say No To Lightbulbs

"Welcome to 2014 everyone," said the tweet. "Remember: pot is now legal and lightbulbs aren't."

Russ, the tweet's author, was referring to Colorado's new law allowing recreational marijuana use, and the federal ban on 60 and 40 watt incandescent lightbulbs. Both laws went into effect on January 1st. The ban was part of a 2007 law that eliminated 100 watt incandescents on January 1, 2012, and 75 watt bulbs exactly one year later.

This was a lot different from the 1970s, where we had been frightened by anti-drug films, but used incandescents like they grew on trees. Now, nearly four decades later, everything had been turned on its head. You could buy marijuana for recreational use, but we were about to start a War On Bulbs that could make the War On Drugs look like a slap fight.

I called one of my more disreputable friends who knew about such matters, to see if he could help me find someone to interview for this column. Two hours later, he texted me back, directing me to a greasy diner, with a few more details.

I waited at my table, pushing around some scrambled eggs and underdone hash browns for 20 minutes, but it didn't look like my guy was going to show. I was just getting up when a man who had been sitting two tables away came over and sat down.

"You the guy looking for candy?" he said.

"No, I just ate," I said.

He shook his head. "No, candy. Lightbulbs. In-CAN-descents. Can-dee."

"Um, sure?"

He sighed. "You're the journalist, right?"

"Are you Corky's friend?" I asked. The man nodded silently.

"What's your name?" I said.

"Uh-uh. No real names."

"What should I call you then?"

"Willis Whitney," said the man.

"You mean the guy from 'Breaking Bad?'"

"No, that's Walter White. Willis Whitney invented a treatment for lightbulb filaments to improve its performance in 1903. I took his name as my street name."

"So not the 'Breaking Bad' guy?"

"No."

"What if I made jokes about 'Breaking Bulb?'"

"I'd shank you."

"Understood."

We stood up and I threw some bills on the table. Whitney was taking me to a bulb dealer's house so I could get a better understanding of how the incandescent black market worked. As we drove, Whitney told me a few basics.

"Candy costs anywhere from 10 to 20 bucks apiece, depending on the wattage. The brighter the bulb, the more it costs."

"Why do people even want incandescents?" I asked. "Aren't there plenty of alternatives."

"Some people just don't like the CFLs. They get headaches. And a lot of seniors have trouble reading by them. Some people can even get seizures from the flickering."

"And LEDs?"

"Too cold, too institutional. They don't have the warmth or romance of a glowing incandescent." Willis Whitney may have been a lightbulb dealer, but he had the soul of a poet.

"You're in luck," Whitney said. "This place we're headed is moving soon. We got word the DOE is getting ready to crack down on us, so my guy is going to lay low for a while."

"DOE? Do you mean the DEA?" I asked.

"Nope. Department of Energy." We pulled up to an innocuous-looking house. We walked in and saw a man at a kitchen table, nursing a cup of coffee.

"Who's this dude?" said the man. "Whitney, you know you can't be bringing strangers to the house. The Dimmers are coming."

"Dimmers?" I asked.

"DOE," said Whitney. "They're trying to dim our light. It's cool, Swanny. This is that journalist dude Corky told us about."

Swanny — Joseph Wilson Swan, I found out later, took his name from the English physicist who first devised a long-lasting electric light — said, "So you doing some kind of Geraldo Rivera piece on the well-lit underbelly of the illegal lightbulb market?" He chuckled at his own joke.

I explained what I was looking for, and over the next two hours, Swanny and Whitney educated me on the world of black market incandescent lightbulbs. I learned about Frosties and Clears, Globes and Pears, and a whole assortment of bulbs I didn't even know existed. I learned the demand for incandescents was filled by dealers and "light houses" all over the city, but the dealers were generally hard to pin down, since the DOE hadn't yet trained bulb-sniffing dogs. I learned how the dealers all operated independently, but the Hiram Maxim lightbulb cartel out of Maine had already begun ruthlessly organizing the Northeast.

When we finally stopped, and I had filled up several pages of my notebook — and we had interrupted our conversation so Swanny could dispense several cases of 60 watt incandescents to nervous suburbanites — Whitney drove me back to my car.

"So what made you get into this life? What drove you into the candy black market?" I asked, as I got out.

"Same as everyone else. It's all about the Edisons, baby," said Whitney. "It's all about the Edisons."



The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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