June 21, 2009

Philco’s Revenge


There was no dramatic hiss and fizzle about it, no shower of sparks. There wasn’t even a resigned wheeze and sputter or whiff of ozone. There was nothing at all—just a simple, cold silence on Saturday afternoon when I hit the button that had turned my computer on every day for the last ten years or so.

            After trying everything imaginable to kick start it again, Morgan and I gave up and went to the bar. There was nothing else to do.

            The next morning we packed up the computer and dragged it into Manhattan to the repair shop, where employees openly chortled in derision at my ancient, outmoded machine before telling me that the power source was dead.

            “So . . . can you sell me a new power source?”

            The kid in the bandanna who likely wasn’t out of grade school when I bought the computer shook his head. “They don’t make those anymore.”

            “Oh,” I said. “So . . . can you repair it?”

            I might as well have asked him if he could fix my abacus. He shook his head again. “It wouldn’t be worth the cost.”

            This is what I get for stubbornly clinging to technology that was discontinued a week after I bought it. If it was a computer I’d bought two months ago, there would be no problem. Bastards.

            Fortunately for me there are a few people out there who are just as stubborn as I am, because later that afternoon Morgan discovered that the part we were looking for was being sold by some antique computer dealer in California. She placed the order, and all was well. Only problem was, it wasn’t going to show up for a week.

            For all my whining about the corrupt and corrupting nature of technology, the irony was not lost on me. In a fair fight, philosophy is always beaten bloody by practicality. But at least I had an excuse—because of the eyes, all my work is done, and has to be done, on the computer. I have no alternative. Pen and paper are all but useless. Typewriters are useless. And all my communication regarding that work takes place via the same machine—I can’t dictate stories to an editor or have them detail line edits to me over the phone. The business no longer works that way. Given that I (just as stubbornly) refuse to own a Blackberry, smart phone or any other such device to pick up some of the slack, I had been quite abruptly set adrift.

            It could have happened at a far worse time, I had to remind myself. I wasn’t in the middle of a major project. I didn’t have any immediate deadlines bearing down on me. There were a few things that would need to be postponed, maybe, and I was expecting to hear about a few things, but nothing that was going to kill me. I hoped, anyway.

            Still, there’s nothing quite like having your computer die on you unexpectedly to illustrate just what alienated slaves we have become to these things. I was looking at a week during which I would not be able to do a lick of work, I would be cut off from 99% of what little communication I still had with people, and I would be forced to learn what was happening in the world via the television—which meant I’d be kept up to date on baseball scores and fashion trends, but little else. It wasn’t going to be fun.

            I tried making a list of errands and projects to keep me occupied, but there wasn’t much there to work with. I could do the laundry, I supposed, and sweep the floor. Buy the occasional groceries. But that was hardly a week’s worth of activity. The brain is a terrible thing. You don’t keep that fucker distracted, it starts chewing on itself. I knew that well enough, and wanted to take whatever steps were possible to prevent it.

            Monday morning I got up, showered, ate, had a couple of cups of cold coffee, sucked down a few cigarettes, then went into the next room and destroyed a piece of antique furniture with my bare hands.

            That sounds worse than it actually was. It wasn’t a valuable antique. Not anymore, anyway. It was a huge console radio from the 1930s that I’d found on the sidewalk about seventeen years ago. Lovely thing, really, whose complex dials promised I’d be able to pick up signals from Stockholm and Paris. Nowadays it was completely useless as anything but an end table, since someone had long ago removed all the tubes. That’s okay—I needed a place to set stuff. But the legs were giving way, the radio was posing a serious threat to nearby toes and to the surge protector nestled beneath it. So I dragged it into the middle of the room, tipped it on its side and wrenched the legs off. Not the prettiest operation, but there it went. Then I swept and moved the legless radio back into place.

            “Well,” I said aloud, “that killed about ten minutes.”

            Figuring that was enough for the day, I took a nap. Then I started drinking.

            The next day I decided to try and find a bookstore I’d heard about in Carroll Gardens. I likely wouldn’t have been able to see a damn thing in the store and I can’t read books anyway, so it was a pointless gesture from the get-go, but still. An hour later it became a useless gesture only multiplied by the fact that I couldn’t even find the damn store. So I walked home over the Gowanus, and took another nap. Then I started drinking again.

            Morgan, who knows me better than anyone, was worried I might be in bad shape by the end of day one, but to her surprise and my own, I was doing okay. I wasn’t banging my head or cutting myself, and I wasn’t immobilized with depression. A little drunker than usual, maybe, but who could tell?

            As the days passed I was finding more things to do and new ways to keep myself occupied. There were small tasks around the apartment that had needed doing for years, but I’d always had an excuse to ignore them thanks to that insidious machine. Why clean out all the shit under the bed when I haven’t checked the AP wires in ten minutes? My god, something big might’ve happened!

            In fact as the days passed, it got easier and easier to live without it. I still wondered about the work I was missing (I was expecting to hear from my editor about the next book and my agent about something I’d sent her a week earlier), but apart from that, what was I missing? The gory details of another family slaughter in Ohio? Gossip about a celebrity I never heard of? Pfeh.

            There were moments, of course—hours, even—when the brain would start to chew on itself. There were several times when I came up with unbelievably brilliant opening lines or bits of dialogue or entire scenes, but had no place to jot them down. And there were times when I stepped outside looking for a cheap distraction, but the distraction (in the form of other people) turned out to be so goddamn aggravating that I turned around and went stomping home with my teeth gritted and my fists clenched. As usual.

            There was also the drinking. And the drinking.

            But all in all, lost opening lines aside, it was kind of a relief not to be tied to the wicked machine all day. So much so that when the replacement part for the computer arrived, I was less than elated. I wasn’t exactly disappointed—I certainly had work to do—but I didn’t go jumping all about the apartment the way I might have a few days earlier.

            Now that Morgan’s come over and plugged everything in and got it up and running again, here I sit. I’ve been here all day, and will be here for most of the week. And I’ll be pining for the days when I could sit down on the floor and destroy a piece of antique furniture instead. Of course maybe that’s what I’ll do to this thing if it craps out on me again.


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