A Short Story
© 2001 Richard Katz
20 Belvedere Avenue
Point Richmond CA 94801
510 236 1865
Of course I wrote it with a pen on paper. You think Im
going to throw away a couple million years of grasping meaningful
objects just to save a tree?
--- Giovanni Pirizzelatti, MD, discoverer of mirror
Thats why they call it fiction. --- Oliver Stone, Film Director, referring to the quasi-historical JFK.
He was hard at work when the phone rang.
"Do you fix computers?" the caller wanted to know.
"No, we don't." That should be the end of it, and it usually was. But there were certain sequelae.
There was "Do you know someplace that does?" There was "But your ad says ... " And there were many many more, many many more entanglements too numerous to mention. The machines' intrusions into people's lives had become so invasive that any discussion of the needs and wants of someone's personal computing equipment was an entanglement with their whole existence. Better to avoid the whole thing. When they call, asking for help, just say, "We don't." No, we don't fix computers. We don't want to know about the idiosyncrasies of your particular hardware, or the anomalous behavior of your software, and we're not the least bit interested in the fascinating project you're doing, and even less interested in how urgent it is that you get it done by such and such a date and time.
You see, gentle caller, we have a little fleet of rental computers. They're all Toshiba laptops. We know how to deal with them. We know how to heal them when they're not feeling well, and how to keep them healthy; and how to keep them feeling warm and loved and secure and able to meet the challenges of going out into the world to offices and construction sites and studios and homes and on vacations, to go to work and to play games.
If it's not one of our rental computers, then God only knows what's wrong with it.
There's enough to do, just attending to the minor ailments that the rental machines come up with.
"No, we don't," should have been the end of it then. But he added something, one last little bit he was fond of saying. "The only ones we'll work on are Toshiba laptops."
After just the slightest pause, a nearly imperceptible hesitation, the caller added, "I have a Toshiba laptop."
"Which one?" he asked immediately.
"Oh, I don't know," she responded. "It's new."
"But you're sure, you're quite certain, that it's a Toshiba?" he added.
Yes, she assured him. It's a Toshiba. She had just bought it, at J&R in New York City. Perfect! The pinnacle of computer shopping. Toshibas, traditionally so overpriced, somehow would on occasion end up being for sale, brand new, deeply discounted at the temple of cost cutting, at his fellow Jews' at J&R. Remarkable! What a good shopper!
"So, if it's brand new: You got power? Does it turn on?" he asked.
Is it, or was it, DOA -- dead on arrival, as we say in the computer trade? he mused to himself.
"Yes, it turns on. Everything works," she said, "sort of, it's just the modem. The modem doesn't work."
The source of so many a customer's complaints, the modem. He always made sure the modem worked on a rental machine before it left the store. He would take as long as it took to make sure that his rental customer was online at least. Wherever they were travelling to, well, they could usually get that going later over the phone.
"Well," he said, "if it's really a Toshiba, and it's brand new, why don't you simply send it to Toshiba, and they'll fix it? They'll fix it under warranty, and it shouldn't cost you a dime."
With the weary intonation of one who has already been through all of this, she simply said that she wanted somebody to simply fix it. She wanted somebody to simply help her out.
"Okay," he relented. "I'll tell you what: If you're willing to bring it to me, to put it in my hands, I guarantee that I'll take care of it as well as anybody else. I've been ministering to Toshibas as long as anybody else, fifteen years, and only Toshibas. I've had at least one of every one they ever made. It's the only one worth fixing; they're solid as a rock, they're the only ones that'll take a licking and keep on ticking. If it's got a .... "
She interrupted his palaver to find out where his shop was located, and made arrangements to bring her equipment in at eleven AM the very next day. By public transportation, in fact. He liked that. But as soon as he had hung up the phone, he had put it entirely out of his mind and thought no more about it.
* * * * *
She arrived at eleven the next day, just as she had arranged. She was toting her Toshiba laptop, in a factory box. They said their hello's. "So this is it?" he asked as he deftly unpacked it.
A brand new Toshiba laptop was what he personally considered a perfect example of what computing equipment ought to be. A Toshiba is not a jerry-rigged assemblage of hardware and parts that fit together physically, and have somehow been made to function with a potpourri of software, like the desktop products of Dell, or Gateway, or Compaq, or some anonymous clonemaker, or even the less successful models that had on occasion been purveyed by Apple Computer Company. No, a Toshiba laptop is designed from the ground up, every component just as integral to the whole as any part of the human body, or the body of any other organism made by God. Not one thing about it was half-assed. Rugged, too. Takes a licking, keeps on kicking. Hell, he'd seen one of his Toshiba rental units, after a fall down a flight of stairs, with the screen busted nearly in half, and you could (to that particular rental customer's great surprise and delight) still plug it into an external monitor, hit the power button, and all that customer's data was right back at his fingertips, as if nothing untoward had happened to it mentally at all. Get a replacement LCD for that puppy and she's good to go.
In the living room of his mind, he had lapsed again into mechanic's talk. I guess, he thought, I must'a spent way too much time under the hood, or behind the wheel and over the road, in one of his previous lives.
But here, in the present, this fixit customer's allegedly malfunctioning Toshiba had obviously suffered nothing so simple as a busted screen. And why was it in a factory box? Perhaps that was improbably just the way she carried it around. On public transportation? Was she some kind of bumpkin? Just as deftly as he had unpacked it, he had it plugged in to power and to a telephone jack, in less than a minute. The modem, though properly hooked up in every way, and now by an expert, did indeed refuse to function. And, the customer most earnestly assured him, "I've got to get my email."
But he'd seen it all before, been through it many a time. He didn't really want to know what had happened to her, or to her machine, or what the collateral damages had been, as her life like that of his many other fixit customers over the years, had deteriorated and been plunged into misery and uncertainty when their personal computing equipment ceased to function reliably, or at all. It was never simple, the repair business, especially so if you happened to be a sensitive soul who cared instinctively about his fellow humans. It was always messy, an entanglement. He didn't in his heart really want to delve deeply into any of this. It was not the rental business.
"Here," he said, "why don't you just take one of these rental units here, it will work just exactly like this poor wounded little Toshiba of yours is supposed to have worked? And I'll even give you a genuine laptop computer bag, clean and of good family, you can carry it around and look just like any executive from New York City."
"Will that work?" she asked, very simply.
"Yes," he replied, in the tone of voice that can only come from a person who knows exactly what they're doing, and has, as the saying goes, done it once or twice before. "It'll work. Then, you can send your Toshiba back to Dad, back to Irvine, in that genuine Toshiba factory box of yours with genuine Toshiba factory packing materials. And Toshiba-san will fix'er up good as new."
The Gordian knot itself had not been sliced through any cleaner than that.
"Okay," she said.
So they had a deal.
It would be disingenuous to describe this as a meeting of the minds. She had, in effect, put herself in his hands. Unless she had the camouflaging skills of a squid or a salamander, he was fairly certain that she did not have a clue what she was getting herself into. And he was in a position from which innumerable rogues sporting questionable ethics, who seemed to gravitate toward the computer business, had fleeced their customers. But his was a Damoclesian knife that sliced both ways: If all went well, she would be merely satisfied and would feel only that she'd gotten her hard earned money's worth; but if anything screwed up, through human error or through the vagaries of potentially malfunctioning machinery, it would all be on him and she would blame him, curse him, and stop the check.
It would all be okay, though, he thought to himself. Toshiba laptops all around.
He knew that he had to work out all the little and big details of how to get this rental machine to assume the personality of her very personal computer. But he'd done that once or twice before.
"So tell me," he asked. "What do you need this thing to do, besides get your email? And by the way, how do you hook up to the internet?"
"I have an Earthlink account," she replied.
"AOL is so much easier," he said. "But okay, here's a CD you got from Earthlink. And that's all you need?" he asked hopefully, whilst slipping a PCMCIA cardmodem into the rental machine and hooking it up to a telephone jack on his wall.
"Oh, I can do that. I've got to get going," she said.
"Nah, let me take care of it," he said firmly. "The only way to make sure it's gonna work at your place is to make sure it works at my place."
Funny thing, though, that she had not one, but two CD-ROM copies of her Earthlink software. Awful software, really, a jumble of bells and whistles --- features --- a parade of useless and cumbersome junk that he watched install itself on his pristinely reformatted ready-to-rent rental Toshiba. It was a collection of programs that junked everything up horribly and would make it just impossible for her to just go online and get any real work done.
"Why two? Why do you have two of these?" he asked, pointing to the bright ochre-colored CD-ROMs from Earthlink.
"Oh," she replied, "one of them came with it when it was new, and the other one came with it when they returned it.
"I see," he ventured thoughtfully, "you mean this thing's already been back to Dad once? And the modem, it still didn't work, eh?" This was puzzling, and no logical solution came to mind.
"It's okay. I'm sure everything will be fine," she said. "You've already spent so much time on it and I really appreciate it."
"You're paying for it," he said firmly. We'll check it out. Unless you're right around the corner; then you can bring it right back if it doesn't work at your place." He kept working on the machine, installing Earthlink's cumbersome software and going through all the steps, many of them nonsensical and self-contradictory, one has to go through to go online.
"So what kind of stuff do you do? With your computer, I mean," he asked. Christ, he thought to himself, how the hell do they expect anybody like her to figure this stuff out?
"I'm an artist. I just moved here," she replied.
I've been doing this for fifteen years, every day, he thought; and half the time I can't figure this stuff out myself. Good thing I got rid of all the options in this business. Like Henry Ford, any color as long as it's black. That's the ideal for the businessman, if the customer will buy into it.
"Yeah, I mean, what kind of programs do you run?" he asked.
It's just a rental machine, he would tell people. It's not like you're marrying it; couple days, a week, or a month, you'll be returning it; as long as it works, you don't have to fall in love with it.
All Toshiba laptops. All a little different, all very much the same. Older or younger, all the same lineage, they just got better as the years went by. The old ones never died, they just got too old to rent. Somebody always showed up to buy them when any one of them started to get a little bit long in the tooth.
Sometimes one of those old computers, those out-to-pasture Toshiba laptops that he had sold off, would come back to visit. On the arm of its owner, having suffered some catastrophic insult to its system, the old road warrior would be schlepped in, with the owner thinking that a visit with the owner of the rental shop, to the Godfather of Toshiba laptops, would revive it. And indeed, the rentalman had performed the Lazarus many a time on such superannuated specimens for their second owners, and brought them back from the grave. If not, when it was terminal, the visit transformed into an autopsy. Free from the constraint of ever having to put the machine back together again, the rentalman would disassemble it completely and with abandon. Eventually it would be revealed what component had caused the system to breathe its last. The hard drive would tick, but not start, for example; and the rentalman would look at his customer and say, with sadness and regret, that it simply could not be fixed at any reasonable cost, and he would hand the customer a brochure from a company not far up the road whose specialty was retrieving data from defunct hard drives. "No, that's okay," the customer would usually say, "I knew it was going to go, sooner or later. It's all backed up. It had been acting up lately." The rentalman would put all the stuff neatly in a box, and send the customer on his way, with a sense of closure all around. It had been his advice to them in the first place to always back up the data: If you don't back up, he always told them, you'll have to back up a long way.
This customer's ISP, Earthlink, was as arcane and esoteric as any other and then some. This was Earthlink, soon after MindSpring had acquired Earthlink and named the combined entity Earthlink. Several times the installation hit a blank wall. But with a liberal measure of expertise he got the modem to dial a telephone number that would get her online with the login name and password she already had. He shut the whole thing down, shoved it firmly sideways across the table squarely in front of her, and told her, "Now you do it."
To turn it on, he pointed wordlessly to the power button. Everything was the same as it had been on her machine, just different, or in a different place. Progress, of a sort. More like evolution, the bumbling haphazard process Darwin had popularized for finches and tortoises in the South Seas and that had come to be thought of as the way to go, for any upwardly mobile organism on the planet. Who knows, any one of these trivial innovations that differentiated his six month old rental machine from her fresh-from-the-factory machine could turn out to be the apple of the computer-buying public's eye; and thus would Toshiba America Information Systems prosper in the marketplace. As it happened here, it was merely a pain in the ass having to transmogrify the pushbuttons and keystrokes that she knew, to a similar but deconstructed set of pushbuttons and keystrokes on her rental machine. How long, he thought, would Hertz or Avis be in business if every model of car had its essential controls moved around at random? Any color as long as it's black. That'd be the ticket.
She dialed in to Earthlink and got her mail.
"Okay?" he inquired. "Yer on the 'net. We'll fill out a rental agreement, you'll be outta here. Done."
"Does it have Microsoft Word?" she asked.
"No. No, it doesn't. If you have a disk to install Microsoft Word, I'll be glad to install it for you, no charge. If you don't, then .... "
She suddenly looked impetuous, impatient, in no mood to trifle.
"My .... " was all she got to say.
"Okay," he interrupted quickly. "Okay. Microsoft Word. Word 97 or Word Two Thousand?" She looked, in addition to impatient, annoyed. Word Ninety Seven it is then," he said. "O-Kay!"
He fetched a CD-ROM of Microsoft Office 97 and popped it into the rental machine's CD drive, quickly hit a few keystrokes, and just like that, another totally unauthorized digital reproduction of Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, and Microsoft Outlook was being launched into the world. Microsoft wasn't really concerned. Everybody "needs" Microsoft Word, and Microsoft, like the Mafia in its prime, knew that they were the only game in town and if you want to do any word processing, you would eventually have to come to them. The rental shop had a license from Microsoft that allowed them to buy as many full price disks of Microsoft Office as they wished and rent them out to the public for as much as the traffic would bear, on the rental machines that they owned and with sufficient mechanisms in place to prevent unauthorized duplication. Perhaps such a mechanism actually existed; who knows? But this particular rentalman had been raised Orthodox, and he knew that what was really required here was a benediction.
"So," he intoned, mentally putting on a prayer shawl and a yarmulka, and holding piously a copy of the Microsoft Office manual, "are you the holder of a license for Microsoft Office, including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and Microsoft Outlook? Say yes." She looked at him quizzically. "Say 'Yes' or I can't let you have it. I'll erase it. I'll tell it to stop." He moved an index finger closer and closer to the Escape key.
"Yes," she said, "I am."
"Very good," he said. "Amen."
"So this is going to work just like my computer? The Word, I mean," she asked.
"I'll see to it," he replied. "I've done this once or twice before, you know."
The rental machine installed the complete suite of Microsoft Office, more or less on autopilot. He moved smoothly over to her almost-new Toshiba, and expertly swept every single one of her wordprocessing files to a single floppy disk. He copied them back to the rental machine, placing them in a neat folder labelled customerfiles. "See?" he said. "Now it's all backed up. You know if you don't back up, you might have to back up a long way." Just as soon as the rental machine had finished installing Microsoft's software, he opened the folder of customerfiles. "So which of these can I open?" he asked. "I don't want to snoop."
"Any of them," she replied. "It doesn't matter."
He quickly appraised the listing of files in her new customerfiles folder he had created for her, on her rental machine. Some of his rental customers never put any of their information on the hard drive of their rental laptop at all. They would copy a few files to a floppy disk from their desktop at home before they left, to go on their vacation or on their business trip; and the files never left that disk until they returned the rental machine. The edited files were recopied back to their desktop machine at home, a seamless and secure process all around. Some of his customers did something similar to what he had just done at the table: They would transfer files, occasionally hundreds of them, from their home or office desktop machine to the rental laptop, sometimes on a Zip disk. Then they would copy them all back again when they returned. It was an inefficient kitchen-sink approach, and it left them with dozens of files and automatically generated backup files scattered around on the hard disk of the rental machine. Sometimes they would think about this (usually not) and ask him what was going to happen to their Word files after they got their receipt for the machine's return and left. "Oh," he would assure them, "we don't even look at them. We reformat the whole drive, all the way down to an FDISK." If they seemed suspicious of this or disbelieving, he would add, "Here, let me do it right now for you, while you watch. We just pop in this CD-ROM that came with the machine when it was born, hold down the Escape key whilst turning on the power, return return return, and there she goes, repartitioned and dumb as a post. You have nothing to worry about."
And they didn't. But the majority of the customers just plunked down their rentals on the counter, got their paperwork and said their goodbye's, with not a word about their files of Word. The rentalman's spiel about reformatting was a true story, though, and solidly grounded in profit and loss. It was entirely too much hassle to deal with re-renting rental machines if the dirty sheets and pillowcases of the previous rental customer were still scattered all over the bedroom of its filesystem. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, was the real reason that this rental company rented exclusively Toshiba laptops: When a Toshiba came back from rent, you just popped in that one little disk and hit a few keystrokes and voila, just like that, it was just like new, fully functional, and good to go. Remarkable. Maybe by this time there were other manufacturers who had a similar arrangement. Hell, by this time, maybe all of them did. But Toshiba was definitely the first to convert the reformatting and rejuvenating process from a one hour ordeal requiring constant attending to intermittent tasks, to a simple set it and forget it routine. It's a system, he thought to himself. Maybe a good system always includes some built-in ways to repair itself.
But what about those folks, who had left their rental equipment, loaded with files, and waltzed away? It didn't matter, it would all be erased of course. Reformatted, in fact. But how were they to know that the rentalman was not an incorrigible and energetic digital voyeur?
As in fact he was. He had spent many many minutes riffling through the hard drives of returned rentals. He never, ever saved any of those files to disk or otherwise. But he had read pages and pages, kilobytes and kilobytes, of eavesdropped information. What had developed out of this daily voyeurism was a specialized ability to scan for juiciness. He had wired up a finely tuned network of neurons to go through the contents of a disk and "display what's juicy." Try and tell a computer to do that, all by itself, he would think to himself on these occasions. Fat chance. If you tell a team of programmers to program a computer to do anything "intelligent", to play a game of chess, say, the lead guy will say "Ok." You'll get a computer that can play chess like a computer; at least that's what Gary Kasparov said after that one time he lost to Big Blue: "I didn't feel like I was playing against an intelligent opponent." He wasn't. Nobody's ever gotten any intelligent behavior out of a computer yet. They taught Big Blue how to play chess. But at the end of the day, it was a big joke, like the joke that Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) tells in the barber chair in the film Chinatown (the punchline is, "You fuck like a Chinaman.") You could no sooner ask Big Blue to sort through some data and get some juicy tidbits as ask Big Blue to play chess like a human, or to march over into the corner and jerk off.
That "juicy" stuff, that's pretty analog.
What the rentalman did for the fixit customer's benefit just now was to scan the subdirectory of the folder of her Word files, and rank them according to descending juiciness, and then pick the bottom one -- the least juicy. With that practiced eye of his, he picked out her resume pretty quickly from the bottom of the "juicy" pile. He asked politely, "Can I open this one -- just to make sure everything's working okay?"
"Oh, let me see, sure, that will be okay, fine," she said.
And it opened, and he was satisfied and she was satisfied, and so for the moment at least, everything was digitally peachy keen.
"So what do you do? I mean, what kind of work do you do?" he asked her, as if he couldn't tell from a quick perusal of her resume and curriculum vitae.
"I'm a painter," she said simply.
"Really!" he said. "What kind of stuff do you paint? Houses? Landscapes? Still lifes? Portraits? Abstract? Figurative?"
"I'm an artist," she said, even more simply.
"Anything I can see?" he asked. "Quickly?"
"I don't have anything with me," she said.
Aha, he thought. Must be for real. All these artists, always ready to whip out a few slides. Not this one, I reckon. "Anything on the net?" he ventured.
"I heard that there's something, but I could never find it," she said.
"Mind if I have a look?" he asked, stepping over to one of his computers that had a DSL hookup to the Internet, and going to the Google search engine site.
He copied her name from the UPS label of her Toshiba box, enclosed it in quotation marks, hit the Enter key, and less than two seconds later there were nine websites referenced on his screen. The first link he clicked on came up with a jpg image, an astonishing image that hit him square over the head.
"That," he said quietly, "is amazing."
"Oh, well, thank you, that's something I did a while ago," she said.
"It's, uuuh, a molecule, but the atoms are cherries, and pears, and oranges and apples. That's amazing. That's just amazing. I've never seen anything like that. You a chemist?"
"No, I just .... "
"And it's all green. Different shades of green. This is just amazing."
"You are getting more out of it than most people."
"Well, sure, most people wouldn't .... I used to do a little chemistry. No, that's just fucking amazing."
Silence. He clicked rapidly through the entire set of images on the website. Flowers. Fanciful objects. Plainly professional.
"Hey," he said, "I'll tell you what. You take the rental machine, you leave me the new one, no paperwork, I've got yours, you've got mine, we trust each other, just like we're from Philly. I'm from Philadelphia."
"I just moved here from Brooklyn."
"Aha! Brooklyn. So I'll take care of your Toshiba, don't worry about a thing, Toshiba-sensei fix it up, I got the warranty stuff right here, no problem, you're all set. Let me give you a ride to the train station. No trouble at all. You probably got stuff you gotta do, don't let me hold you up any more, here, I'll take you, the car's right there, you ready? Don't let me rush you; anytime you're ready. Ready? Okay. Let's go."
And so he gathered up her things, expertly scanning everything in the room for items left behind, went outside and unlocked the car. The train station was only a few blocks. She got out, waved goodbye, and disappeared after the turnstile.
* * * * *
He got an RMA for her laptop from Toshiba over the phone, and sent it off to Irvine the next day. It came back a mere two days later. He unpacked it, set it up, checked out the modem on AOL, and gave her a call.
"Your laptop's ready," he told her.
"Okay," she said. "I'll be by tomorrow."
And she was.
* * * * *
And then, my friends, the problems started.
"It still doesn't work," she wailed.
"Did you .... " he started to ask, but stopped right away. He was going to ask her what she had done, to see what perhaps she had done wrong. He could always get the rental machines going over the phone, as long as the customer had their hands on the keyboard, their eyes on the screen, and their ear to the phone. Plugged in. But this wasn't a rental machine. And he did not want to put her in the awful position of guilty-until-proven-innocent that calling a computer help desk always put one in. She was already, evidently, upset.
"It doesn't work," he repeated simply. "I'll come over there, I'll make it work. Whatever doesn't work, I'll make it work. Tell me, where are you? Home? Work? Where should I go?"
"I'm in the City."
"I know that. Not a problem. I've got a car. You know that. I'll be right over. Is that a problem? We can do it later, some other time."
"No, I want to use it now. I need it."
"Okay. I'll do it. I'll be right over. Where? Home? Work? Just tell me, where doesn't it work? Just tell me where to go. Where are you now?"
"I'm in the bottom corner of the concrete building at Fifteenth and Filbert in a space called Studio Z. And I can only be here for .... "
"No, no, no problem. Don't go away. I'll be right there."
And so he closed up shop, picked up a briefcase of tools, disks and cables he took out on service calls, and took off for the City. He felt for a moment a little bit like a knight, a digital knight, off to aid a damsel in distress. But don't kid yourself, he quickly thought, she doesn't want to be rescued; hell, by this time she probably figures you caused her problems. That's just the way it is. He grabbed a superannuated laptop bag, still serviceable but a bit frayed, thinking it might make a nice present at the door.
Traffic was light.
* * * * *
Twenty minutes later he was knocking on the door of Studio Z. She let him in. The place was not a studio at all. It was surrounded by studios, the relatively vast communal studios of a bigtime art school. The Sculpture Studio; the Painting Studio; the Ceramics Studio; et sequitur, where acolytes learned the craft, and perhaps the art, or working in some medium or other. And here, sitting in the corner, the architect had carved out an apartment, carved it from the same massive concrete vocabulary of his massive concrete building's massive concrete beams and columns and integral members, an apartment-sized space just the size of the canonical "studio" apartment. Brilliant! Amongst the studios, a "studio" apartment.
This is strange, he thought. This reminds me of something. This reminds me of Professor Ian McHarg, the guy who invented Landscape Architecture, showing a slide of Hill Hall -- a women's dormitory -- at the University of Pennsylvania, where McHarg was on the faculty, and explaining in great detail the "architectural joke" that had been told with it. McHarg had summed up the story of Hill Hall by saying, "And like all other architectural jokes, it's not funny." He couldn't even remember the details, something about ... didn't matter, he just remembered that McHarg was a genius, and whatever McHarg had taught had made him exquisitely aware of what had been constructed here at Studio Z. The studios here weren't really studios, they were classrooms for the practice of art; and so this apartment wasn't really an apartment either, but you could live in it for a time, while you did something or other that allowed you to move on to the next phase, when you were sufficiently situated to get a real apartment. You only practiced art in these classrooms until you went out into the world and got a studio of your own. If you achieved "success", if you sold your work at high prices, you would end up with a really decent studio, an atelier. This was the story that the architect had told with his concrete. It wasn't a joke, it was more like a movie camera continuously running, where you looked through the eyepiece and saw the students always arriving and leaving; and the faculty arriving and leaving, on a different timetable; and the art being constantly conceived and growing up and being born.
Studio Z had been conceived as .... What would McHarg have said, he wondered? McHarg would have said Studio Z had not been "conceived as" anything .... since unless it's you doing the conceiving, you have no way of knowing what the original "conception" was. How does it look, how does it work; how will it work, how much of the Gardens of Versailles is in there? Suddenly he understood that this was all about "just passing through". This was A Statement, about just passin' through. Whoever is in this space, whoever is in this building, is just passin' thru. Whoever you are, you're no different from a truckdriver or a musician. Whoever you are and wherever you're headed, you're a rolling stone. Pretty good concept. Elegant.
"Can I get you something?" she asked. "I don't have much here, all my stuff is in storage, you can see that I .... "
"Just passin' thru," he broke in.
"Pardon me?" she said.
"I can see, you're just passing through. It's temporary. For, like, visiting faculty or whatever, like a visiting artist. Are you a visiting artist? No, never mind, what doesn't work? I know, you just want it to work, just show me what doesn't work, I'll fix it, I'll get outta here."
She pointed to the table with her Toshiba on it, and the phone cord running from the modem jack off the edge of the table.
"What didn't work? The modem, right? The Microsoft Word, that all worked, right?"
So where did you plug it in, here? Down here?" he asked, stooping and bending to follow the cable under the table.
"I just plugged it in. I don't know, it fit. Is there something about .... why can't this stuff just work?"
"It's digital," he announced from beneath the table.
"It's digital," she repeated.
"That's the problem," he said. "A digital phone system. A digital phone jack. I mean, I'm not hundred percent sure, it's not labelled and I've never seen such a thing, I mean like that, exactly. Looks like digital, though."
"So it won't work?" she asked.
"Uuuuuuh, no," he replied. "That's an analog modem. I mean, hell, I don't really know much about it. I think maybe that's what a modem is, something that goes from analog to digital and back again. I don't know how you'd do it if you start with digital, like a digital phone line, like you have in a big building like this and it's all run by a big outfit. Like this place, it's a school, so they have a phone system, you know, a system. You seen all that stuff, it's all digital. So you can't plug in a regular old phone, just a regular analog phone. They're all digital."
"So what about my computer? It's digital, " she asked.
"I don't know. It won't work. I don't want to try it, it might damage something. All the modems always say that on the label, something about Don't connect this device to a digital phone system, or words to that effect. Hey, but I got a question: You picked this up a couple days ago, so how come you're only just now figuring out that it doesn't work? You didn't try it out? Oh wait, never mind, you just didn't use the modem. Microsoft Word. You used Microsoft Word, and that's it. I know, you typed something in Microsoft Word, and then you were going to email it and poof, it hit you, I have to email this right now and like, get it somewhere, and I don't have anything. So you gave it a whirl with the modem and the telephone cord and the Earthlink and all, and nothing. You got nothing, just some mindless message from Microsoft, the operating system, from Win-Doze, like Your modem is not connected to your computer or Your computer does not detect a dialtone. But hey, surprise me: Tell me that those idiots at Microsoft actually came up with an intelligent response like Your computer is connected to a digital phone line. Severe damage to phone system or computer or both may result. Disconnect Now! Hup Hup!!
He thought he was being humorous but he was bringing her closer and closer to tears.
"I just want it to work," she said.
"It won't work," he said firmly. "Maybe somebody else could make it work. Maybe somebody else knows about some kind of equipment that works in a digital RJ11 phone jack." He paused. "Does this building have Ethernet?"
"What?" she said, looking up.
"Does this building have .... " his voice trailed off as he dove back under the table, going to have another look at the phone wires.
"Well, lookee here," he said from under the table, "what do we have here, but an RJ45 ethernet jack and going in here to have another look, we may very well have you hooked up to the fastest home office connection on the planet, it's certainly the right hole, and it .... is .... EMPTY! It's a blank! It's an ethernet jack with no wires. It was never hooked up. Oh, man! That is rough!"
What do I need to do?" she asked. "Can you make it work?"
He stepped outside the front door of Studio Z. He looked around. He looked up.
"People throw things down from up there," she told him. "Last night it was orange peels and a bottletop."
"So this building," he speculated. "It's new enough so they put in a digital phone system everywhere, but not new enough so they put in an ethernet system everywhere. That was later." While he spoke, he fetched a floppy disk sticker from his briefcase and wrote "Beware! This is a digital jack and it will kill your modem. Signed, Reddy Kilobyte". "So it could be like fifteen years old, maybe; but it couldn't be five years old, or four years old. Otherwise it would have ethernet everywhere, even down here in this little studio. In this little studio apartment. Little Studio Z. What a trip!
She looked miserable. He dove under the table again, and applied his Beware! sticker to the digital phoneline jack.
So tell me, he continued. Does your Microsoft Word work okay?
How come you always say Microsoft Word? Its just Word. And yes, it works . Just fine, thank you.
So it works. Thats good. Too bad about the modem. Or the phone line. Or whatever.
What can I do? Ive got to get on line.
I dont know. You got any computers in this building?
What do you mean?
I saw all these big rooms to make art, like for sculpture and stuff, and I was thinking, I figured maybe there was a room for some of that computer art they make nowadays. Maybe. You got onea those?
Yes, was all she said, with a kind of frozen expression.
Well, all right, then well have you online in a minute. Youre on the faculty, right?
Right. Im on the art faculty. I dont have anything to do with the computer room. Its called DMC, or DMFC, or something like that. Digital something or other. Ive never seen it.
Hey, youre on the faculty, they have to kiss your ass.
Cant you just make it work here, right here like this?
And then, feeling somewhat vicious for just a moment, he added, But you should feel free to check it out with somebody else, maybe somebody else can get you hooked up with just what youve got right here. But I doubt it. He paused. Come on, he cajoled, take me to your computer room.
Its upstairs. By the coffee shop, she said.
He packed up her Toshiba in the superannuated laptop bag he had brought along. They went up several flights of stairs in the stark concrete building, past knots of lounging students outside several remarkably large studios. She turned past the coffee shop and entered a room, bumping into several young men and women on their way in or out. Its this way, she said.
The computer room was labelled Digital Media Facility, Be Prepared to Show ID, and it was packed. Students occupied every desk. Several of them were waiting at the receptionists desk. Several more, perhaps half a dozen, were assembling and milling about near a bearded faculty member. Some class or other, no doubt. Every one of the large desks in the room was actually two workstations, with two of the latest model and most high powered Macintoshes sitting on it. The monitors were big and flatfaced, very imposing. Here and there were peripherals the like of which the rentalman had only read about: Scanners that could digest a newspaper-sized image; printers that could print it back out again. And all of this was wired together from front to back and sideways, with all the cabling colorcoded and just the right degree of order to it, and just enough randomness to be altered, when necessary. The receptionist maintained order, signed people in and checked their paper credentials, a first line of defense against hackers. A technician occupied one of the workstations, and peripatetically roamed the aisles. His boss, the System Administrator, sat in a small room off the computer room, a shaded window and partly open door separating him from his domain.
This was, in a word, astonishing.
The rentalman took it all in, in whole and in all its parts. He had never seen anything exactly like it before. A Kinkos was kind of like that, but much smaller and the equipment on the desks was, in comparison, junk. A business installation, even a graphics intensive business like a big architecture shop, was just as heavily networked and equipped, but busy as it might be it would appear positively laid back compared to this place.
Wow, he said turning to his customer. The last few harmonics of the onomatopoetic wow drizzled away on his lips when he saw her face. She was nearly mummified.
He confronted the receptionist. She had been ignoring him.
Hi, he said.
You want to use a machine? Have you signed in? Do you have an account?
He pointed to his customer. Shes on the faculty. She wants to get online. He pointed to the laptop bag. You got an ethernet connection free anywhere in the room, shes got her own cable, if its DHCP were all set, maybe youve got the network parameters all printed out if it isnt?
A blank stare.
Could I have a little chat with the System Administrator? Please. Thanks.
The receptionist left her desk, fetched the technician, and pointed to the rentalman and his client, muttering.
The tech approached.
Hi, said the rentalman. How ya doin? Shes on the faculty. She just needs to hook up, he began, pointing to the laptop bag and unzipping it partway.
What is that, a Toshiba? Hey, we dont have any netcards for that, and we dont allow .
I understand, said the rentalman. I know, its probably sort of unusual, looks like you run a pretty tight ship in here. Very neat. I was just looking around. Beautiful, in fact. Stuff all works, looks like to me.
The technician nodded. And waited.
So hey, weve got a Toshiba 2545 here, gotta SoHoWare Fifty-one Twenty E from NDC, got her own cable, Cat Five, different color from all of yours &endash; pretty cool &endash; and anything you can do to get her hooked up would be, well, appreciated.
I cant configure that card the tech began to say.
Oh no, no problem, man. Just give me a minute, Ill get the card installed, well be right back, okay?
Okay, replied the technician. My names Mogen.
They exchanged thumbs up signs.
In the café, over coffee, the rentalman pulled a PCMCIA network card and the floppy disk to install it, from his briefcase of service goodies. He hesitated for a moment; his hand darted back into the briefcase and pulled out a second card, which he pondered, briefly, and resolutely returned to its accustomed pocket. Naaaah, he said to himself, that 3Com shit never works. Only thing they sell thats worth a fuck is shares of stock. And they dont have much of a warranty on them.
A few minutes later, they marched back to the computer room. The tech came to welcome them, the keeper of the keys to the digital kingdom, extending both hands to receive their laptop. He took the machine into a small room just off the receptionists area, stepping resolutely like a samurai just reunited with a sword. He began immediately to fill in the blanks in the TCP/IP tab of the laptops Network Control Panel. When he appeared to have finished, he stuck his head out.
Email? he asked.
Uuuuh, Earthlink, answered the rentalman. Will that work?
No, Im sorry, we dont allow any third party mail servers access to our system, said the tech, but after a slight pause, continued, but after youre online out there just sign up on Hotmail.
Does that work? Never tried it, said the rentalman.
Thats what I do, replied the tech, passing the Toshiba across the receptionists desk.
Okay, Mogen. We really do appreciate this, he said, receiving the laptop.
He immediately took the machine to the only workstation not fully occupied by a student at a Macintosh, grabbed the nearest ethernet cable and plugged it into the dongle which the technician had left hanging off the side of the Toshiba.
Hope for the best, said the rentalman to his client, who had stood like a bystander through the entire exchange of information. Expect the worst, he continued, restarting the machine.
He looked around a bit while Microsofts absentminded operating system got itself situated, out here in the land of the art students Macintoshes. He really thought hed seen it all by this time, in law offices and construction trailers and research labs and even universities; but hed never seen anything quite like this. Images. Every one of these high powered state-of-the-art G4 Macintoshes had some image plastered across its twenty inch face, each one of them more detailed and high resolution than the last. Most of them he recognized at least by their format, with the more or less familiar tear-off menus of the last two versions of Adobe Photoshop hugging the margins of the screen. Some of them he couldnt place even after he sneaked a peek at their Help menu About option; software that went by the name of Rembrandt, for example. The images themselves, well, he didnt really notice. Cool, I guess, he thought, checking back to see if the little Toshiba had made it over the hurdles of a closed system and been adopted as being one of its own.
He doubleclicked on her Netscape browser, and success was theirs. On the net, at last.
Ive never actually done this, he intoned, but ol Mogen the Junior Sys Admin says its the way to go, so here, lets just get on over here to the HoTMaiL dot com website and, there we go, new account, yep, put in your login name just like you had it on EarthSpring or whatever it was, now here, Ill look over at that picture of a lion with a broomstick up its ass while you fill in your favorite password, there you go, okay, all done, type that in again, and here we go, man this guys network is definitely up to speed, yessirreebobby, and Ill send myself a little message, and now Im gonna borrow that dudes lightning fast G4 over here, guy just left, yup sign myself up, my favorite login name, my favorite password, there we go, Im a registered sinner too, and what do you know, I can do this POP mail thing I read about, get my mail from back at the ranch, damn thats a fast sumbitch. And .. there you are. Your little fella just sent me a message, and I got it, probably went halfway around the world, but here it is. Hello World from Bob. Very cool. Yer in. You try it.
She tried it out. Everything worked just fine.
Now what? she asked.
Thats it. Thats the whole ball of wax, the whole shootin match.
You mean I have to come up HERE to get on the web and get my mail? She frowned.
Uuh, yeah. Thats and his voice trailed off. This place is open twenty four seven, no?
Twenty four seven. I dont know, Ive never been here before, except when I got shown around, she said, somewhat crossly.
Oh, I see. Do you think you can do this again, all by yourself? Come in, plug yourself in, start up, sign on, all that? Here you want to do it again, just for drill?
No. I want to go. And then, as if what she had said had been a surprise, her face softened. Dont worry, I got it okay.
Let me show you something, he said.
He typed in the URL of a webpage, one of his own. It came up almost immediately through the art schools fast-as-a-rabbit network, and a few milliseconds later a blue and white letter Q appeared in a window about the size of a large snapshot, which shuddered just a bit and then turned into a window with a movie playing in it, about the size and aspect ratio of an overturned cereal box. An ice hockey skater started from one end of his hockey rink and skated to the other end. The rentalman hit one key on the Macs keyboard, and the ice hockey skater skated again. Five seconds. No more. How did he skate so far so fast and make it look so easy? There could not be any doubt that if this hockey player were not the most graceful hockey skater, or just plain male skater, on this entire Earth, he would certainly do til another one come along, as the natives used to say where the rentalman grew up.
You did that, didnt you? she asked.
Yep. And I didnt use Microsoft Word.
Youre always saying Microsoft Word like its going to give me cooties.
Fuck Microsoft, really. And Microsoft Word, and the horse it rode in on. These machines are slaves. But thats good, see? This machine here, itll sit here and show you this movie, or any other little movie, as many times as you want, and it will never get impatient with you and make you feel stupid or slow-witted. Its a good slave. An excellent slave. Best projectionist in the world. Almost like an employee, but more like a dog. Dumb, obedient. Totally digital. Hey, you make a movie of how to stroke one of those paintbrushes, youll never have to demo how to stroke a paintbrush ever again. But lookit that movie there! This guy is so graceful, it makes you wanna cry. And the computer captured that, like an admirer. Very smooth. Totally digital. Shot digital, edited digital, distributed digital. Exhibited digital, right here. And you know what? You watch that movie about ten or fifteen times, just like that, out at the rink, and skate every fifth time, you start skating like a pro. No kidding. Like a pro. He paused, watching the skater one more time. Lets go.
He restarted the G4 with a quick Apple+Shift+PwrKey and got up to leave. She carried her laptop under her arm, clutching it a bit, ignoring the shoulder strap.
Come downstairs. Ill pay you, she said.
Sounds good to me.
They bounded down the stairs, nearly four flights from the deck where the computers were, down to the studio of Studio Z.
In the little apartment, she rummaged about for a checkbook. He rummaged about in his briefcase for a blank invoice, wrote out a bill for the netcard, the red ethernet cable, and three hours labor. Traveltime. Portal-to-portal, as they quaintly refer to it in the transportation trade. She paid it.
One last thing, he ventured. Do you have
And then he saw just what he was looking for. Peeking from the corner of a desk was a fraction of an image, just the corner of a painting with reddish and whitish blobs of shiny oil paint. As serendipitously as only the good Lord can cause things to appear, it was the physical, totally analog reality of one of the web images he had seen one week ago to the day, when he had first laid eyes on her and found her works on the web, as she stood in front of him at his store.
It was one of the floral ones. What a revelation it was, to interpolate and extrapolate the image from the web that was resident in his head, and map it to the very bumpy, very much 3D reality now before him on the table. Ineffable. But suffice it to say that all the tricks that the eye can employ, to inform the brain what lies on a surface, needs must be shouldered to comprehend what this painted art portrayed.
She picked up the painting and handed it to him, showing the offhand familiarity with the product that a farmer displays handling apples. The painting had been executed on a solid chunk of birch veneer plywood perhaps a foot by a foot and a half, and at least an inch thick, maybe more. The center was a swirling vacuum of darkish tones, with a rose. That rose was itself remarkable, now a rose, now an abstract whirl of petals that each helixed gently to soft edges. Oh yes, of course: And where had he seen that particular delicate curve before, fleshy and vibrant, dark and light all at once, sensual as . As, trembling, he felt the mystery of what Hamlet five hundred years before had called cuntry matters, the lips of multiple engorged vaginas manifest as a flower. This wasnt the product of an artisan who would mince words or brushstrokes. This, ladies and gentlemen, was erotic.
He put the painting on the table, just in front of him and slightly to the left. Without really taking his eyes off it, he opened her new superannuated laptop bag, slid her Toshiba onto the table, removed the battery and flipped up the screen. Without a word he pulled a jewelers Philips screwdriver and a mean-looking surgical tweezers from his shirt pocket. He snapped the laptops keyboard out of its resting place and laid it up against the screen, stealing long glances at the painting all the while.
Five hundred years ago, an English speaker like him, in England, would have looked at the red and white painting and said, Thats a real cunt piece, and meant that it was good. Very good, indeed. Perhaps a second Englishman would have smiled broadly when he had got the visual pun, with the slightly upturned and recurving upper lips? Back in Philip Marlowes day. In the present day, just that rose would have been more than enough to merit a place on some knowledgeable collectors wall, with its roots in the classical and its blossom in the avant. With a few deft jabs of the screwdriver, he had removed the five little screws that retained the circuit board and phone jack that constituted the systems built in modem.
But the rose was merely the beginning. Chrominous forms were constructed of paint, erupting here and there out from the luminous center, three dimensionally half an inch thick in some places, white swirls on big red dots, red swirls on big white dots, swirls within swirls made from swirls like the Milky Way in the daytime. Cue the Sun. The concrete radiated out to become the abstract.
He looked a little closer, and the dots had dots. Beads had beads, planet beads of the stars in the Milky Way with people beads parading across them, people counting their rosary beads, recounting their lives and repenting of their sins.
Now that, he said solemnly and entirely to himself, that is indeed a cunt piece of work. Cunning. One country. Under God.
He held up the circuit board for inspection. Anybody could see that it had been burnt to a crisp. Toast.
Even more quickly than he had excised the modem, he reassembled her computer, and slid the two small tools back into his breastpocket.
Thanks for showing me the painting, he said, made my day. Guess Ill be gettin on down the road, before the traffic gets too thick.
Thanks for fixing my computer, she said.
It was nothing, he said, snapping in the strip of plastic that retained the keyboard. Email and Microsoft Word. Piece of cake. You be sure to call me if the little fella there needs any more attention.
He started to hand back the red and white block of wood, but put it down on the table instead, next to the Toshiba. Analog and digital. Nice pair.
I wont ever call anyone else.
Okay then. You take care.
And he left her standing in the doorway of Studio Z, ducking just slightly lest some choice morsels of incoming debris rain down on him from the art students above.