State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
In the 80s they revived The Twilight Zone for a little while. The new series wasn’t as stridently dread-inducing as Serling’s original, and the voice-over guy sounded more like a murmuring dentist that the Dark Master of Blood-Freezing Irony. But the show had its moments. The episode that still haunts me was one called Wordplay. It starred the comic Robert Klein in a straight role, as a medical device salesman whose world slowly goes buggy as people everywhere begin talking gibberish. The radio, the newspapers, suddenly nothing makes any sense. The world is still using familiar English words, but they’re hopelessly, nightmarishly jumbled. As he begins to freak out, everyone looks at him in confusion and horror as he speaks what to the viewer sounds like ordinary English. He is completely surrounded by a world gone inexplicably mad. To everyone else life looks and sounds completely ordinary. He yells at his wife that the word for “lunch” is not “dinosaur”. She stares at him with fear and concern, tells him that “lunch” is a color, in the red part of the spectrum. He panics. That sense of freaky dislocation—I’m becoming very familiar with it.
I was trying to explain to my daughter and her friend the other day that back in the 70s, telephones were colored plastic boxes screwed mercilessly to the wall, the large plastic receiver connected to it by a long spiral cord. If you took the cord away no sound would come out of the phone. You couldn’t carry the cordless receiver around the house and expect anything to happen. It was just dead plastic without the cord. (There are only so many ways to say this but it bears repeating) It wasn’t as if teenage girls of yore didn’t talk on the phone. Patty Duke could be in her room for hours, the spiral cord snaking out through the space under her bedroom door. Just look at the Cindy Lauper video. All those girls in curlers chatting on their phones? What they wouldn’t do is call each other just to say, “I’m eating a sandwich!” That is a modern convention. The kids are very connected now, of course; all the time. Connectedness may have begun as a means, but it is now an end.
The last time I saw someone just sitting and staring, deep in thought, Chef Boyardee was still being dumped onto plates and served at table.
Being connected is the object. The subject has been made to suffer as a result. The future we envisioned as kids, rocket ships throwing sparks on the way to Jupiter, is not the future we got. Endless pictures of squirrels on water skis, and tens of millions of lunch plates lovingly photographed from directly above, as in a Busby Berkeley musical. That’s what we got.
Chef-BoyArDee and the Thousand Yard Stare
As for the interior life; exterior evidence suggests it has gone the way of the locked diary. The last time I saw someone just sitting and staring, deep in thought, Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee was still being dumped onto plates and served at table. In the twilight of a movie theater a woman might be sitting in her seat waiting for the film to begin, and she might be looking ahead of her, as if at an object hovering in the air there. She would be “in thought”. Someone waiting for a bus might just be soft-focused on a copse of trees half a mile away while he is thinking of something. Look for that today, and good luck. People today reflexively bend their heads to glance at their phones when there is a second to fill, or when they feel uncomfortable. If anything is there it is likely some species of “I’m eating a sandwich!” or a beautifully composed photo of the sandwich before it’s been bitten. If you’re walking across the street or down a hallway, and someone you don’t know is approaching you, the stranger will raise the phone like a little shield and feign checking it for something as they near, the better to mitigate the terrible moment of the nearly-interpersonal glance. We have nothing to say anyway. What we do have to say, we type.
If a thought, any thought whatsoever, should burble to the surface of the cerebral cortex (or whatever Dr. Kildare-sounding lump of nerves works this former magic), we reach for our devices and we broadcast. There used to be diaries with little locks on them. We would write notes to ourselves, some of us; divulge secrets for our eyes only, hug the little booklets to our breasts like Laura Ingalls Wilder characters in a hastily written teleplay. Diaries became weblogs, and later morphed into blogs; the diary turned inside out. Nowadays if someone is having a thought you will know it, because the thinker will be typing the thought and sending it out through social for the general beneficence. It’s a weird world, but it’s always been.
Put Down My Actuarial Table
When I was a kid (or “child” as they’re known in polite society) I looked at adults with pity. We all did. Not because the adults had put such distance between themselves and the sun-drenched lawns of childhood, nor because being a kid struck me as particularly wonderful. I remember thinking adulthood was a sort of protracted purgatory between youth and death; a long stretch of empty ceremony bracketed at either end by words pronounced with your tongue between your teeth. Kids went out to play, but adults had done that and were finished with it.
Today, I am an adult. I’ve arrived. And then some. Of course I no longer believe adulthood is a purgatory. Now I think old age is a purgatory. So there has been some handy goal-post shoving. I’ve had to come to come to grips with some things, too. Though it seems like I left high school maybe 15 years ago, tops, a couple friends have passed away, and I sense the looming presence of the actuarial table. It is in the possession of an overexcited Greek man and he is dancing with it in his teeth. Sir, please be careful with my actuarial table. Growing up, and growing older, feels like a pleasant dream most of the time, but then a chum just…dies. Again, a dream. Lots to think about. When I look up again I’m reminded how strange this epoch is to me.
An Inarticulate Roll Call
When I see people now, groups of them out together on a Friday night, walking down State Street, laughing heartily while each looking at their individual phones, I wonder how I can be so far away from things familiar. Eydie Gorme seems as distant as the Napoleonic Wars. All the names and faces and things that were common currency just, like, yesterday—I don’t think they are in the present universe at this time. Where is the world that was littered with all that glory? It’s an ancient hue and cry. Every generation hollers their confusion at some point. Where are the people leaning against buildings and staring into their own thoughts? Are there thoughts any more, or just posts now? We’re still surrounded by everything. Look around the sound stage. Never mind your friend’s photo of lunch. Look at all the flaming archangelic stuff, ringing with the music of the spheres; the Battle of Thermopylae, Debbie Reynolds singing ‘Tammy’, Groucho, Neil Armstrong flubbing his line and hopping like a bunny, da Vinci, Peter Gabriel, Judy Garland hunched in form-fitting black, spotlit, cropped black hair throwing sweat as she reaches for the note, inoperable cancers, the middle east, the far east, Clint Eastwood in ‘Two Mules for Sister Sarah’, Sam Peckinpah, the last afternoon of the last Neanderthal, Thomas McGuane, the Fall of Rome, the Cambrian Explosion, Johnny Mercer, the Impact Event, Harold Lloyd, Sartre, Ava Gardner, Saul Bellow, Anthony Newley, Bob Mould, Neil Aspinall, Stu Sutcliffe, Henry Mancini. The world is huge and doesn’t pause. Imagine what you will. Expansive fields of waving grasses and strangers walking there, absolutely unaware of you, people sitting down to eat all over the world, children pushing toys under beds, then naked children sprinting down sun-dappled forest paths; Hawk faced George Gershwin massaging a Steinway and glancing coyly over his shoulder – the grand, straight unbrowed nose, the slight underbite. Enola Gay, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Nouakchott and Wilmington kiss in the night, Henry Fonda, the Marianas Trench, Steve McQueen, Dana Andrews. Jimmy Stewart collapsing atop a paper-strewn table and sliding to the floor. Noel Coward, Glen Matlock, Isaac Newton, Andy Partridge, the Magna Carta, the first bird, the first fish, Gene Kelly, the hasty burial of Pompeii, Dodge City, Verdun, Auschwitz, Cary Grant walking off into a snow-filled evening, Caligula, Captain Kangaroo, Franco Nero as Lance, Dresden on fire, Vonnegut in his olive drabs there, Gene Kelly again, Nelson Mandela, and a distinguished pack of tuxedoed figures standing around a brilliantly underlit emerald swimming pool in the dead of a desert night, pinching martini glasses and tossing heads back congenially, in laughter, free hands in pockets, backs arched, knees bent slightly; the orgasmic synchronous bomburst of everything happening, and having happened, everywhere, every second, even as our dear tormented rock pirouettes lazily through an empty living room. The cupcake and kitty photos don’t seem to add to the mix, but of course they must.
I can see my parents sunken living room in Boulder, see myself stepping down into it. Red shag carpet, vaulted ceilings, lots of macramé. And Felicia Sanders singing the theme from Moulin Rouge with the Percy Faith Orchestra. The sense-memory sometimes is almost like a blow to the chest. May the screen-time generations save a little introspection over which to warm their hands in the coming years. The mobile devices are conduits. The repository is in your head. May it fill to the brim.