New Delhi for Free (and
other ephemeral truths of the 21st century)
Technology first rocked our world when a lightning bolt zapped a bush at the entrance to a cave, and First Man crawled out and stuck his hand into the mystical blaze. Centuries later (just how many seems to depend on your religious orientation), we still find technology fascinating, mysterious, distracting, vital and Wow! Shiny!—and it still fries our grasping, hapless human hands, not to mention our grasping, hapless human brains.
These short essays are all about that tender point where the finger meets the flame, where the ecstasy and the pain live—and where the sweet, dark humor so often lurks.
Most of them simply examine the craziness of everyday life. Some spring from weird travel experiences. Some pick at politics, niggle at religion, worry at war. They're set in Starbucks, in my kitchen, in Viet Nam, in India, on a Russian train and a Greyhound bus; in Massachusetts, Indiana, Brooklyn and Times Square; in WalMart and Golden Corral, and at the second inauguration of Barack Obama. All have been published somewhere before. In all the pieces, there is a tie to technology, be it as strong as an anchor cable, or as tenuous as a spiderweb. This gives me a lot of leeway—because what, in this modern world, *isn't* tied to technology?
A final disclaimer: you certainly don't have to be tech savvy to enjoy this book. You just have to be a human being with bandaids on your fingers.
Which pretty much describes us all.
Order it here.
I stood mired in WalMart amid televisions tuned to Dr. Phil. Hundreds of Dr. Phils. Thousands.
“Breathe,” I told myself.
WalMart overwhelms me. I’m drowning in a great wave pool, buffeted by tsunamis of gleaming inventory—advancing, retreating, pulling me to buy. When I surface long enough to remember what I came for, when at last I grasp my particular pulsating silver siren delight, it turns to pressboard and veneer in my hands.
I never go to WalMart.
But I had flown in the night before, from Massachusetts to Indiana, to visit Ma, and if you want to buy a television in Indiana, you go to WalMart.
I held my breath, plunged my hand into a stack of boxes and grabbed a 20-inch flatscreen TV.
Once the set and I were safely in my rented car, I mopped my brow and congratulated myself. I had survived. I had gotten a good deal. I would reward myself with a glass of wine tonight.
But first, I had to drive from Fort Wayne, where I was staying, to the tiny town of Avilla, 30 miles away, to deliver my prize to Ma.
I carried the box into Ma’s spacious studio and gave her a hug. Ma has become a bit deaf, and her little old TV was blaring Dr. Phil’s show.
She glanced at the box. “I don’t want that thing. I get three Fort Wayne channels real clear here.”
I wrestled the set from the box. “Trust me—you’ll love it. It’s bigger. And it’s got closed captioning, so you won’t have to play it so loud.”
“THOSE WORDS THAT MOVE ACROSS THE BOTTOM OF THE SCREEN,” I shouted. “With this bigger TV, you could actually read them.” I turned off her old TV; the quiet was instant, cottony. I put the little set in the closet and placed the flatscreen on the end table she used as a platform. “Watch it for a couple days,” I said. “If you decide you don’t want it, I’ll take it back.”
“You can’t take something back just because I don’t like it.”
“You can take anything back to WalMart,” I assured her, hoping I’d never have to find out if that was true. “No questions asked.”
The facility handyman was off for the day, so the cleaning lady helped me connect the flatscreen to the cable box. Ma said, “I hate all those wires sticking out. If I had my dresser from the house, I could put it on that, and they wouldn’t show.”
She was referring to the house she no longer owned. This would segue into an argument over the way my sister Mo had parceled out Ma’s furniture to family members. Ma had given full permission, but couldn’t remember doing so.
I avoided the topic of the dresser; you can’t win an argument with someone who has Alzheimers. The cleaning lady and I rearranged the cables. “They make special furniture to hide TV wires,” I said.
“ENTERTAINMENT CENTERS, Ma,” I said. “You need an entertainment center for your new TV.”
The cleaning lady and I tried to program the flatscreen, but we couldn’t make it work. The cleaning lady left to go clean something. I pushed aside the cable box and plugged the flatscreen straight into the wall, where Ma’s old set had been connected. Let the handyman hook it up tomorrow. Until then, she could watch her three stations on a nice big screen.
Ma frowned at Dr. Phil. “It’s so dark.”
I brightened the picture. The doctor’s teeth gleamed like angel wings.
“I like my TV better.”
I disconnected the flatscreen and reconnected her old set to the wall. I turned it on. She cranked it up past Deafening.
While we played her favorite card game, Spite & Malice, I entreated her over Dr. Phil’s stentorian platitudes—when is the man not on TV?—to give the flatscreen another chance tomorrow, after the handyman got it connected. If she wasn’t pleased, I promised, I’d return it to WalMart.
“They won’t take it back just because of that.”
“No questions asked,” I assured her. “And I’ll find you an entertainment center.”
She threw the winning card on the table as Dr. Phil’s audience applauded, vibrating the room. “Where would you find that?”
Sooner or later, everybody learns to love me, the boxy building told me.
“Right,” I said.
The waitress halted at my table. “What?” she said.
I stopped at WalMart the next morning. A different WalMart, closer to Ma’s facility. In Indiana, every major parking lot has a WalMart. I swam clench-throated through shoals of glittering inventory until I found an entertainment center. It was four feet long, ridiculously heavy, and came in a flat carton. The WalMart greeter and I shoehorned it into the back seat of my rented car, then he went off for hernia repair.
I borrowed the Avilla facility’s hand-truck and wheeled the carton down to Ma’s apartment.
Dr. Phil rumbled from her old TV. “Voila!” I said. “One entertainment center. Some assembly required.”
The handyman arrived and set up the new TV. It still wouldn’t work. It was connected to the cable box, but it still received only Fort Wayne’s three channels. He promised he would call the facility’s electronics wizard the next day. He programmed the closed captioning and left.
“The words move too fast,” Ma said. I de-programmed the closed captioning.
I worked for three hours assembling the entertainment center, until I discovered I was missing a tiny wedge-shaped piece of plastic. It was the sole, vital connection between two beveled strips of veneered pressboard, and was not in the hermetically-sealed accessory bag.
I told Ma I had to drive back to WalMart for the piece.
She glanced up from a thundering Dr. Phil. She spoke.
“What?” I said.
“THAT TV IS TOO DARK.”
I sped ten miles back to Ma’s place.
My sister Mo was there, arranging Ma’s meds. Dr. Phil boomed from the new TV. Ma said, “That TV’s been turning itself off.”
Mo shrugged; she hadn’t witnessed it. I tightened the cables.
Mo held the back of the entertainment center and I screwed it to the sides. Suddenly, the room fell silent.
The new TV had turned itself off.
“Must be the cable box,” I said. I disconnected the box, reconnected the flatscreen directly to the wall, and turned it on. Dr. Phil roared back to life.
We were hanging the entertainment center’s doors when the TV died again. “Hmm,” I said. “It’s not the box.” I unplugged it and connected Ma’s old set to the wall.
Ma pumped up the volume. “I told you I liked my TV better.”
Two hours later, Mo and I finished assembling the entertainment center. It was big, bigger even than the disputed dresser Ma no longer owned. It would have been perfect to hide the new flatscreen’s wires and cables, if the new flatscreen had worked. Instead, Ma’s TV sat on top, a raving peanut on a vast plain of pressboard and veneer.
I gave her a quick hug and grabbed the dead flatscreen.
“They won’t take it back,” Ma said.
takes anything back, no questions asked,” Mo told her.
I stuffed the receipt in my pocket, wrenched myself from the swirling, shining multiplicity of Dr. Phils, and dogpaddled out the door.
I staggered to Pizzeria Uno, where I ordered a glass of wine.
I stared out the window, over my wineglass, over the parking lot. At WalMart.
WalMart stared back at me. Triumphant. Sooner or later—
“WHAT?!” I said.