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The Vet

Watching parts of the game last night I was put in mind of attending Phillies games with my grandfather at Veterans Stadium. I was nine or ten. There are four things I remember: the mass excitement that everyone experiences in huge crowds; dirty men selling "8"-shaped pretzels out of old shopping carts; and the angry, enraged, often hideous fans that sat in the nosebleeds with us.

Fourth was the sense of the city, dirty and weird, accents and homeless veterans. My hometown was just that—town—with problems, projects, and statues, but no grand boulevards. I can remember summer nights walking along the railroad tracks back from the video store, sneaking glances at lonely people curled up in the bushes, their white T-shirts smudged and their eyes half-closed. That was interesting and scary, but Philadelphia was for real.

In the late 1980s there was a prevalent nostalgia for the 1950s that made its way into collage culture. That was my first exposure to irony proper; I watched Leave it to Beaver and bought zines with collages of men with pipes and smiling housewives. An escape from the metalhead norms of the neighborhood. At the same time cyberpunk was on the rise, science fiction as pure chaos, styrofoam in the bay and VCRs washing up on the beach, brains filled with silicon, empty buildings. I saw the point of these novels as I sat for hours spinning pixels in DeluxePaint, cutting and pasting. It was nearly impossible back then to get an image into the computer: scanners were exotic, audio recording nonexistent. You had to use the images provided or create your own. The only way for the computer to communicate with the larger world was through the printer, or a modem dialed into a BBS (never for me), or disks copied from friends. I remember spending tens of hours working with one image of Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd that I'd found on some disk somewhere, switching heads, adding third eyes, and so on. Just for the process, to see if I could.

I sometimes feel a tremendous nostalgia for that era of technology, even though in other regards it was not the finest hour for my family or myself. I notice a similar nostalgia in other now-older computer geeks. Perhaps the nostalgia emerges because the earlier machines—the ones at home, in bedrooms or dens—were so utterly disconnected from the larger reality, pre-Internet, pre-compact-disc, pre-hard-drive. I remember that I identified powerfully with the Amiga 1000 we bought when I was twelve; I came to know its bizarre moods and to listen to its grunting disks for clues to its health—the anthropomorphic/pathetic fallacy at work.

Other than to see a very few friends I don't like to go back to the town where I grew up. So why did I spend so much time this weekend attempting to tune the Amiga emulator on my new computer, and even more time trying in vain to run a copy of the OpenStep 4.2 operating system, the direct lineal predecessor of Mac OS X—an operating system I never even used but long wished to try? Searching in vain for ISO images and virtual disks, finally giving up, shaking my head at the futility of the effort?

The old machines were small towns, populated by individuals; occasional viruses aside it was a safe and pleasurable environment. But now technology is uncontainable, metaverses with urban grime and corruption. One must take strong prophylactic measures to avoid griefers, spammers, phishers, flamers, &c. And sometimes I just want to go back to a smaller town, run old programs, see the way things were done before. Partly for the comfort of the memories but also to see the limits. A trip back to the small town lets me see the utterly stimulating madness of of the city, to sense the thrill of the sprawl again. After the SuperBowl was over we listened for the men downstairs at the social club. Their megaphone came out and they screamed and honked horns, and one man yelled out “twenty gee,” his win, a payment on team loyalty.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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