S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Pushing the Envelope,” Park talks about Wang’s blinding word processor monitors, earthquakes, and a hook shot free throw.
I see by the calendar that I started this column almost two years ago. I suppose I should call it a “blog,” but that’s one of the things it’s taught me, i.e. I’m way more Old School than I thought. This shouldn’t surprise a guy who’s never seen a Facebook page, but I used to blame my aversion to technology on word processing.
I was there when it began in 1977, and not only were the early processors much cruder than today’s computers, but the screens were literally blinding. Someone had convinced the Wang Corporation (whose machines were the industry standard, and which I used exclusively for eight years) that the optimum contrast was a gray background with green letters.
Think about that. The company would send sales reps around, and I’d pull them aside and point at the screen.
“Green on gray?” I’d ask. “Really? That’s a prescription for eye strain.”
“Oh no,” they’d lie. “It’s been tested over and over, and that’s the perfect contrast for the human eye.”
If it weren’t, they added, why would they use it? What would they gain by blinding their customers? That sounded reasonable to me, and I needed something to hang onto, as I’d forged my “World’s Fastest Typist” reputation with Wangs. So I told myself it wasn’t the screen bothering me, but the fact that (unlike most users) I stared at it twelve hours a day.
Right up to the moment I couldn’t anymore, when even a glance at a Wang screen produced eye spikes and headaches. (I’ve often wondered if other victims filed a class action suit; if so I never heard about it.) In the meanwhile my sight worsens yearly and a long string of optometrists have marveled at my optic nerve damage:
“Whoa!” they’ll say.
“No,” I tell them. “Wang.”
It’s my own fault, of course, I knew those screens were dangerous and looked at them anyway … it was easier than hunting down a different job and computer. It’s another lesson from these columns, in fact, how I take writing and drawing seriously but the rest of my life is pretty much a clown show.
I remember working for a Century City law firm in 1979. I was standing in an attorney’s office when an earthquake hit. We were on the thirty-seventh floor and she was seated behind her desk, explaining a transcript to me, when I noticed movement in the window behind her.
It was the skyscrapers on the horizon: they were waving back and forth.
Nice! I thought. That Haze I smoked on break is even better than I thought!
Then the attorney bent over and puked in her wastebasket.
“My God!” she gasped. “It’s an earthquake!”
Ohhh right. I’d experienced plenty of those before, but not in tall buildings that acted like tuning forks, so the higher you went the wobblier it got and the longer the motion lasted. Rule Number One, under the circumstances, was to avoid the elevators.
So where, of course, was the first place I ran? I look back and think, What the fuck … who does that!?
The receptionist thought she knew. (We had one date and suddenly she’s an expert.) She was hiding beneath her desk, and when I sprinted through the lobby she popped her head up.
“Oh, big surprise!” she laughed. “It had to be you, High … you’re crazy as hell!”
“I’m dying on my own terms!” I retorted, punching the Down button. (As if I had “Elevator in an Earthquake” on my bucket list, or had listened to My Way too many times.)
Then the doors slid open and out stumbled a black janitor with wide eyes. He looked like he’d seen a ghost.
“Oh my God!” he gasped. “I thought I was gonna die in there! There were all these horrible noises and I couldn’t get the doors open! Oh thank you, man! Thank you!”
He reached out to hug me and I shoved him aside, jumped into the elevator. Hit the Lobby button and began the long, jerky descent. It did sound like a haunted house in there, with lots of clanking in between deep, sonorous moans.
Just ride the wave, baby, I thought. I even lit the Haze roach so—whatever happened—I’d be high enough to appreciate it.
When the elevator reached the bottom it shuddered so hard I nearly fell over. I swallowed the roach, took a deep breath and stepped into the lobby.
I figured I’d be the only one there. Instead people were milling around like nothing had happened … apparently the quake was only a tremor at ground level.
I felt foolish but was too loaded to care, which doesn’t always work, of course. When I tore a rotator cuff in 2001 I went to the hospital for an MRI. It was my first time in the machine so I ate a brownie and smoked a joint beforehand, assuming they’d enhance the experience.
Instead I spent twenty minutes in claustrophobic hell, lips peeled back on my gums as the gears grunted and groaned around me.
Thank God there was no weed around in ’65, my last year of high school (I was strange enough sober). I remember a basketball game against archrival Monroe at the end of the season. They were headed to the playoffs and we could sneak in if we beat them. (I also suspected their point guard of dating my girlfriend.)
It’s another lesson from these columns, in fact, how I take writing and drawing seriously but the rest of my life is pretty much a clown show.
So I had every incentive to win and, though they were a better team, their lead was only two with a minute left. I had eighteen points and twelve rebounds and—after being fouled shooting—was awarded two free throws. I sank the first one, then paused to let the moment wash over me. It was a home game and the crowd was stomping their feet and roaring.
It’ll never be sweeter than this, I thought, so how can I reeeally milk the moment?
It’s why I played basketball; it’s why I spent all those years alone on playgrounds, training my ungainly body to dribble and shoot. (While keeping the conditioning part to a minimum.)
I looked at Karl Franklin on the bench. He was my buddy and teammate and I’d been telling him for months that, at some point during a game, I’d shoot a hook from the free throw line.
The thing was … I thought I could make it. I considered every hook I ever took a sure thing (even as it was proven—time and again—to be wildly untrue).
Karl saw the smirk on my face, realized what I was planning and jumped up, waving his arms above his head. (He spilled his bag of popcorn in the process, an indication of how often he’d played lately.)
Don’t do it you crazy bastard! he mouthed. Not now!
That was all the encouragement I needed. The ref handed me the ball and I took a deep breath, crossed my left leg over my right, extended my arm behind my head and flicked the ball towards the hoop.
You could have heard a pin drop in there: everybody in the gym was shocked. Oh my God! That asshole just hooked his free throw!
It was right on line, too; unfortunately it fell a foot short.
When the jeers came they were louder than the cheers had been. The Monroe point guard, who I’d been trying to provoke all game, sidled up to me.
“Real smooth, High,” he said. “I feel better about fuckin’ your girlfriend now.”