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Kindness of Strangers

Tool old faithful

Too old faithful

The Thinkpad x40 I bought two years ago as a way to write on the bus hasn’t done much bus writing: too unsteady, not enough room for it to sit on my lap. It sat humming in Oscar’s attic, where I checked email and wrote notes and plunked out counseling homework. It was an idea Hawaii computer: small, light, with a good six hours on the battery and the caressing firmness of the famous IBM keyboard. But in March or so the USB stopped working, and after shutting it down to install updates it would not start again. There comes a point where it makes sense to say goodbye, especially to a soulless thing. The photo is from my Craigslist posting. Broken laptop, may be useful to someone. Twenty bucks.

Oscar has the ideal thingamajig to get files off the fading hard drive: USB on one end, a three-way wrench of hard drive interfaces on the other. The little noisy drive, hardly bigger than a pack of matches, clatters right up. Seeing my files is a relief given it seems likely the hard drive is on its last legs, and I copy off what I think is everything. Oscar works his Mr. Wizard magic on his Linux box, typing commands on a vintage IBM keyboard that rattles like a silverware drawer. White text flies by and reminds me of the old days when computers were bright text on black screens.

Craigslist offers an immediate taker. The guy has an x40 with nothing left good but the main board, and the perfect tech recycling swap is made, turning two bads into one good. I’m disabled, can’t drive. Can you meet me? He’s on Capitol Hill, away from the hospitals, the coolster gay youth. He has a loud Brooklyn accent but is kind and jocular. Park in front of the hydrant–it’s no problem. They’re all picking off people by the Starbucks. At the intersection a nondescript man in dark clothes and opaque glasses steps off the curb and walks to the passenger side. The goods are offered and hardly inspected and exchanges a twenty folded into crumpled fourths. Yeah, yeah, this’ll be great, I’ve got some little forty gig drives I can swap out, took a chance on somma those Chy-neese SSDs, perfect, fine, yeah. The door closes and the drizzle night absorbs him.

I had reviewed the copied files before, but without the thoroughness that should attend something irreplaceable. Even if it was all junk it deserved more attention: there’s a lot of work on there. A handful of OneNote notebooks I can’t find, almost all notes from therapy sessions and long conversations with friends as I struggled to understand the past year’s crisis. I could barely hold on to conversations, their substance evaporating as soon as the call ended, and I began a practice of making notes before all the wisdom and caring evaporated. It was hard work in hot afternoons or cold, dreary Sundays, walking through the call’s forest of words to pick out the fruit, then going back and remembering forgotten parts, grabbing and writing as quickly as I could before everything muddled itself to a dim impression of someone that put up with sharing my desperation for a while. For a time, those notes were bricks of the shaky foundation I was working hard to strengthen. As I questioned and feared I returned to them, more than once, confirming that considering a different life was neither crazy nor wrong. In Hawaii I looked at them from time to time and marveled that the doubt and fear I felt there was so different from what I knew then. I haven’t looked at them since then, but they have been part of the journey and something I should keep, like a high school annual.

The hard drive was likely undependable, if it still worked at all, I had warned the guy. That’s no no problem, he said at the East Coast’s speed but without its Woody Allen intensity. His techno patter of capacities and hot-swappabilities began and I had tuned it out at the time: I have no interest in baseball stats either, and performance numbers are the same empty candy for tech nerds. He wouldn’t erase it right away, he’d said. The missing files weren’t a clawing, desperate loss, but I hoped he’d told the truth.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, he said when I called, abruptly after a suspicious mumble and dropping the phone. It was right there, untouched. When canya…canya come now? I mean now? ‘Cause it’s right here and that would work out real good for me. I couldn’t then: Oscar had his connect-o-matic, and I had other things too. Saturday? Saturday. He drew this out like a donkey child, stretching each rubbery vowel as far back as Yonkers. Well, okay, well, yeah, yeah, okay, I can do that. Yeah, I can. Whadyasay, Saturday? Yeah, Saturday. Hey, you call me and lemme know, okay? And then there was a joke about the Mets, I think, and a laugh like thunder through a nose.

He is sick Saturday. He sounds stricken, afflicted as out of the Bible. Yeah, yeah, sorry didn’t call. Didn’t wanna give you the gift that keeps on giving, heh heh. The laugh dissolves in a paroxysm of pulpy coughing. He says he’ll call me when he’s well enough.

A week goes by and I call him, the same distrustful greeting, the oncoming train of enthusiasm once he remembers who I am. Yeah, yeah, boy, oh, man, that was horrible. Horrible! I think I had a Chinese army stomping around in there. He hasn’t touched the disk. Come anytime, or now, or before one: just call.

I fumble, start three things and finish none, unable to organize the day. A friend does it for me, perhaps to assure a successful evening later. The phone rings calling him and I imagine it as a real Bell telephone with a loud metal bell, ringing so all of Capitol Hill can hear it. Call back five fretted minutes later and he’s there. Yeah, park in front of this fire hydrant, they don’t care.

Sun has come out, thin and brilliant like a Boston autumn. He stands on the sidewalk underneath thick coats and two sets of glasses, a set of heavy silver headphones on his ears, the leads patched with electrical tape. I walk directly up to him before he notices me. Oh, hey, yeah, Derek, right? Yeah, where’d’ya park? I realize he means to stay outside, to do the work in the open, like a bazaar, or a drug deal.

I work on the trunk lid, the wind threatening to blow away the ziplock bag he kept the hard drive in, the plastic opaque from folding. He talks: about the laptop I have, about how things used to be, about what he’s going to do with the hard drive. I fight with an interminable permissions problem that won’t let me look at my own files and he keeps going: ProTools, the hard drive shortage, remember Visual InterDev? The little silver box makes its cricket sounds as I keep looking in the same places, all the obvious places, and find the same nothing I found before. I half-talk to him, sometimes. He shifts his feet as the patter goes on and on, looking around with nervous bird shifts, hands in his pockets. Great bag you got here, great bag. You know the Rocket ones is really good, with the little feet they have…

Unplugged, the little drive isn’t even warm as I drop it in his worn-out bag. He brightens even more: hey, yeah, you found’em?

The stuff is there, but gone.

Well, just look, you know, just–

I insist it’s all right. I should’ve looked before, tried to get Windows going one last time. They’re gone. Computers.

He is stuck in a strange place between wanting to help, but not offering anything that would help, which is the same place of clear happiness all encumbrance is gone but recognition it’s bad form to be happy in the circumstances. It makes him shift in a liquid, rigid shuffle: a scarecrow doing a hep cat peepee dance. He zips, palms the bag into a pocket, steps into the street more so a car slows, then moves back in between the cars. Well, dem’s da breaks, yaknow, I guess, right? Heh.

I am thankful and let him know. Computers, when they work…. He agrees. He tells me good luck. I don’t watch him go.

Light slides in the car, bent by the afternoon and the clouds. The notebooks are gone, my careful transcribing vanished that September day when restarting ended with a blue screen. I sit with the afternoon light far more than the loss. It’s all right. I don’t need them.

The man whose name I don’t remember didn’t have to do this. Like most Craigslist deals he could have disappeared, my messages and emails good as vanished. But he took my calls, answered my emails. Through the snow and the sick he left the little disk alone. He didn’t want me to see his place, for whatever reason, but he kept me company in the blowing wind. He gave something he had bought fair and square plus a helping of his time. In the end, that is a far better thing to go away with, something that takes up no space and inspires faith that charity and grace are everywhere.

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