This bulb has burned out. An era has ended.
Matt and I just talked about its storied history given how I’d found one of its probably millions of littermates in a lamp set out for the trash. Mine didn’t work, as I expected, the old-school starter worn out and the bulb inside glowing and flashing briefly, each flash accompanied by the most delicate glass tink. The sound took me to my grandfather’s bathroom, the vanity mirror a classic art deco piece with twin fluorescent tubes on either side started by a small metal cylinder that screwed into the bottom. That’s the starter, my grandfather told me once; I’m not sure when, but we were alone in the small tile space, so my grandmother had passed away some time ago. He had run his own gas station and was an interminable fixer, adjuster, optimizer. Take the bad one out, put in a new one, keeps on going. American. Build ’em like that, that’s how you build ’em. Not like goddamn Jap junk.
Twenty-four years ago, the Japanese used the same kinds of starters in the brand new compact fluorescent bulbs. This was 1988, 1989, 1990–the brief green resurgence when news stories explaining this threatening new greenhouse effect were frequent, Freon was being phased out, and Ford had not yet invented the SUV. I found them among the light bulbs at the Fort Worth Target, when there was only one, on Hulen Street. They were heavy and came in a bright green box. I think the original price was thirty or forty bucks a piece. They weren’t big movers judging by how quickly they went on clearance. I remember my pleasure at picking them up for less than ten bucks, the red Target clearance sticker a badge of pride.
I gave this bulb to Matt as a wedding or housewarming present–I don’t remember which. Only a couple years out of college we were still in apartments or rented houses, uncertain, pushed on by a sinking feeling that the powerful momentum built up in our teens was dissipating. I think he still worked at the video store along the town’s main drag, the same job he’d had on breaks and summers in school. If I was back from the second graduate school attempt, I was working nights at a satellite TV channel; if not, I was floating between a part-time TV job and substitute high school teaching, which I was terrible at and hated. I have always been one for practical gifts, which may be a failing, a sign I’m projecting what I want on others. But Matt is a gearhead and a fixer too. I knew he would like them. They would save electricity and the Earth, both more important than whatever his wife thought.
These bulbs have been extraordinarily long-lived. My ex and I maintained two in lamps that traveled across the country with us; one gave out a few years ago, but the other has persisted, taking longer to start but still flickering on. (My ex has that lamp–maybe it works still. I hope so.) Matt kept this one in his son’s closet. It still works! he said when we talked about it.
No longer. He sends this picture this past Saturday. The week of 9/11, the week of my cat passing away, his bulb conks out too.
The one I found that doesn’t work is heavy–it’s surprising how heavy they are. Compared to the coiled modern bulb I remove from the lamp to test it, the old bulb is a glass anvil, fully able to squash the Coyote. I give it several minutes to start, the tink-pause-flicker-tink soothing somehow, exciting somehow. Maybe? No. No. That is Wednesday, before the vet calls. Koshi is with them, being treated. The sun is bright and I only have the hopeful purpose my friend and I left with late last night.
It’s too bad. At the same time, it’s a bulb–hard to be upset about. It’s so heavy, though. Back when they were new I would see them here and there–in my dorm, in hallways–and think perhaps there is hope, there really is. There still is, I suppose. I think the main lesson of getting older is realizing hope implies loss. It’s unavoidable. It’s how things work. It’s where new comes from.
Here is my bulb now, this morning. It’s another thing I need to figure out what to do about.