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City Desk

Thrill of the New

by Richard Brookhiser

Life is change. What could be more obvious? I grew up with a phone number that had letters in it: FIllmore 2-3769 (the number finally died when my father moved to his last nursing home). Now the only people who use the telephone are campaign robocallers and the phone company, dunning me to switch to their new wireless plan. Everyone else has migrated to the interverse.

A life of change also means a life of not changing enough. Who can keep up? During the last blackout I went to an Apple store in a still-powered part of town and asked one of the Eloi how to call up AOL. He smiled and said “No judgments!” before helping me; I felt like Homo erectus, asking him to clean the hard drive of my flint.

When my father was nine years old, he listened to the second Tunney–Dempsey fight on a radio in a store on the main street of his town. When Tunney was knocked down in Round Seven, Dad, who was rooting for him, left disconsolate. But as he walked home he heard, on neighbors’ radios through open windows, that the fight had resumed (after the “long count”). Radios then were common enough to be ubiquitous, too big to be portable. When he was 52 years old, he watched the Apollo 11 landing. Men and their cameras had become portable to the Moon.

The man of my acquaintance who has traveled the longest arc, thanks to accident of geography, is my trainer. Shawn is from the islands, and the island he grew up on, from the mid Sixties to the mid Seventies, has no deep-water port. There was never much development; a mail boat came in once a week. The settlement he lived in, on a bluff overlooking the ocean, was called the Bluff. The hill his family lived on was named after them.

If I could describe it the way he recalls it I would be Derek Walcott. The blue hole, a saltwater pond connected to the ocean by an underground channel. Fishing boats carved from kamalame trees. Net fishing in the surf. Spear fishing in deeper water. Sometimes the fish fished for you; one of his uncles lost several fingers to a shark. There was one truck on the island, and no electricity. At night you lit kerosene lamps, or saw glowing spirits sitting on graves in the cemetery. Once when a helicopter appeared out of nowhere, it seemed like the end of the world.

Shawn’s grandmother did have a battery-operated radio that pulled in Miami. (She was a woman of character, who practiced bush medicine and smoked a pipe; in later years Shawn wondered whether she put weed in it.) On Sundays, she turned on her radio to listen to Herbert W. Armstrong, a British Israelite, and Walter Cronkite. Their accents sounded alien to Shawn — he assumed they were British. He also assumed they were black — everyone he knew was. There were no magazines or newspapers to suggest other possibilities.

When he was ten, he moved to the capital, on another island, to live with his mother. Here was the modern world — a port, tourists. He saw his first white people. “I thought, ‘How do they do that?’” “It’s a secret,” I told him. His mother had a television, which also pulled in Miami; when the picture went snowy, one of his brothers had to clamber onto the roof to adjust the antenna. Her favorite show was General Hospital. “There were lots of white people. And if you changed the channel, there were more of them.”

Some nights Shawn would be taken to Miami in a cigarette boat as part of a dance group that opened for bands in clubs. They were called the Funky Four. There exists a photograph of Shawn taken at that time, which he says no one now may see. I too lived through the era of Unfortunate Hair; I understand. Shawn hung out briefly with Rastas. “What happened to that?” I asked. “My mother had other ideas.” He took up weightlifting, became a cop, became a father.

Then an uncle who had moved to Queens offered him a job in the city. As the capital was to the Bluff, so the city was to the capital. He described the first time he took the subway to Times Square; as he came up from the station to the sidewalk, the buildings seemed to be hanging overhead; he almost backed down. But over time, technology and media helped untangle some of the conundrums that they themselves presented. He lost his island accent (t’ing for thing) by listening to Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes. (The city’s smallness allowed him to meet Ed Bradley, when he worked in a health-food store on the Upper West Side; Bradley was one of the customers.) He would go to Barnes & Noble to study maps in order to understand the layout of the city and its surroundings. To this day he cannot understand his children’s friends who lack this curiosity. In their defense, they may not have come so far.          

Now technology and media, his sometime servants, sweep past him. One day his son, who had been looking around in a closet, came to him and asked, “What is this black disc?” It was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Shawn’s son had never seen an LP. Shawn is on Facebook, but doesn’t use it much. He and I lament together the music that plays in the gym, and everywhere else, so little of it to our taste.

But he keeps up (more than I do, who am ten years older). One day he took out his iPhone to show me a new app. “Check it out.” He pointed it in the general direction of the gym’s speakers. The ethereal synapses clicked, and the lyrics of the song that was playing began scrolling down the screen. A karaoke crib, at your fingertips. Tiny wonders of the 21st century.

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