I've got some family shit going on right now, and it's making me nostalgic. The memories floating to the surface are overwhelmingly of my sister and my parents. But right there along with my family are the times I spent with technology—a surprisingly prominent cast member in the movie inside my mind.
They're not the only memories I have of my childhood, but they're big ones. I'm gonna write them down before they slip away. But maybe you've got a powerful memory too? If you do, share it in the discussion. We're a community that loves technology; we should set aside time to do more than just bitch about operating system allegiances and bothersome connectors.
When I was a kid—I dunno, seven or eight—my mother ordered an answering machine for her business. This was back when answering machines were still a pretty big deal: exotic, expensive things you'd see in special rooms at large corporations. You ordered them out of fancy electronics catalogs that looked like pamphlets from the future.
The package came, she opened it up, and there was a strange silver box inside like she'd never seen before; it was a VCR. The company had screwed up. We'd heard of VCRs—there was news about them in the mainstream press at this point, and the public was still embroiled in the bitter Betamax vs. VHS war—but they were still the province of rich people. This one was VHS, and I can't even remember the brand. (Future Joe is super pissed at Kid Joe about this.) It was so primitive that there wasn't even an LCD, just a series of pre-determined messages it could display—fwd, rev, play—ghosted on a brownish black panel and illuminated crudely from behind.
We pleaded with our mother to let us keep the VCR, and, eventually she relented. Her company went without an answering machine for a while, and my older sister and I were each given a tape. Tapes were still expensive, and we didn't have a lot of money, so we only got two tapes. (Initially we were given one to share, but that created such a massive amount of tension that in order to maintain any sort of peace in the house, another had to be purchased.) My sister decorated hers with puffy letters and glitter ink; I tried to mimic her artistic flair, but all I had were well-chewed brown and green Crayola markers. I had eaten the rest, and my sister wouldn't let me touch her art supplies. Rightly so.
Sarah recorded soap operas while we were at school (big fans of The Young and the Restless at the Brown household)—programs previously only available to us when we were home sick. I would run home each day and switch the tapes out so I could record GI Joe, painstakingly pausing at every commercial break so I could get an ad-free experience.
We collected our favorite shows and pruned our tapes like Bonsai trees. We filled up, erased, filled up again, and recorded over so many times that scenes from other shows would frequently pop into newer recordings like friendly ghosts vying for attention. Duke pointing at a river where Cobra lay in ambush. Victor hanging his head as he remembers a dead lover he never got to kiss goodbye. A two second shot of a woman holding Pop Tart. The quality got bad, and you could start to hear the plastic mechanisms wearing out. We started rationing our recordings for fear of losing everything.
That tape was the first thing I ever truly treasured.
We were basically latchkey kids—though there isn't really any such thing in New York City. You get to the point pretty quickly where you can come and go as you please, even at a very young age. And back then it was different: Normal families hadn't yet been priced out of their apartments, and the city was more of a collection of neighborhoods where everyone knew everyone.
Even so, the TV was the center of our after-school lives. We had our shows, and we'd sit in front of the TV while we did our homework. Friends would come over and do the same—especially after we got the VCR and had the ability to share recordings. "You missed The A-Team yesterday? No problem, I've got it." Our parents didn't really watch TV, so the TV room became our playroom. And we beat the shit out of it.
The couch—a brown, orange, and grey monstrosity that wasn't even considered attractive in the 70s, had so many crayon shavings and crumbs ground into the fabric that it crunched when you sat on it. The floor was dirty and drawn on, and it got even worse when my sister received a wood burner as a birthday present one year. But the item that took the most punishment was the TV.
The first to go was the antenna. (We did not have cable.) When your primary operators are under ten years old, your antenna is not long for this world. As far back as I can remember, the rabbit ears were held together with tin foil, coat hangers, and tape.
Then, during an epic martial arts battle with my friend Max, the set sustained a roundhouse kick that sent the power knob into low-Earth orbit. (I was like a young Bruce Lee.) I tried to fix it, but just ended up smearing crazy glue all over the front panel and sticking my hands together. The knob floated around the TV room for years—on top of the TV, found in the couch, used as a The Orb of Sentara in a Thundercats adventure, even though it was not even remotely orb-shaped. But, from the day of the accident until the end of its life, we turned the TV on and adjusted the volume with a needle-nose pliers jammed into the face of display panel.
Oh man, that display panel. It was, as mentioned before, covered in crazy glue. In further effort to fix the TV, I tried the same technique my mother employ to unstick my stuck-together hands: nail polish remover. If you're unfamiliar with the effects of acetone on a thin sheet of clear plastic like you'd find over the LED panel on an early-80s TV, let's just say that the plastic ceases to be clear. After my "repair," we could no longer see what channel we were on. So I cut the channel out, leaving the television's display panel looking like some bath salts-addled maniac chewed its face off.
And then it got worse.
One night a few years later, our parents got home from dinner to find that we were up past our bedtimes. Again. It was the last straw. We watched too much TV, my mother said, and she unplugged the cord of the television and cut off the plug so we couldn't watch it anymore.
I was livid. That weekend, to avenge my fallen friend, I cut the plug off my mother's very expensive lamp. Only I skipped a crucial step in the cord-cutting process: I neglected to unplug it, and was blown across the room by the shock.
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