“They say you can’t live forever, but with my luck, I probably will,” mused the Pee-Wee Herman Marionette.
It was a completely random encounter at a ‘Grave’ (If they didn’t call Gothic Raves that, they should have) in Cleveland sometime in the late 90’s. Despite the fact that I was wearing a stretch velvet gown and leather armor, I felt that the gentleman was dressed strangely in a suit and bow tie and had perhaps wandered in by mistake. The rictus grin on his pale wooden face suggested a heart attack or a panic attack, and I figured that I would check in on him to make sure that he was OK.
(Women in vinyl catsuits have that effect.)
He turned out to be quite friendly. Though his delivery reminded me, distinctly, of some far off, chipmunk-like cartoon character, his words were a 15 minute cry-for-help routine that I am ashamed to say had me in stitches. He pontificated on the ineffectiveness of Xanax and other medications to treat his long term depression through humorous Sci Fi references, and as an angsty teenage disabled veteran attending something called a ‘Grave’ for fun, I could completely, laughingly relate.
His closing line has always stuck with me: the misfortune of eternity.
Whenever I hear about another centenarian, I always look up their birth year to see what the world was like. It was sobering, at the time, to find out that they had been born to a world before electricity and indoor plumbing. The learning curve of that learning curve seems absurd to me. To be born into a world where horses ruled the streets and the trains ran on steam, raise a family during the Industrialization of two world wars, grand-kids on the Moon and the promise of the Atomic Future, only to be dumped unceremoniously into our dingy little world.
At that time, though, I still considered myself technologically relevant. As a poor man’s Graphic Designer, or Pre-Press Department, in a Print Shop, I have handled all of the layouts for every piece of personalized stationary for national accounts, participated in the late night run of Adam & Eve mailers, and even did some printing for Bob Ross. We lived in a world of denial, holding fervently to the belief that dot-matrix printing would never catch up to computer output.
We were right. It was Laser Printers that destroyed the industry. That, and cheaper printing in Canada, China and Kinko’s.
The very first graphics machine I learned on was the Compugraphic Typesetter. This room-sized graphics machine had a custom keyboard, oblong screen and, with the help of a coffin-sized processor loaded with individual font cartridges, would output a long strip of your requested typefaced words which had to be developed and was light-sensitive. The resulting string had to be waxed, cut into pieces and manually applied to your layout.
It was the pinnacle of 1984 technology, and I was learning it in 1992. I suppose that the warning signs were there.
When the Printing Industry died, my technological savvy died as well. Being branded obsolete, I became a repository of useless knowledge. For example: Thermographic powder added to newly pressed ink bumps up when heated, and that is why you can feel the type on a business card. I have had to jump quickly as the business cards came out of the unit on fire, and I have also worked with the copperplate embossing that it is intended to mimic. Each card was pressed against a specially made copper plate to raise the letters of your choice. They didn’t catch fire, but you did have to wait for them to dry. Only very specific card stocks could take the process, and your etched copperplate had to be aligned perfectly with the print on the card, leading to inevitable, expensive waste. It was a holdover from an old status quo when Cleveland had been ruled by Self-Made Kings, and a business card had to tell someone who you are. (Eat your heart out, Jason Bateman.)
Out here in the Desert, I met a man who started out on letterpress. That is what you see in Period movies where sticks of lead, each with an embossed letter of a specific style, was loaded into a tray to be mass pressed as a newspaper. He told me that he remembered when a street I always thought of as the center of town was way outside city limits. It made me look at this desert town differently. The strange little one bedroom bungalows around city center suddenly became vacation cabins ‘way out on the edge of town.’ There is a stone-built school right in what I think of as Downtown that, when open, was considered so far outside of town that the parents were worried that the Natives would come and take their children.
If you ask at the Police station, they’ll tell you that, in the capture of Dillinger, they had already been alerted by a radio store who had served some suspicious characters. They had been hoping to build a radio receiver to listen in on the cop’s radio transmissions, unaware that Tucson Police Department worked off of free standing call boxes until the 1960’s. The streets weren’t even paved until the 60’s (though if you have ever had to deal with Caliche, you’ll understand that this wasn’t a big deal.
The problem is that I cannot help but long for a time like that. I can see it through shaky amber filters, like a life unlived. This dusty town in the desert was a hub for cowboy movies, and John Wayne himself wandered the streets of Tucson, looking for something to do. Lee Marvin regularly drove a beat-up army jeep into town from his house in the desert to buy milk. It was a quiet little mining town until it became quite popular during the Cowboy Craze for having lenient divorce laws.
I worked security for a cowboy town set up by a local steak producer called Trail Dust Town. Set up like a western town, with an eye on authenticity, they serve up the best Wild West Show I have ever seen as well as a steak so fresh, it was probably eating cactus that morning. My job was to wander the streets of this tiny cowboy movie all night, ensuring vandals stayed away, while Roy Rogers tunes played softly on the PA system. It was easy to get lost in the moment, and realize that it was probably a fair creation of a mining town, a tiny collections of stores and saloons that clung to a central square, when law men usually grew up with the bad guys they had to deal with in Epic fashion. Then again, many came and went in a handful of years.
I found out later that this tiny town occupied the old location of the Tanque Verde Swap Meet, which had moved to a much larger location, far from Tanque Verde Road, while retaining the name some time in the 80’s. If you want to visit this tiny slice of cowboy life, it is near the life sized Tyrannosaurus Rex getting take out from McDonald’s.
The State of Arizona has only been an official state since 1912. One hundred and two years ago. There might still be a centenarian who was born here before that.
Would I want to live forever?
Just the other day, I happened across a picture of my Middle School being torn down. Unbidden, a childhood memory popped into my head, and when I got to the part where I misspoke, I winced in psychic pain. I am nearly 40 years old, and the thought of a childhood regret from 1988 can still cause my soul grief.
I had never, originally, intended to live this long, truth be told. Life changed, decided to renew my contract, and here I still am, watching the days slip by quickly, like an old movie camera spewing celluloid. The life of chronic pain can color the days sharply, so that they spill away from you with an unreferenceable blob of Past. When you constantly feel like you are dying, you make your peace with death.
“It’s not the pace of life that concerns me. It’s the sudden stop at the end.” -Random ‘No Fear’ Caption.
An overbearing sense of duty is what keeps me stumbling along. As a Husband and Father, there are people who depend on me. As a Farmer, there are animals in my care. I shuffle along like an old man, left weak by procedures that proved unsuccessful for addressing the constant pain, I drag forward under the power of regrets for the things I have not done yet. My apologies are the staff I use to keep my balance.
I don’t fear the sudden stop at the end. The days slip by, until making replacement parts with a machine becomes a possibility. They are planning a colony on Mars, and Sci Fi finally becomes our reality. Before I can figure out how to keep up, I’ll probably be mostly robot parts and genetically grown youthful vitality, though they might not waste the effort on me. I still use a phone that folds and, though I successfully ran troubleshooting on most major Smartphones for a giant wireless carrier, if you handed me one, I probably would not even know how to turn it on.
I discovered that one of my favorite astronauts, William R. Pogue, the Astronaut who went on Strike in Space to get more time to look out the window, died at 84 this past March. The computer I learned in Middle School is a museum piece that they use now to startle small children. My childhood hero, Russell Johnson, has died. The silver in my hair and beard remind me that the Illusion of Time rules this place, and I have no choice but to comply. I feel like a man out of place in the Timeline, a refugee from another world. An anachronism lost and adrift in the World of the Future.
When you ask if I would want to live forever, I would have to ask you if I had not already.
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What’s playing in my head?