Once upon a time there was a television screen. It was the screen of an ancient, 13-inch glass fronted, vacuum tube “portable” television set. It must have weighed fifty pounds, which is probably was it was still around in Jimmy’s garage, though Jimmy also had an old eight track tape deck somewhere in that garage. He’d ripped it out of a decaying ’68 volkswagon camping bus and left it for “later.” In Jimmy’s garage, later never came.
It wasn’t that Jimmy was a lazy mechanic. Far from it. He always had two dozen projects he was actively working on, and a couple dozen more he wanted to be working on. But they were the tip of the iceberg compared to the piles upon piles of projects that Jimmy didn’t remember he was working on as well. Jimmy’s life was a pile of unfinished promises, junk that he still thought he could turn into gold, and dreams of something turning up that would change his fortunes.
Something would turn up to change his fortunes, but that thing was already resting, half-buried in other cords and old car radios. It was a television screen.
Despite its small size and defunct glass tube, the tiny television had at one point been able to pick up local stations. Jimmy had planned to have it mounted up in the corner of the garage for clients to watch while he performed mechanical miracles on their cars. But that idea had gotten scrapped as Jimmy tried to clean out enough space for a client’s car in his cavernous garage and instead got sucked into a half-a-dozen other projects. Now with the conversion to digital signals and the discontinuation of analog, the television screen couldn’t pick up any stations. Which made it all the more surprising when it did.
It all happened because Jimmy was working under a jeep. He wanted to make it into one of those duck boats that could run on land or water, and he was working into the night. Reaching for a wrench, Jimmy knocked over his favorite portable lamp. Rather than just resting on its side, the lamp set off a cascade of other things, ending with an engine block sliding off its supports and smashing down piteously on the lamp. It died with a crunch and a few sparks.
Jimmy didn’t waste any time thanking his lucky stars for the fact that it was a lamp, not his leg, under the engine block. How had he not secured the block in place like he meant to? Instead Jimmy swore a blue streak and rooted around for the nearest light source. He grabbed the television, pushed off all the other cords, and set the television next to the engine block. Of course he planned to hoist the block back up in the morning, but right now he just needed some light to work by. So Jimmy plugged in the set and crawled under the jeep by the flickering screen light.
Anyone under fifty may not remember the swirling fuzz of an old television screen. The stations used to come in like radio stations, fading in and out. And just like radio stations we’d have to get long antennas to pick up the signal. On old buildings you might still see aluminum trees, meant for picking up the old analog signals. Just think of a personal cell tower and let us oldsters reminisce in peace.
So when Jimmy got a bit of a signal on the old set, he didn’t pay it any mind. The fuzz and crackle of the old sets was about as comforting as an electronic version of the campfire for the cavemen. But he was tightening the bolt on his plexiglass underlayer when Jimmy heard a noise. It was little more than static, but it sounded like: “buuuuszzzzJimmybuzzzzzzz.” Hmm, thought Jimmy to himself. But the buzz continued and he continued to hear “Jimmy “ repeated over and over. Then the fuzz faded for a second and Jimmy distinctly heard the words “Jimmy, get over here!” He was mildly interested. Some old show was performing. But it was distracting, so Jimmy scooched over to the set and flipped the channel. Again, those younger than fifty will be startled to know that a dial used to exist on the front of the television set to click around between all twelve stations, only four of which really worked. Yes, it is time to pity your parents and give a hug to a poor deprived elderly person who only had four channels and no online video streaming.
But the key is that when you clicked the dial, the channel changed, and the program should have changed. But in this case the channel didn’t change, and Jimmy could still hear his name being called surrounded by static. He scooched back over and flipped the channel a few more times, until he found a quiet channel with no static. Sighing with satisfaction, Jimmy scooched back to his work.
The television screen flickered a quiet blue, and then a signal marker came up. Those ancient enough will remember that television channels used to shut down for the night. They would leave up a signal screen, like a test screen with all the colors, and then play classical music in the background until they started programming the next morning. You young ‘uns should think about it as a screensaver.
When the signal screen came up, Jimmy didn’t even notice. He was trying to caulk all along the edge of the plexiglass, and it wasn’t sticking the way it should. He must have gotten grease or something on the edge. The screen flickered to life. A head in shadow flicked on. A woman’s voice said: “Add a Gortex layer over the caulk.” Jimmy was so engrossed by his project that he didn’t look up for a moment. “Yeah, that might work, what the…?” Jimmy scooched over to the television. “Who said that?” “Me,” said the voice in the television. All Jimmy could see was a shadow, back lit so you could not see a face or even tell a gender. The voice was female, but it could have been some sort of voice scrambler.
“How can you see what I’m doing?” Jimmy looked around for other cameras. “You’re right there looking at me,” said the voice. “So if I turn you off, you can’t see me?” Jimmy reached for the switch. “Please don’t,” said the voice. “I’ve been off for way too long. And I can help you.”
Jimmy considered. He was talking to a television. But it was probably one of his buddies who had hidden a camera in all his junk and was trying to hide his identity by using a female voice synthesizer . It didn’t bother Jimmy that he didn’t really have any buddies, and none who could pull off a stunt like this one. He decided it was someone to talk to, and that was a new thing. Jimmy had pissed off or borrowed money from everyone he knew, so having anyone to talk to was a good switch.
“Ok,” said Jimmy. “Gortex for the caulk, huh?”
Jimmy left the television on while he worked, which was pretty much all the time except when he had to take a break to collapse with exhaustion for a few hours or heed the call of nature. Jimmy didn’t eat so much as graze. He picked up food at mechanic repair shops, where he’d bargain for a box of old power bars or expired nuts in exchange for a used part. So his diet was pretty much salt and candy. The one good thing was that Jimmy didn’t have enough money for beer, which tells you just how busted Jimmy was. A mechanic who can’t afford beer is about as low as you can get.
But with the television, Jimmy started eating more regularly. The television told him to go to sleep, and would play loud music to wake him up. Every couple hours the television would tell him to take a break, and Jimmy found he was able to work longer hours without getting brain dead.
And Jimmy was working. With the television reminding him which project he was working on, Jimmy started getting things done. He’d get distracted when he found a new part, but the TV would bring him back to the project he’d been working on. The duck boat got finished, and Jimmy drove it out to the front of his property. A couple of days later, someone came and bought it for cash.
It had been so long since Jimmy had any money, he went out and blew it. Lots of beer. For the next three days Jimmy was pretty much out-to-lunch. When he surfaced, bleary-eyed, the television was silent. He went up to it where it hummed quietly and reached to jigger with it. “Don’t touch me!” The television snapped at him. “Whoa!” said Jimmy. “What did I do?” “You mean besides blow everything on beer and take off for a few days?” the female voice of the television was furious. Jimmy was really apologetic. He felt bad, leaving the television like that. He felt so bad that when he asked the television what he could do to make it up. The television told him he could finish off all those old lawnmowers and free up some decent shelf space. So Jimmy did exactly that. He really did. All four lawnmowers were out and for sale by the end of a long, silent day.
The next day Jimmy had a buyer for one of the lawnmowers. Instead of running off with the money, he came to the television. They talked about his projects, and agreed the money should be used for parts for two big projects that were close to finishing. That week Jimmy did more work that he thought possible, but finished more projects than he had in years.
Somebody noticed. They had their old junk car towed to Jimmy and asked him how much he would charge to fix it. Jimmy quoted them a too low price, worked on the car all night, and had to sell another part to get the piece he needed for the car. At the end, he lost money.
The television looked at Jimmy when he came in. At least that was what it felt like. Jimmy scratched the back of his head. “Yeah, that was stupid. Can you help me out next time?” Every time a new customer showed up, Jimmy would go in the back and talk to the television. The basic rule was that he needed to double his initial estimates or charge extra for the parts. Doing that, Jimmy started making a little money. He wanted to buy beer with it, but the television hummed a little higher frequency whenever he brought it up.
Over the years, Jimmy cleaned out his garage. It didn’t happen quickly and it didn’t happen easily, but slowly things got more organized and one day Jimmy got up and looked around and he was working in a clean garage. Except for one old 13-inch television screen.
“Hey,” said Jimmy to the TV. “What are we doing today?” The television was silent. Jimmy tried everything. Nothing would get the television to talk. Finally in desperation he unplugged the television and gently opened up the back. Inside was a full motherboard, with a couple dozen switches and transfers that haven’t been invented yet. Jimmy stared at the back of the board. “What the heck…” Then Jimmy saw the card. It was printed in a woman’s hand. It said simply, “Jimmy, it’s time for us to meet.” Jimmy turned over the card and saw an address.
Jimmy drove out that day and met his future wife, an invalid shut-in who’d been bound to a wheelchair since she was a child. Sally met him at the door and he immediately recognized that she was the voice, and she hugged him as soon as she saw him. It was weird, but comforting , to sit across from her.
Jimmy had so many questions. “Who built all that circuitry?” “You did,” Said Sally with a smile. “At least the older version of you did. You told me that you did it right after you built the time machine. You knew that you needed to bring yourself back here and to give me everything I need to get things set up. You can imagine I took some convincing, and it even took a note from older me to get me to agree to this crazy scheme.” She showed him the little robot cameras, no bigger than large spiders, that she had sent into his garage to give her feedback to talk to him.
“But why,” said Jimmy, “didn’t I, the old me, just give me all the plans?”
“Because,” said Jamie, “you wouldn’t have been able to do them. You have such a purpose, Jimmy, but unless you have the ability to follow through, there wasn’t any point in handing you plans and gadgets. You would have just sold them for nothing and spent the money on beer.” Jimmy nodded. He knew it was true. Then he hugged Sally and planned to build her the mechanical wheelchair she needed.
- The Depressing Future Is Here (writingintheageoftechnology.wordpress.com)
- Crystal Hummingbird (pamsjournal.com)
- In the future of television, the set-top box is king (qz.com)
- Jimmy Fallon replacing Jay Leno on ‘Tonight Show’ in spring 2014 (theclicker.today.com)
- How Much Innovation Is Enough? (dish.andrewsullivan.com)
- Ooyala Global Video Index: Broadcaster Edition Reveals Latest Trends in Multi-Screen Television (socialmediaportal.com)