Read Chump Change Online

Authors: David Eddie

Chump Change (19 page)

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Frizell said watch a lot of TV, so I watched. On the strength of my (apparent) job offer, I borrowed another $200 from Max, and settled in to watch.

It was ironic, really, that my old man should be encouraging me to get a job in television, because it was he (though he swears he doesn’t remember this) who once, long ago, locked the family set in the basement when we were kids.

In retrospect, I must say I can see why he did what he did. We were way too into it, my brother and I — especially my brother. He was mesmerized, Svengalied, a
tube-ula rasa
sofaspud with all the trimmings: sour cream, bacon bits, chives. Every day, he power-walked home from school, planning his “viewing strategy” in his head. “Get
Smart, Happy Days, Gilligan’s Island, Star Trek
of course, then dinner,
Charlie’s Angels
…” Then he sat slack-jawed and pinwheel-eyed before the television for six, seven, eight hours straight, coming down only for his half-hour “dinner window” from 6:30–7:00 (when the news was on).

You couldn’t take him anywhere: every time he saw a product “as advertised on TV” he threw a fit, stomped his feet, held his breath till he turned blue — until someone either bought him the fucking product (a rubber snake or whatever) or he had to be locked in the car in the parking lot, like a dog.

Among his friends, he was a playground guru, a storehouse of TV-trivia nonpareil. At recess, they would gather around him and pepper him with questions: Who was “Charlie” and why were his detectives called “Angels”? What happened to The Fonz’s true parents? And the medium’s equivalent of the tree-falls-in-the-forest philosophical classic: If the Professor can make a radio out of a coconut, why can’t he fix the boat and get everyone off Gilligan’s Island?

He was a television artist, my brother, if I may be allowed to use that word in connection with so fundamentally passive an activity as watching TV. He watched with passion, seriousness, and even inventiveness. For example, I believe it was my very own younger brother who (way back in the low-tech ‘70s, long before channel converters or remote control) invented what we now refer to as “channel grazing.” It looked like grazing, too, the way he did it back then, on all fours in front of the set, manually spinning the dial, sometimes even lowing with satisfaction or bellowing with chagrin at what he came across.

Me he considered to be little more than a dilettante. I put in my hours, like everyone else, but I was too prone to distraction, from the parents, phone calls, sometimes even homework. He never said anything (my brother literally
never said anything
while watching TV). But sometimes, as we sat side-by-side, bathed in baby-blue cathode rays, I could sense his disapproval. It was all in the clench of his buttocks, in the disdainful way he flipped from my channel-choice to his choice,
the
obvious
choice (that was usually just before I beat the fucking shit out of him).

Yes, in retrospect I can see why the old man did what he did. Still, the way he did it was a tad precipitate, I feel. One day it was there, the next — poof! — gone. My brother and I came home, yelled “Hi, Mom!” over our shoulders as we bounded up the stairs two at a time to the TV room, flung open the door and there, where the tube used to be, just a square of dust-free wood on the cabinet top. My brother stood thunderstruck, swaying in the doorway. His jaw worked but no sound emerged from his lips. He turned to look at me, but his eyes were glazed over, he saw nothing. And then he was gone, galloping down the stairs, with me hot on his heels.

Mom was in the kitchen as usual, stirring something inscrutable in a large pot.

“Mom:
where’s the television?”
my brother demanded to know, his empurpled face inches from hers.

“Yeah, Mom: what have you done with it?” I asked from her other flank.

“Your father locked it in the basement last night after you went to bed,” she answered, unperturbed. “I didn’t have anything to do with it. Why don’t you ask him about it when he gets home tonight?”

“Well, what time does he usually get home?” my brother asked her.

“Yeah, Mom: what time?” I chimed in.

She looked levelly from one of us to the other. “You mean, you don’t know what time your father gets home every night?”

I caught my brother’s eye through the steam from the pot. He shrugged. All we knew was that Dad was always already in the kitchen, with drink and loosened tie, when we came down at 6:30 for dinner. But when he actually arrived home was a
mystery. It could’ve been any time between 3:30 and 6:30, really.

“Six,” our mutual mother said. “He gets home at six.”

By the time Dad got home, my brother and I had settled on a plan. Good cop, bad cop, basically. Or, to be more accurate, prosecuting attorney, psychotic maniac. I would open with my best Perry Mason-type pseudo-legalistic mumbo-jumbo (this never failed to soften up the old man, less I think because he was swayed by my impeccable logic than because he pictured me in lawyer’s robes someday). Then, if that didn’t do the trick, my brother would weigh in with his act: tearing out his hair, beating his breast, screaming at the top of his lungs. We’d used this routine many times before to good effect, to obtain everything from allowance increases to bedtime extensions.

It didn’t work too well this time, though. I hit Dad with my spiel the moment he walked through the door: “Dad: it has come to our attention that, without any prior negotiation or familial consent, you have seen fit unilaterally to —”

Before I could get properly into it, my brother jumped the gun and went into his act, but to no avail. Dad merely hung up his coat and hat with an aggrieved air à la Ward Cleaver and trudged into the kitchen. He kissed Mom on the cheek, and sat down with a heavy sigh to explain how it was going to be.

In the bleak weeks that followed, my brother staged sit-ins, storm-throughs, freeze-outs, glare-fests. All in vain. Our father didn’t budge an inch. In retrospect, I must say my brother’s tactic of Ghandian “passive resistance” was poorly chosen. After all, he’d spent the last few years shut in the TV room, sometimes even ordering his dinner over the intercom. Giving our parents the silent treatment wasn’t exactly going to break them.

Then he tried another tack. Claiming to go to the library, he went to his friends’ houses instead, and attached himself to their tubes like a barnacle. That came to an abrupt end when
someone’s mother phoned and said: “Mrs. Henry, your son has been watching TV at our house for the last four hours straight. He keeps ordering me to bring him snacks, and we’re about to have some people over for dinner. I wonder if you could come and get him?”

By sheer coincidence, on the same day this happened my mother found a baggie of pot in a pair of shorts I’d tossed down the laundry chute. My brother and I were both grounded indefinitely.

We were faced with a perplexing new dilemma: how to kill the great yawning gaps of time between school and dinner, dinner and bedtime, without television. We tried cards, board games, various hobbies. My brother tried to put together an intricate model of a ‘67 Corvette, and spent many long hours gluing microscopic parts together, consulting the instructions, surrounded by newspaper on the floor of his bedroom. One day, he finally gave up, and with an inhuman howl of anguish, he brought his small fist down on the whole project, eventually jumping up and down on the remains until they were practically powder.

Me, I acquired a “Junior Magician” magic set, and started giving post-prandial magic shows for the benefit of my parents’ dinner-party guests. For a while, I enjoyed their shammy gasps of surprise and exclamations of faux amazement. But it soon wore off. There was so much work involved, all that practice, going to the magic store, etc. I wanted to be entertained, goddammit; I wanted to sit like a stump while someone else busted their hump trying to amuse
me
, not the other way around. I gave it up, and wound up mostly doing… nothing, which was alright, but quite dull.

“Mom, I’m
bo-o-o-red,”
I said one day, stretching out the vowel to kill a little time.

“Why don’t you read a book?” she said, quick as a flash.

A book? They forced us to read books in school. The last thing I wanted to do with my free time was read a book.

“Aw, c’mon, Mom…” I began.

Suddenly she cocked her ear, like a rabbit listening for a twig snapping in the nearby woods, and held up a single hand, palm flat, fingers outstretched.

“Shhhh. Do you hear that?”

I heard it: a scratching, scraping sound, emanating from the basement. It sounded like a very large, horrible animal trying to claw his way into our house. Mom was at the door, ready to go down.

“Mom! Don’t go down there!”

It was a pure B-movie situation: don’t touch that door! But, just like in a B-movie, she didn’t listen, and started down the stairs, with me behind her, clutching her skirt. Due to some axe-murder-encouraging design flaw, the light switch was located at the bottom of the stairs and you had to
descend
in darkness before you could illumine the murky depths of our (unfinished) basement. We
descended
the stairs, in total darkness, and total silence except for the rasping scraping sound. When we hit the bottom of the stairs, Mom threw the switch.

What greeted our eyes was the saddest and most pathetic sight I ever hope to see. My brother, on his knees, with a nail file in one hand and a flashlight in the other, sawing away at the lock to the door that housed the television set. He looked up, his eyes — lab-rat eyes, trapped-rabbit eyes — still feverish with frustration, with the intensity of his purpose.

The next day our mother frog-marched us to the library, and asked the librarian to recommend some books. After grilling me with a few cross-generational questions — what subjects
did I like at school, what were my hobbies — the kindly, somewhat equine-looking librarian went to the shelf and drew out
Steppenwolf
, by Herman Hesse.

To this day, I have no idea why she chose that particular book. Maybe she sensed I was different, set apart, like Hesse’s wolf of the steppes destined to live aloof and apart from the crowd.

On the other hand, it’s also possible my long hair, ratty clothes, and earring tipped her off that I might enjoy the “psychedelic” scenes towards the end of the book.

Whatever,
Steppenwolf
hit me like a hammer. I especially couldn’t believe how honest Hesse was about his loneliness. Shit, I was lonely, too, but you’d never catch me telling anyone about it, even if I were tortured for days in the darkest dungeon. It was my deepest, darkest secret, yet here was Hesse laying it all down in black and white, for all to see.

Steppenwolf
had a weird, double-edged effect on me: simultaneously I realized what I hadn’t before, that I was lonely, that this gnawing hunger in my soul was for other people, for love, friends, a social life; and at the same time I felt less lonely, because a 50-year-old German man from another era had touched my soul. He was my friend.

Are there any others out there?
That’s what I wanted to know. Every few days, I took a stack of books out of the Palmerston Library, to return a week later for an equally large stack of books. I became an avid reader.

And that led to wanting to become a writer and all the rest of it.

Since then, I hadn’t watched much TV. Not out of any sort of snobbery: I found TV dull, repetitious. TV doesn’t tell you much about your inner life; and more and more that’s what I wanted to hear about.

So now I had to make up for lost time. For an entire week, I did nothing but eat, drink, smoke, shit, piss, sleep and watch TV. Not just information television, either, but everything under the cathode-ray sun: nature docs, cooking shows, sitcoms, music videos, soaps, talk shows, infomercials, gardening shows.

TV had changed quite a bit since I watched it last — for the worse, I felt. But then, TV always gets worse, and always will. Like water TV continually seeks fresh lows.

Music videos were a particularly demonic new development, I felt. They were just ads, really, ads within ads. Like Prince’s “Batman” video, which was airing at the time: the video was an ad for his record, which was an ad for the movie, which in turn was an ad for the merchandise, the biggest moneymaker of them all.

And infomercials: Tom Wu cruising around in his yacht or Rolls, always stuffed with bikini-popping babes, extolling the virtues of his “bargain property” system. “This is a picture of my family when we first came to this country. Now look at me. Look at my house. I got a waterfall in the front, pool like a lake. I get tired of looking at all the water!”

But of all the sounds and images that washed over my consciousness in that cathode-dazed week, the one that stuck with me was a conventional commercial featuring Derek Danby, former host of
Man Rising
, the Cosmodemonic info-spiritual program. An ad for specs: “As a journalist, I was sceptical about Lensmaster’s claim to have specs delivered in one hour,” the cardiganed Danby began. “But after their team of experts made me a pair of top-drawer glasses during my lunch break, all my doubts vanished.”

Something like that. I was saddened to see Danby descend to this level of hucksterism and spec-shilling. I mean, he needs
money, like everyone, but surely Danby had a generous pension from the Cosmodemonic Cash-Cow? The thing was, Derek Danby had been a sort of spiritual leader for many of his viewers. People followed his advice, took what he said seriously. Now he was just saying what he was paid to say, like everyone else. I mean, I know you’re supposed to distinguish between what people say in commercials and what they say at other times, but it casts doubts on their other statements. What if Jesus had said: “Consider the lilies of the field — and while you’re at it, consider Sheckey’s sandals. If camels are the ships of the desert, then Sheckey’s are the sails!” No one would have taken his other statements as seriously, and where would we be today?

And I was joining it all, the Cosmodemonic conspiracy, selling my words to the highest bidder. At least it’s the news, I consoled myself. It’s not like I’m cranking out dialogue for
Three’s Company
. I’m performing a valuable service, I’m helping inform the populace.

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