I grew up on St. Johns Drive in what was then a mostly rural community in Greece, New York. The developer named the street after the parish to which he belonged, which was also the school I went to for eight years. The rest of the streets in the neighborhood were named after family members, with names such as Alfonso and Sharon. This was before run-of-the-mill streets had haughty names such as Raspberry Bramble Patch Meadow or Saffron Oolong Tea Lane.
There wasn’t much around us but open land, farms, a few schools and the smoldering towers of Eastman Kodak, which although a few miles away were visible over the rooftops. There was a small strip plaza located an easy mile from my house that sold almost everything a family needed in the 1960s, with the exception of clothing and appliances. One had to go another half mile or so to buy those items, but for me, for my little world, Ridgecrest Plaza had it all. This is where my Mom went grocery shopping, and I could wait in the car without somebody calling the police. There was also a barbershop where I could get a haircut for seventy-five cents, and then stop at the drugstore with the twenty-five cents in change and get two comics and a gumball. Behind the plaza was a baseball field where my Little League games were played. All of the necessities of life were covered in one neat little plot.
Back home, I was usually outside, but at night or on weekday mornings, I would watch TV, which wasn’t that complicated. There were three channels that lived in the airwaves and were captured by a two-pronged antenna, the tips of which were wrapped in origami aluminum foil to better pull in the signals. The antenna was mounted on the back of a television that was more cabinet than it was a screen. To be sure, TV was doled out in shared doses, so everybody watched the same thing or nothing at all in gloriously, grainy black and white.
Sure, the antenna required constant fidgeting to get even the semblance of a clear picture but it was still pretty amazing. The key thing I remember is that the TV only came on when there was something worth watching. It was never background noise. My mom always had music on in the background, sometimes as a record album or more often WEZO, her favorite radio station.
Every once in a while, something went wrong with the television, so the TV cart was spun around and the ventilated pressboard back was removed. Everybody was a TV mechanic back then, and the fault was usually a tube of some kind. The offending tube would get plucked out of the set, and I would ride my bike up to the drugstore and test it in a wonderful machine that was easy to use. If the new tube wasn’t in one of the several drawers under the machine, there was a wall of them behind the counter, next to the cigarettes. I can’t remember the exact price, but tubes were pretty cheap. Once I got home, the new tube went in and the TV was good for a few more years. An RCA, GE or Zenith TV lasted about twenty years, after which time it was put out by the curb where it would take at least two men to heft it into the back of a garbage truck. Even a small set weighed as much as a boat anchor.
I thought about all of this a few weeks ago when my wife and I had to go TV shopping.
It all started when the eleven-year-old plasma TV in our living room stopped working right in the middle of some forgettable show that Mrs. G. and I were watching. “Huh, how about that?” I said. In the back of my mind, I always wondered how long these things would last, but eleven years seemed a little light. Turns out that as the stats start to roll in on these TVs, eleven years is on the high side of average.
Eleven years ago, I either made the biggest mistake in my life or the best decision ever when we had a home theater system installed. There was a big TV mounted on the wall (how futuristic!), five speakers wired into various parts of the room and a thundering bass cube tucked off in a corner that would rattle the windows during an alien attack. We also had a receiver that controlled everything, a DVD player and a CD carousel for music. It shuffled through five CDs. A few years later, we added a streaming device. Everything but the speakers and the TV was located in a closet, in another room. It was all very tidy.
The difference between this set-up and the chunky TV I grew up with was akin to the plane the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and the space shuttle, and it all sounds pretty impressive until it isn’t, and then it’s simply a forty-two inch ugly, dark object on the wall.
Mrs. G. and I waited two weeks to do anything about this because it involved not only a new TV but a new receiver, and a Blu-Ray player, along with HDMI and fiber optic cables that had to be fished inside the wall and under the floor from the living room to the closet in the other room to make it all work. Oh, and two guys with degrees in—I have no idea what—to connect it all. The days of my trying to decipher a snake’s nest worth of cables are long gone.
But here’s the thing.
For two weeks, we listened to music and read. My wife was burning through an eight-book series (Outlander), each book at least three inches thick, while my Kindle was getting a sound workout. Without an evening TV schedule, we were up early and went to bed early, where she would read for hours under the glow of her book light while I usually fell asleep within a chapter.
At first, I missed watching the news and a few other shows, but my world didn’t grind to a halt without them. I felt no worse for not knowing what some newscaster someplace had to say, and the really important events I read about online. I couldn’t think of a single TV program that I missed, and if I did want to see something, I watched it in the bedroom. While sitting up on the bed watching a few minutes of TV, it felt as if I was in a hotel. The dog was thoroughly confused by all of this since snacking was now at a minimum.
Yes, eventually we got a new TV or as the sales guy said, “a system,” and it really is breathtaking. The box the TV came in was taller and almost as long as our couch, and the two techs removed ninety-percent of the wires we had since almost everything now goes over a WiFi signal, which is ironically not much different than the TV signal we used to get through an antenna only smarter. The TV is also smart, much smarter than I am, to be honest about it, so the apps that pull in streaming channels are now integrated with regular channels. Life is now so much easier.
We watched Survivor last night, and the picture was amazing. It’s crystal clear and somehow looks 3D but isn’t, which has something to do with Ultra High Def, which is High Defier than regular High Def. As it turns out, our former TV was No Def. I don’t understand it at all, and when the guy was explaining it to me via a YouTube video of Costa Rica, I was slack-jawed as I watched the birds and water. My jaw was actually slack, but I caught myself before I reached out and tried to touch a bird. Another few seconds and I would have been drooling.
After they left, I lugged all of the old equipment to the basement, which is home to the rest of the outdated, yet still functional electronics from days gone by. I think there’s a Beta tape deck down there, along with a few telephones, some radios, probably a dozen remote controls, at least two analog TV’s that won’t work without an adaptor, and a fax machine. I had to drive the plasma TV to a special recycling facility since state law now forbids electronics from being thrown away with regular garbage. That’s fair enough because those three-decade-old appliances from the 1960s have been replaced with appliances that may last only ten to twelve years.
Sure, the new system is cool and I can’t wait to watch a Blu-Ray, but this morning, right before I started writing this, I was out on the back porch, listening to the rain with my Kindle in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.
The TV is still off, but the music is on quietly in the background.
CDs have been replaced by customized music that is streamed from Pandora One, and as the TV hangs silently on the wall, there’s a station called Acoustic Autumn Radio playing in the background, which is what used to be called “easy listening.” There are enough speakers to send a hardcore metalhead into a coma, and we barely play the music above a whisper.
My mom would have been proud of me.