I’ve mentioned before that my interest in computers, and technology in general, was kicked into overdrive when our local Ames Department Store converted over to a computerized point-of-sale system in the early 1980s. Prior to that I was interested in anything that had a button. I wanted to know what that button did, how it did it, and more importantly why it did it. I was fascinated by anything connected or systematic: the telephone network, washing machine cycles and their predictability, how traffic signals worked. All of this was fascinating to me, and when Ames brought in and IBM 3680 Retail Store System to replace their mechanical (yet inventory tracking) cash registers, I was awestruck. Keen observation taught me how the old inventory numbers from the mechanical cash register price tags were modified to work with the computerized system. Since Ames was basically the only game in town, we went there often and I’d discreetly watch every keypress the cashier made. I could easily remember all the notes taped to the cash register, for example, I knew who wrote bad checks at any given time. I was 14 or so when I went to Ames with older friends from the neighborhood. They walked around; I did the same and decided to buy a candy bar, a card for some occasion, and a Billboard magazine. None of these things had price stickers on them and this was before the days when scanning was mainstream outside of a handful of grocery stores in bigger cities, so all of the data was punched in by hand by the cashier. In the spirit of speeding up their cashiers by forcing them to use “touch typing” for the numeric keypad, all the number keys were covered. Apparently cashiers were expected to know certain inventory numbers by memory. Notes taped to the cash register usually helped in this regard. The customer in line in front of me was completing their sale when I noticed a change in the rhythm of the printer and the precise moment the cash drawer opened. Usually the drawer opened when the receipt finished printing and ejected for removal; in this instance the cash drawer opened immediately after the amount tendered was entered. This was a good thing, the cashier didn’t have to wait for the cash register to do its thing before making change for the customer. I deduced that the software must have been upgraded to be more efficient. The cashier was a young woman named Kelly. She had graduated a few years ago and had been working at Ames since graduation. She’s was kind of snotty in high school. Her father drove our school bus and he picked up his daughters every morning. They were the last stop on the run before heading to the school. Kelly would take her sweet time coming to the bus, sometimes making us wait three or more minutes. Normally the driver would just move on, but he knew his daughter was going to school so he’d wait. She’d take her sweet time coming down the driveway. We’d all roll our eyes and make comments under our breath. We didn’t want to get hollered at by the driver for being disrespectful. She’d get on, glaring as she did so. Her hair was big with lots of Aqua Net. Her hair hadn’t changed much since graduation. She wasn’t particularly happy in her job. A few years later, my friend Scott and I were hanging out in the break room (Scott worked the service desk at the time) and she was back there reading the National Enquirer. That was 1986 or so. She told us she thought the government should move all the “gays to Mars” so that they didn’t “infect the good people with the AIDS”. That was the same night Scott and I came out to each other. Back to the checkout line. Kelly looked at the candy bar and typed in 67200000. The register complained with a large beep. She sighed, hit clear and did it again. 67200000. Beep. Clear. 67200000. Beep. She had tried again. I mumbled “67235515”. “What?”, she asked, looking squarely at me. “67235515. The SKU for candy bars was changed a few months ago and it’s now 67235515. You entered 67200000 the last time I was here and it worked but the software changed and it must not work anymore.” She looked at me, aggravated yet quizzical at the same time. “67235515”, I said once more. She entered the number and the register didn’t complain. She then entered the price. 39 cents. She came to the card and entered the SKU. 81230013. Next came the Billboard magazine. 02700000. Beep. She sighed again. “02730021”, I replied. “How do you know that?”, she asked as she entered in the number. “I don’t know, I just do.” I actually knew all of this information from the notes I had seen taped to the cash register and from careful study of the receipts any and everyone brought home from any store. Those receipts were my connection to this budding technology and I wanted to know everything I could about them. “You’re a freak”, was her only comment as she laughed at me. I turned red as I handed her the money. The drawer opened immediately as soon as she entered the amount tendered. It had never done that with me as a customer before. My friends and I were in the ’69 Dodge truck my friend Ray owned headed back home when he asked, “how did you know those numbers”? He had watched the whole thing from end of the checkout stand as he waited for me to come through the line. “I study these things because computers are the way of the future.” I was too embarrassed of being called a freak again to admit that I had collected dozens of these receipts, had figured out every nuance of the cash register system and had even drawn out flow charts of how they worked. “You need a life”, was his only reply. He then turned up Van Halen on the cassette deck and we motored home. I munched on my candy bar.
I could just walk and explore for days. I don’t need a destination. I don’t need the structure of a schedule. I don’t need to know where I’m going. Wandering or meandering like this allows my head to go into a very happy place. My observational powers sharpen. I watch people. I see things. I don’t need to be part of the crowd; I’d rather watch from afar. I don’t need to go somewhere, I don’t want to see something, I just want to go and see. Most find joy in having the entertainment handed to them: a movie theatre, a museum, an amusement park, a nightclub. There’s nothing wrong with that and that’s how much of society operates, but I’m finding that as I get older my tolerance for that is waning and my need to meander and explore is becoming more important to me. I don’t know if it’s age, or the structure of a 55 hour work week, or just the daily grind in general, but walking around, watching tourists, looking down side streets, and just watching people this morning was a very fulfilling experience for me. I need more of that.
A little Monday morning pick me up. Here’s “Domino Dancing” by Pet Shop Boys. Those with a good ear will find the production of the track familiar; it was produced by Lewis A Martineé, who produced the first two albums by Exposé
Since I’m restricted from cycling this season (due to my surgery earlier this year) I’ve been doing a lot of walking. One of the beautiful things about Chicago is that it’s a very walkable city. Our neighborhood has a nice blend of commercial, industrial, and residential streets to choose from. There are people out at all hours of the day and night. Many dogs live in the neighborhood and they enjoy walking their humans around. Tonight the weather was misty and it was dark early. I still managed to go for a stroll around the area. The homeless man that sleeps under the railroad bridge was getting settled in; a woman stopped by and gave him a pizza. I found that encouraging. I now feel more comfortable doing something similar in the future. I watched their interaction. She called to him from across the street making a point to not invade his space. I do the same when I walk by. I’m hoping to continue my daily walks regardless of the weather, something I couldn’t do before we moved to Chicago. It’ll be cold soon and I’ll be bundled up like crazy but I’m hoping the streets will remain walkable. I’m feeling benefits from the increase in exercise. I want to continue that trend.
I needed this. You need this.
Earl and I had planned to spend four days driving around Lake Michigan, starting last Thursday, to celebrate our 6th legal anniversary. On Wednesday evening, the husband of one of my closest high school friends contacted me; my friend was approaching the final days of his battle with cancer. He had hoped he would make it to Christmas. I talked about the situation with Earl and we agreed to change our plans. We drove from Chicago to Boston in one day. I sat at my friend’s bedside in the wee hours of Friday morning. His breathing was ragged and labored. His heart rate was very high. He was surrounded by members of his family. He opened his eyes once or twice. It was obvious that the end was very near. I shared memories of high school. I revealed that I believed I was the first one that he ever told that he was gay and his husband confirmed hearing that story. I mused over other memories of us discovering who we were in the latest years of our teens. I recalled camping trips we went on together. I smiled. I worried. I said good-bye. Earl and I left and went to the hotel. Friday morning we decided that it was time for him to be with his family; we felt in the way. I was good with that. By late evening I received word that he had passed over. His battle with cancer was done. He was no longer in pain. Cancer sucks. Scott had thought he had cancer beat once, only to be told, on his 50th birthday no less, that it had returned. It was much more aggressive this time. He is no longer suffering. I’m happy that I was able to say goodbye. He was a year and some change older than me. We debated the merits of Betamax vs VHS back in the day (he was a Betamax guy). We discovered computers together, we listened to ABBA together, we decorated a teacher’s home for Christmas together (most students would have TP’d her house, we put up Christmas lights). I’m going to miss knowing that he was there in Boston. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years. Careers, priorities, distance: it all leads to a certain disconnect at times. The most important thing is that our memories together make me smile. And he is no longer suffering.
So yesterday my friend Matt in Williamsport, Pa and I were catching up on the phone. Text messages can take a conversation only so far, it’s best when during those times when you can’t meet in person that you can at least talk on the phone. We got to talking about our shared OCD tendencies, as we both tend to eat our food one thing at a time. For example, all the meat, all the potatoes and then all the vegetables, or whatever. We both agreed that our food can touch, that’s just fine, we just eat one thing at a time. Apparently I’m further up the spectrum than he is because I will disassemble hot subs or sandwiches and salads. It drives Earl crazy. When presented with a meatball sub, I eat all the meatballs first then I eat the bread. When eating a salad I eat all the tomatoes, then all the cucumbers, then all the peppers, then I finally get to the lettuce. It’s just the way I eat and I’ve always eaten this way. I’m not finicky, I’m just organized. Matt has labels on his light switches, so there’s our OCD trade-off. This got me to thinking about some of my idiocyncracies that I’m aware of (I’m sure there are more that I don’t even realize that I’m doing) and then wondering about my steel-trap memory and observational powers. I notice things. I notice patterns, I notice changes in rhythm, I notice changes in appearance and I can easily follow a process. I think this has helped my computer-based career over the years as I can easily spot abnormalities. For example, if a pre-programmed routine is suppose to run every day at a certain time, I will instantly notice if something is amiss. I’ve been telling our Database Administrators that a completion email for a daily routine has been arriving 12-15 minutes late for the past two weeks. They say don’t worry about it. I tell them that something has to be off because the emails are arriving later. Computers don’t get lazy, something is impeding normal progress. Today the process finally failed. Something changed. They’re looking into it. The process and consistency of computing devices, especially vintage devices, fascinate me. My initial interest in computing was sparked by the slow conversion of mechanical to electronic cash registers at grocery and department stores over the 1970s. I remember being fascinated by the space-age looking Singer-Friden cash registers at Sears and Roebuck (the first of their kind, by the way). When our local grocery store, the P&C converted to electronic cash registers in 1978 I was blown away. They were so cool. I watched cashiers do their thing and I learned the process of how the cash registers worked, even at 10 years old. In 1980, P&C hosted a “Food Fiesta” at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse. The Center of Progress building was populated with food vendors giving tasting samples. There were cooking classes. And in one aisle, there was a display of the checkouts at your local P&C Food Store and the public could stand behind the counter, spin the counter belt and try ringing up items. It was 1980. I was 12 years old. I watched a couple of adults try to keep running the cash register and they couldn’t make it work. The “ERROR >” light kept lighting up on the display. The problem was easily apparent, the man was pushing the decimal key when he was trying to enter an item for 99 cents (this was before scanning was popular). He said the cash register was broken. A P&C representative started walking over to the register but I beat them to the cash register. I then hit CLEAR and promptly rang up about 75 items at rapid speed, using advanced functions such as split pricing, multiple departments, food stamp exceptions, taxable items and the like. I even added a few store coupons and double vendor coupons to the order before punching in split tender – so much in cash and so much in a personal check. The order completed, the receipt was ejected from the top and the cash drawer popped open. I kept the receipt as a souvenir. The P&C representative and the few adults around me all asked, “how in the world do you know how to do that”? I just shrugged my shoulders and moved on. My steel trap memory and my ability to observe. I should have put that super power to good use. As I was formulating this blog entry in my head earlier today, I got to doodling on my work notebook and sure enough, I was able to draw this, and several other like it, out. From memory. This is the layout of a Data Terminal Systems Series 400 (actually model 440) cash register keyboard in 1980 in a grocery store configuration. There’s only one button I can’t remember. I probably should use my powers for something useful someday.
Happy National Coming Out Day! I had figured out I was “different” by second grade, confirmed I was fooling no one by 11th grade Ethics Class and made a promise to myself on the first day at SUNY Fredonia that I would no longer try to suppress who I was. Despite every name, threat, punch, religious intervention and law that tried to convince me to be something I’m not, the biggest obstacle of being gay has been my own internalized homophobia and fear of disappointing those I care about. As I approach the second half of my life, I’m getting over that and just embracing who I am. I admire those that don’t have that internal struggle. My struggle has been relatively easy; I know others have had it much worse. I hope it gets better for them. So here’s a picture of me, “pretty in pink”, taken August ’90 on Jones Beach on Long Island.
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