I have been helping my father-in-law with a laptop computer from his cousin who passed away recently. The cousin had been a playwright and performer in the New York theater scene for decades. Recently he had become less mobile and had trouble getting in and out of his apartment. Once I was able to gain access to his account, I found draft legal papers indicating a lawsuit against his landlord to get required accessibility modifications. That did not look like fun. I could imagine the toll it took – behind the scenes I could hear the landlord fuming to himself, “Why can’t the old goat just die?”
The laptop, a new shiny Sony Vaio purchased in 2011 (model from 2011), had as his username login 21centuryplay. Such illusion, I thought. He was in his seventies, but looking forward to a new century of creative works. It is the dawn of a new era. He would define himself as a man, a writer, a performer for this new century.
First things, first. The laptop did not function and nobody could access its data. There was a electrical short of some sort and all the thing did was issue long beeps on start up – as if in perpetual keypress. I tried to connect an external keyboard, but nothing. The shorted key(s) were disrupting anything I tried and I couldn’t disable it.
The only thing left to do was to take out the data drive. I disassembled the case and pulled out the tiny 2.5 inch SATA drive. I then placed it in an external enclosure and copied the data to my workstation. There, I could retrieve anything of use. My father-in-law had been looking for an indication of his last will and testament. Everybody had insisted his cousin had one, but no one could find it. I grepped through the files and found nothing. It looked like the last login was April of 2014. There were a couple of unfinished writing grant requests. I retraced his steps to an online form; the procedure for request seemed daunting to me. Perhaps he had printed them and filled them out by hand. I hoped he had, anyway.
There were various drafts of the lawsuit, the back and forth, the changes, the settlement. His landlord was ordered by the city to make the required changes. Did he? I couldn’t tell. I hoped this man had at least some dignity in his last year, or was he stuck in his apartment, only going out when someone was there to help him down many flights of stairs.
I ordered a new keyboard for the laptop on the off chance it could be repaired to working order. I pried the old one out. Underneath there was a sticky goo. Orange juice? Year-old orange juice reduced to its sticky syrupy essence. Now I understood the droplet marks on the screen. On one spring morning, Carlos had sat down with his morning orange juice, popped open his laptop to read the morning variety, a mix of gossip and New York local news. He had logged in as 21centuryplay. He was reminded that he should get working on that. Perhaps today.
Then his arthritic hands failed him, and he dropped his glass of orange juice a few inches to the table. The glass didn’t break, but the liquid sloshed out over the screen and into the keyboard. He did his best to wipe it up, but the keyboard ceased to function and the laptop was rendered useless.
Didn’t he have anybody to help him? I wish I could have been there. I would have fixed his laptop and encouraged him.
I know now that in a year he would have passed. It’s with profound sadness at seeing into this man’s past that I write this. He didn’t know what was coming, or rather when it was coming. He had hope, evidenced by his username, and plans, and he still had ambitions, still had creativity. He was failed by his body and modern technology, thwarted by the world of flesh and blood while his spirit continued to yearn.
Every man who has reached even his intellectual teens begins to suspect that life is no farce; that it is not genteel comedy even; that it flowers and fructifies on the contrary out of the profoundest tragic depths of the essential death in which its subject’s roots are plunged. The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.
— Henry James Sr., writing to his sons Henry and William