Two small ideas that didn’t warrant separate entries.
A few years back, I found myself in downtown Boston in need of a belt. Part of the belt I was wearing had broken, leaving a rather important aspect of the buckle in my hand, and now I was in danger of making a scene. I walked along the sidewalks on this weekday morning, belt loop hiked in right hand, and headed in the general direction of my car to drive home, when I saw some sort of men’s clothing store.
Since this was downtown in a city, it was not a chain, but an actual single-name store, with granite facade and hard-to-see interior. I walked in because surely, these people had a belt.
Five steps in, I realized this was a place where people who did Extremely Important Things went to have special suits made for them to do their Extremely Important Things in. I figured right there that the belt was probably going to cost me a lot of money, but I really did need a belt.
The old man behind the counter, the only person and staff in the store, eyed me critically as I walked up in my loud Hawaiian print shirt and jeans, obviously not one of the usual customer set. I immediately said ‘I need a belt”, like I could divest myself of any further embarassment by indicating the exact item needed to make me leave posthaste.
He motioned towards a rack about 20 feet away with belts hanging off it, and I immediately turned, skipped over to the rack, and browsed through them, looking for one that might fit me. And then I heard his flute-like voice far behind me from where he still stood:
I turned in absolute horror and fascination. Yes, in fact my exact waist size was thirty-eight!
When someone has been working at something, really working and striving to be better, they will reach this humming peak, this absolutely top shape they are capable, and people are capable of great things indeed.
While talking with Ward Christensen during my interview of him for my documentary, we got to talking about quality, and he told me the story of a hot dog vendor outside a building he was visiting in a city. He ordered a hot dog with mustard, and the guy grabbed a hot dog, slammed it into a bun, grabbed the mustard, squirted it across the hot dog and shoved the whole package at Ward, who paid for it and walked away.
He thought to himself “Wow, you would think the guy would be less slapdash about it” when Ward looked down at the hot dog and saw that the mustard was a perfect line exactly in the center of the hot dog from one side to the other. The vendor had done it so many times, that a perfect mustard squirt was like second nature.
My father was at one point the financial guy for one of the research centers of IBM, and he told me once that for quite a few years, he could be handed a spreadsheet of a project or business plan, and within a blink, he’d say “Fails in 2 years” or “Needs more capital” or any of a bunch of other evaluations that in earlier years he would have needed an evening of study to return. He said it was like looking at a painting or a car and just knowing.
This sort of skillset is absolutely undocumentable, impossible to claim, and when you see it in action it’s breathtaking. I seek out those experiences and they pop up at the most unexpected times.
While riding to work, I turned on the radio and I heard two people talking. Commenting, it sounded like. They were discussing some sort of legal issue, some sort of concern with rules. I didn’t pay much attention, but after about a minute, it started to feel weird. Something was wrong, very wrong. I didn’t know what exactly it was.
And then it hit me. The two guys were not stumbling, they were making brilliant points, they were disagreeing but not hostile, arguing but not raising voices, and hitting all the marks of top-flight educated conversation. What were they doing outside of a book? They were just perfectly talking, talking like people just do not talk, talking in a way that once you hear it you realize what dogshit passes for critical thinking in the day-to-day of our lives.
It was December of 2000. The person talking was David Boies. He was Gore’s lawyer before the Supreme Court and he was talking to the Supreme Court justices about the aspects of the law. They were being broadcast across radio without commercial interruption, so there it was, just a bunch of top-flight legal minds discussing issues. It was stunning for me. The best against the best.
My hope is, at some point in my life, I will hit such a stride, some skillset I have where the best of me just happens as a matter of course. I’m good at some stuff, bad at others, but I would love to hit some point, in a few years, where I throw out perfection as calmly as a child tosses a ball. It’s something to strive for.
When such thoughts come to me, I sometimes think that if the person I was in 1981, the 11-year old Jason who lived in Brewster, NY for a few short years, could have been transported to my home in my 30s, here in my office, and spent just an hour with me, he’d just hug me and cry and cry. It was all worth it, he’d sob, before going back to his living hell.
When I announced digitize.textfiles.com to people and showed how I had reams, absolute stacks of all these brochures, magazine cutouts, flyers and catalogs, there was a lot of attention paid to me in terms of letters and articles about how it was nutty I had all this stuff 20-25 years after the fact. It was a point of interest about how I was scanning in neat stuff and what it represented in terms of historical context.
But there were no discussions that I saw about the fundamental question: Why did you feel the need to solicit and have reams of junk mail sent to your home of nearly any type for years on end covering anything and everything you could get your hands on? I am 11, 12, 13, and I am circling literally dozens of “send me mail” offers from every single vendor in every single magazine I can get my hands on. What is up with that? Once I point it out, it starts to mirror-flip into something more concerning than fascinating.
In 1981, I was living in Brewster with my mom and brother and sister. We were living one of those two-wrong-turns-and-you’re-homeless situations, where a number of inherently bad financial situations and cost of three kids meant that we just kept skating the edge of disaster, and my mom’s strong dislike of my dad meant that she would take the alimony checks but would steadfastly refuse to point out if we were really down money-wise on a given month due to unforseen costs (clothes, car repair). At one point we were all sleeping in the same room on the top floor with a kerosene heater in the middle of the room to make up for the fact all our heat was basically shut off. It was very bad, let’s just say.
Beyond this poor home situation, I hated my school. I hated the people in it, the teachers who taught in it, and the faculty who lorded over the kids like tyrants. I have no love for Henry H. Wells Middle School or Brewster High School and I wanted to be anywhere else. My knowledge of computers made me a source of ridicule, and my intense personality led to rumors and fighting that still fills me with horror thinking about it. I still remember the bastard math teacher in charge of computers, who distrusted anyone who wasn’t fully afraid of the Apple IIs under his control. Twice in my time in the Brewster School System I was given a negative grade for class participation to ensure I would not pass the course. He was one of them.
And I can’t overstate the boredom. Having no money to buy anything, not getting along with very many people, consistently finding myself “against” random sets of students at this school, I just had nothing. I had arcade games that I could afford a dollar for occasionally, and if I was really lucky, I could buy a computer game. From the time I was 11 to when I was 14, I bought 3 computer games: Preppie, Dneiper River Line, and Scott Adams Grand Adventure: Mystery Fun House. I very simply could not afford any others and had to pirate them to play anything at all.
But so much of my time was just spent walking aimlessly along roads, walking to school, getting lost, going nowhere. That’s how kids end up in gangs, or doing drugs, or just breaking stuff. You’re just so friggin’ bored out of your mind, and you’re in your own little self-imposed prison because nobody is showing you any way out. And then you do something stupid, something horribly stupid and everyone goes “you should have known better”.
In my case, the stupid was filling out reader service cards and having reams of stuff show up at the house. These colorful pamphlets promised a cool world outside my own, full of smart and engaging people, doing wonderous things that maybe I myself could do someday. And they were an escape, and I loved these things, and I’ve kept them like some people might keep an award or a picture, because their promises became my memories.
Here, 20 years later, I’m many things, but I’m never bored. My life is filled with interesting events, unusual e-mails, historical and salary-based work, and an ever-growing set of interests and experiences. When I became a person of means, I made sure to enjoy it to the fullest, meaning for a while I was living paycheck to paycheck on a very high salary, but damn, was I happy. I got involved in all sorts of hobbies and projects in late high school, college, and to the present day. My office here is filled with pieces of lives and writing and dreams and I look around each day when I come in to do stuff and I just love it.
My e-mail box is like a candy dish: letters from people I admired as a youth, letters from folks who I’ve been asking questions of, and letters from others like myself researching history or involving ourselves in wide-ranging projects, who need my input or assistance or questions answered. Every day, it’s amazing what comes down the line at me.
The 11 year-old me, if he knew this is how it would end up, would have simply thought: So it was all worth it. And it was.
TEXTFILES.COM has now been in “business” for about 8 years. That time gets behind you, but most notably, this period of time is enough for there to be kids who my site represents an institution that has been around as long as they’ve been online. They could be on the computer at 10, and now they’re 18, ready to go to college, and they realize all the time they spent, with money or without it, browsing all these files. And they write me.
TEXTFILES.COM is many things, because it’s so huge. It has writings by professionals, adults, companies. But more importantly, it has writings by kids, teenagers, people who, like I was, are bored out of their minds, waiting for something to happen, anything, ready to go in whatever direction life tells them to, unaware that the best thing to do is fuck the starting gun and just start running. But they read the files here, written by others like themselves, and they realize the potential out in the world and next thing they know, they are running.
They find me in e-mail, at conventions, at presentations of my film projects. And they tell me how much of a difference I made to them.
I’m sure at some point that will stop being interesting.
But I don’t think it’s going to be anytime soon.
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