These days, computers are so much a part of most people’s lives that it’s hard to remember how new they were only a few years ago. We love them. We hate them. And we can’t seem to get away from them. But, sometimes they make things possible that no one ever even imagined…

            My father died just about a year ago. The last time he checked his email was just a day or so before he died. He was 96 years old. He got his first computer when he was 91. I can’t remember exactly how he got started, probably it was first just curiosity. What on earth was this new technology he was hearing and reading so much about? He has always been fairly intrepid in trying out new tools, whether cameras or automobiles or answering machines. And unlike many older people, he was definitely not intimidated by computers! It’s not that he was interested in machines, per se. In fact, he had little use for pointless gadgetry. What probably really got him motivated to learn to use one was finding out how much cheaper and easier it would be to keep in touch with friends in Europe by email. His first computer was a cast-off from a friend of mine. It was an ancient, no-name model, incredibly slow but sufficient for a beginner with nothing to compare it to. Most importantly, it was cheap!

            At first he tried to figure it out by himself which is what he usually did quite successfully with new machinery. But he soon found out that wasn’t really possible with computers. So I gladly became his computer tutor. What I didn’t expect was how much this would change our whole relationship. Suddenly we had something to do together. Before that, our visits were often strained. My father was notorious for his lack of interest in casual conversation and general discomfort socializing, even with family. He was also stubbornly independent, and didn’t like asking for help. But in this new role, I suddenly felt useful. And now he had something to talk with me about. He still tried figuring things out on his own and regularly complained how needlessly confusing computers seemed to be. I don’t think he had ever encountered something so utterly mystifying, something with so few reference points from his past experience. Soon, sitting in front of the computer together became a regular activity. His stamina was short and he would get tired after 20 minutes or so. But pretty soon he would come up with another question and we’d start another session. Watching him actually learn to use the computer gave me a sense of satisfaction in my father’s presence previously.

            His discarded, hopelessly outdated computer started having problems, ones I couldn’t figure out how to fix. I started hinting that it might be time to get him a new one, a faster one. He resisted the idea fiercely. My father grew up in a time before disposability, a time when saving and fixing and re-using was the what you did. Having been brought up in Europe, he never liked the peculiarly American idea that “new” and “improved” are inherently desirable attributes.

            One particular weekend I was visiting him and once again half-heartedly pitching the idea of a new computer. It was hard being completely convincing because I knew the price would seem like a lot to him. He claimed not minding the long lag-time between mouse-click and the computer’s response. “Just as long as the thing works and doesn’t keep giving error messages or freezing up,”  he insisted. On Sunday I happened to see an ad in the paper advertising complete computer systems for under $400. I figured since he didn’t need a monitor or the newest model, I should be able to get something that would suit him for less than that. So I set off downtown on my mission.

            I was so absorbed in reading the paper during the subway ride and fantasizing about the new computer, that it wasn’t until I got off at the Chambers Street station that I realized I was at the World Trade Center stop. It was less than two weeks before the one-year anniversary of the destruction and I knew I had to make a detour to the site. I had come once before, within a month or so after the attacks, and the closest I could get was a block away. I will never forget the sight of the pile of smoking rubble and twisted steel. There had been a massive police and military presence guarding the area and swarms of workers came and went while observers walked slowly past or stood silently staring, so very unlike the usual New York atmosphere, somber and oddly communal.

            This time, I was able to walk right along the perimeter of the great pit which was surrounded only with a medium-height chain-link fence. The security looked no more elaborate than what you might find at the excavation for any new skyscraper. It was the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, a cool and drizzly one after a long hot spell. A moderate number of tourists strolled past the fence peeking through for a glimpse or browsed the tables of commemorative booklets for sale along the sidewalk. Across the street, a memorial of tattered signs, bits of memorabilia and talismans had grown spontaneously to cover the block-long wrought iron fence which surrounds the grounds of St. Paul’s Church. Though so close to Ground Zero, that historic structure had miraculously escaped harm except for being covered with dust and debris. The actual hole in the ground where the towers had stood was still surrounded by construction trailers and heavy equipment, blocking any view directly into the pit. I didn’t want to take the time to wait in line to get onto the viewing platform to look down into the pit so I just walked along the fence trying to absorb the reality of what had happened here. I remembered I had a disposable camera with few shots left on it with me. I was about to take a picture of the buildings now visible across the space where the buildings had been, a view only possible now with the towers gone. Just as I began clicking the shutter, the bells of St. Paul’s tolled noon. They seemed to be announcing a nagging reproach at my voyeuristic act. I turned and strode briskly towards the electronics store a couple of blocks to the north.

            The place was of a type common in New York, the small space crammed floor to ceiling with displays of cell phones, cameras, games and hand-held devices as well as an array of computers with screens blinking and flashing. I told the salesmen I was looking for something really basic, an older model would be fine, maybe a floor sample or even a used machine. I said I was looking to spend around $200. “A computer for $200? Impossible!” they laughed. But a young man who looked Middle-Eastern and seemed to be the owner or manager, sent someone to the basement to get something for me. It looked used indeed. Turned out it was one they used in the store. I thought a minute, but for $200, I decided to take it. They even agreed to install a modem. Pleased with myself, I stepped outside into the cool air to wait. The manager, who I had heard identify himself as “Harry” on the phone was there taking a quick cigarette break. I told him about my father, bragging about his advanced age and how he had learned to send email. We chatted a bit more and he gave me his card before going back inside, saying to call if my Dad ever needed help. After waiting longer than the promised few minutes, I asked if it would be ready soon. “Only a few more minutes,” he promised. A lot more than a few minutes went by and I began to get impatient, starting to wish I hadn’t paid already so I could have just walked out.

            But suddenly, maybe because my visit to Ground Zero reminded me of life’s fragility, my impatience subsided and found myself looking more closely at the people around me, the customers and employees, all strangers but with lives as real as mine. Where did they live? Where did they come from? What did they do for a living? What would they do after they left this place?  I watched the bustle of shopping going on and it struck me that a scene just like this may have been taking place a year ago, just before the planes struck. Thousands of people were going about their business in the shadow of the towers, focused on their individual concerns, beginning what seemed to be just another, frenzied New York morning. And then, in a flash, random groups of people, such as we were right now, were transformed into intensely interdependent communities. In an instant, all mundane concerns were forgotten, strangers clung to each other, risked their lives and died for each other. How would each of us act if we were suddenly thrown into such a situation?

            I watched Harry, as he made sure each customer was well taken care of. A Chinese man and his son were shopping for a digital camera. They spoke only fragmented English but Harry patiently demonstrated the camera and let them try it out. Finally, the man decided to buy the camera but insisted on being given a new one in an unopened box, even though the one he had been trying out had just been opened for him. Barely perceptibly, but understandably aggravated, Harry maintained his composure and complied politely.

            After I had been waiting over an hour, and having gotten several promises that the computer was, “coming right up,” I finally got Harry’s attention again and told him no one said I would have to wait so long. I tried to make it clear that I wasn’t just a typically demanding customer, but that I just wanted to be told honestly how long it would be. I explained I would rather be spending the time with my father. After a quick consultation, he admitted the computer would take quite a while longer to be ready. “Then I’d rather to cancel the sale,” I said apologetically. I expected an argument but he made none and cheerfully began the transaction. I will never know what went through his mind, but suddenly he stopped and pointed to a box on the floor next to the counter. “How about this one, same price?!” He opened the box, which contained a new, brand-name computer. He showed me that all the original packaging was there while reeling off the specifications. It seemed to be have been returned, as the box had obviously been re-sealed. I happily agreed, thanking Harry who even seemed a little surprised at himself for having made this unexpected gesture. As I made my way out of the store, with the bulky box hefted on my shoulder, I wondered if he was aware that his behavior might reflect on all Arabs and if he were therefore making a conscious effort to present a positive image to this skewed, post-September 11th world?

            It was still drizzling as I walked the few blocks to the subway, but not enough to be unpleasant. Luckily, I didn’t have to change trains, nor were the trains very crowded and I was soon lugging the box up the steps out of the subway stop near my father’s apartment. By now it was almost two o’clock in the afternoon and I wanted to get the computer set up before leaving later that day. But I was tired and the box was heavy and awkward. I struggled up the subway steps and had to put the box down to rest. Now, the drizzle felt cooling and pleasant. A twenty-something man with short blond hair who was passing by stopped and asked if I needed help. He looked like he had just woken up, with rumpled shirt, unshaven chin and carrying what looked like a strawberry smoothy in a plastic take-out cup. I looked him up and down briefly, assessing him for potential danger but his offer seemed sincere. “I’ll carry that if you carry this,” he said, handing me the smoothy. “My car’s parked right here and I was just going to move it anyway. Where are you going?” As we drove the two blocks to my destination I bragged to him about my 94 year-old father using a computer. He seemed impressed. “My name’s Dennis,” he said, shaking my hand before letting me out in front of the building. This short encounter seemed to confirm the auspiciousness of the whole day’s events.

            Back inside the apartment, I breathlessly told my father the story as we unpacked and examined the new machine. A bit overwhelmed, he sat poking through the accessory boxes and owner’s manual while I went about setting it up. After seeing that it worked and giving up trying to understand my explanation of the difference between the Windows platform and the AOL software, he got bored and went back to his reading in the kitchen. Several hours later, I finally had it all set up and configured properly for him. I watched with pride as he went online and read his mail for the first time. “It’s so fast!” he exclaimed, finally realizing how antiquated his old machine had really been. It was time for me to leave and though I had accomplished my mission, I left feeling strangely let down and unsatisfied. I thought maybe it was because I had spent so much time wrestling with computers and hardly any actually visiting with my father. I told myself there would be other visits and that what I had accomplished was worthwhile but I couldn’t shake the feeling of sadness. It persisted into the next day, clinging like an invisible cloud until that afternoon when I checked my email and found this one from my father:

            “Dear Julia, I am so happy with the new computer, like a child with a present under the Christmas tree! And I was so impressed by the resourcefulness and efficiency with which you managed the whole affair, finding the store, selecting and bargaining, trundling the big box cheerfully on the subway, installing it and ironing out all its quirks to suit me, and still managing to go home with a smile on your face.“

            Now this wasn’t the first surprising email I had gotten from him. We had had a number of interesting intellectual exchanges through email which might not have happened otherwise. But only now did I become fully aware of how this new medium was making it possible for him to communicate things I never even imagined he thought or felt. It was a small note but it was maybe the first time I remembered him ever giving me a compliment, letting me know that something I did really I mattered to him. I don’t think he would ever have been able to say something like that to  me in person. He could barely say, “I love you,” even only in response to my saying it first. But I can hear his voice in my head when I read this message. In some strange way, he had found a new voice through email. I tell you this story to remind you, and myself, that you never know how or when or where someone may find a way to say what’s in their heart. Or how someone might be able to hear it. You never know where love may come from or how it might be expressed… so be sure to keep your ears and eyes and heart open!

Julia Laurie Hammid
August, 2002
Revised: August 2005