I want an old record player, the kind that was handed down to me as a kid. It was a beast of a thing: a suitcase that opened to reveal a turntable. The sides opened, too. Swung wide on their hinges the suitcase’s ends became hi-fi speakers.
There wasn’t a solid state component anywhere in that machine, no circuit boards or transistors. My childhood record player was tubes, wires, motors, magnets, steel, and lumber. It weighed 857 pounds and only did one thing: spun a little platter in slow circles. Without a record, the machine was useless.
My house is filled with useless things: old radios, pinball machines, an Edison Phonograph. I still wear a watch and use cash, and I read books and magazines rather than squinting over a tablet. I spend too much time thinking about hooking my Atari to the over-sized television in my family room.
Believe it or not, I’m not one of those retro-grouches. I love old cars, for example, but they’re noisy, gas guzzling death traps. Give me a brand new ride any day. I stopped using a typewriter twenty years ago, and I have no regrets; then again, I’m writing this piece on paper with a fountain pen.
So what is it with me and useless things? Some of it might be nostalgia, I guess, but I’m not one of those people who longs for the good old days of racism, sexism, and kids eating lead paint chips off of windowsills. If I could turn Boiling Springs back into a nice little town rather than a fast food interstate off-ramp I’d do it, though. Not all progress is for the best.
Some of my fondness for the obsolete comes from their construction. The notions of form, beauty, and durability have succumbed to planned obsolescence and low manufacturing cost. I can carry 30,000 songs in my pocket now, but the device that holds them will die in a year or two. But that 50 year old hi-fi on my wish list? Pop in a new tube or two and she’ll be good to go.
The funny thing about a lot of obsolete things is that they really aren’t; rather, what’s changed is our thinking about those things. Newspapers are obsolete now, right? We get our news on-demand, on-line, etc. But when you’re done with your tablet, laptop, or e-reader, you can’t wash a window with it. You can’t wrap a present, line a drawer, pack a box, soak up an oil spill, on and on. The lowly newspaper is exponentially more useful than its digital counterpart, a fact lost in all the hype.
We’re locked into this sort of mass consumerism arms race where latest always means greatest. Sometimes that’s true, but more often it’s just marketing: keep the suckers paying, paint the old model as useless junk so that they buy the new thing. New is better. New is necessary.
And that is why my house is full of useless things. I relate to them. I sit in my office with all of the other useless, cast-off junk that was once adored but is no longer shiny and new. When I look at that old hi-fi I see something with a lot still to give but nobody to give it to.
As I get older, I’m going to have “obsolete” stamped upon my forehead more and more often. That’s a disturbing thought. I might have some gray in my beard, but all I need is a couple of fresh tubes now and then, maybe a little grease on the motor, and then I’ll drop the needle (or at least the fountain pen) and try to make a little music for you.