At the Alameda flea market yesterday, my wife bought this old television for $35. As you can see, we’re using it as a liquor cabinet right now. I was thinking of taking the components out, putting some frosted glass in instead of the screen, and putting hinges on the front so it’ll open up.
But then she told me about the guy who sold it to her. As she was paying him, he said, “Please please please just tell me you’re going to keep working on it and get it working again.” Why he thought she would be able to do this, I don’t know. She took it as him just wanting to hear her say it, even if she didn’t mean it. So she said “Sure.”
Apparently, this TV had been a pet project of this guy’s friend or family member (who I’ve named Harold–I don’t know his real name). Harold nearly had this baby working again when he passed away. It sounded like he’d put a lot of effort into it. And, sure enough, when we got it home, we found all kinds of diagrams and schematics and notes, parts catalogs, and a baggie full of tubes and other components inside it.
I have no idea what any of it means. It might as well be glyphs on the side of an ancient obelisk in the desert. But it looks fairly simple as electronics go, like if I had become an electrical engineer, I might be able to fix the thing. The parts are big and can be held in the hand and manipulated with the fingers. I can see inside the tubes and tell which ones look like they’re burned out. It brings to mind Matthew Crawford’s lament in Shop Class as Soul Craft that things today are not built to be disassembled and fixed. This TV was, and Harold was working on fixing it. Then he died.
The two things that get me with this are, first of all, how much of an obsession this was to Harold. He was really putting a lot of work into something that he might have sold for more, but in the end had a value of $35. This collection of diagrams and parts has time and work and thinking written all over it. You look at it, and you see Harold’s notes to himself, the schematics organized in files by…what? I don’t even know enough to say. But Harold knew, and I can picture him in his basement, tinkering away with simple tools–just some phillips head screwdrivers, pliers and his knowledge of how things work–peering over his wire-rim spectacles. His brain, set beneath greasy gray hair is smoking in his head, gears turning. His wife calls down from upstairs for the second time to tell him that his dinner is getting cold and Harold yells back, “Be right up.” A few more tinkerings, then he plugs it in and turns it on. There is a pop as another tube blows, leaving a black residue on the inside of the bulb, a smokey odor in the air and Harold grumpy for the night. He curses, something rather innocent, then flips off the light and heads up to dinner. No matter–he’ll be back at it again soon.
I laid all this out on our dining room table as a tribute to Harold’s thinking and work, because even though the TV doesn’t work, I wanted to take it all in and appreciate it. It needs to be appreciated. I don’t know if Harold was a brilliant man–he might have been a complete asshole. But I see the notes that he made to himself, and there’s something very human in this obsessive project. It was more to him than just making some money selling it–it wasn’t worth the time in that sense. It was about solving a problem, and a stubborn refusal not to give up. That’s something to be celebrated.
So here’s the other thing that gets me about this project: Harold didn’t finish it. For the sake of story, tragedy, irony, whatever, we could say that Harold was waiting for one last part which he’d finally located at a TV repair shop in Denver. And they shipped the part on Friday and it was to arrive on Wednesday, but Harold died on Tuesday morning. It was the last part that he needed–maybe it’s in that little baggie. But that’s too sad to me, so I like to think that he had a little more work than that–maybe 30 hours or so. Still, it was unfinished. I recently finished Roberto Bolaño’s book, 2666, which was published post-humously. There has been much debate about how “finished” the book was when Bolaño passed away. Regardless, it’s a masterful work. But a book can be that–unfinished and masterful all at once. A TV can’t. The heartbreaking thing is that a TV either works or it doesn’t. And an unfinished TV repair project is, well, it’s a liquor cabinet.