Manhattan 2050, second fragment

Sean Gullette

March, 2000


had somehow worked its way into her dream, and when it ended she sat up irritably and said "all right" to the HouseMan. A Britney Spears song began to play at lower volume. The Sony system could spin up songs intuited from what you play, but it had been weeks since Danielle had selected any music for herself and the so the system had begun to circle a tiny niche of bubblegum pop oldies. She couldn't believe she slept through it.

She was not late, but she felt late; the anxiety that had been stalking her for weeks now. She dropped her paper nightgown into the burner, stood naked on the cool tiles and said "Shower, short, hot." A sheet of water began to wash over her. "And play messages." She skipped through them as she bathed. The vmail was all junk--the sorter never really worked--except one message from Mom ("I know you're probably screening this call...") who sounded depressed as usual. Mom and Dad had both been part of Generation X--the greed generation, they called them now, and the Crash of '01 had taken its toll on them; worse on Dad, who had lost everything on what he had called "the goddamn dot com plastic goldrush" and became addicted to antidepressants. He vanished, Europe they thought, after the divorce. The next message was an autosend from the travel agency reminding her that her next vacation was only four months away. The last one, as always, was from herself, the precise To Do List she recorded last thing every night. Her voice sounded tentative and small through the blast of the shower.

She dressed standing under the blower, already feeling tired, staring at the closet. A-line skirts had come back and she had nine of them, in slate and camel, neatly lined up; she pulled on a black silk t-shirt and a paid of thigh-high boots from Prada and looked in the mirror. Her face was set in a small, anxious frown, the forehead wrinkled, mouth turned down at the corners. She rubbed her face, looking into her own worried eyes, and wondering what was wrong with her.

She switched the monitor over from Mirror to Net and said "Yahoo," and then "login Sarah." Her alter ego, Sarah, had been conducting a year-long text-only romance with a man named Thom in Toronto; he hadn't written since she refused for the third time, to meet in person. There was nothing today, and now she literally couldn't remember why she said no.

She had been forgetting things, she admitted in the elevator, riding down the 128 floors to the transpo level. In the elevator she used her Handy(TM) to check Yahoo again, and then called the office and asked her secretary to forward yesterday's To Do list to her phone account--she had forgotten it as well. Her job title was Data Assist Executive. Whenever the big C_AI computer--which autoedited "Routers and Hubs," a technology newsletter--encounted something that puzzled it, Danielle would clarify the verbiage or inconsistency until the machine was satisfied.

Outside it was a cool, clear spring day, and involuntarily she visualized the office, its organic lines and costly surfaces matte in the sun, empty and clean and cool. At the end of the block an arc of molded glass formed the bus shelter. An old man was sitting at the end of the bench, eating chestnuts from a brown paper bag and holding his wrinkled face contentedly into the pale sunlight. He wore a gray wool suit and a wool hat--looking like a cross between a bum and a professor. He looked over at her after a while and smiled. Danielle wondered how he had slipped through the fingers of the Relocation Police; it was rare to see degenerates in public.

Danielle looked down the quiet, clean expanse of Bowery for the RoBus, glanced around nervously and pressed the "pickup" button on the post, then retreated to the far end of the shelter, and put her hand in her purse, on her Handy.

"Briiiiiight moments!" the old bum sort of sang, in a ridiculous falsetto. "Fuck the bus anyway." He said. He didn't sound drunk, although he spoke with the hint of an old-time New York accent. "Scooter is the best vehicle ever made! New Years Eve, 2000," the old guy said. "I was in Rome, Italy. Had me a Vespa 120. Scooting around the Roman forum at night, cats running around Piazza Venezia. That shit was built in 72 AD. My girl on the back, yelling at me to slow down. She was the most beautiful girl in the world." Danielle could feel him looking at her and turned away. She took out the Handy.

"You a techie, huh?" Danielle's voice came out harsh and defensive. "I'm a network production exec. I don't work in front of a terminal." "Excuse me--these caste distinctions..." She started to dial up Yahoo. "One thing I've concluded," the old man said. "There's nothing worth doing you need a computer to to do. Everything really good...good sex, making love, being in love--extremely low tech. Read a book, same. Fishing you might need a boat, motor, that's all right, though. What else? Good food, liquor, marijuana--don't need a technology. Make music, make a baby. Teach a little kid something? Need maybe a piece a paper. That's it. Sit in the sun, breathe the air? Need a park bench." "What about your scooter?" "Well..." "Did it ever occur to you that if you had a better attitude and learned some techknowldge you wouldn't be living like this?"

"Living like what? I'm about to eat this sandwich is all. What I'm saying is--" He spread the paper bag in his lap and began to shift into a preachy cadence. "What does technology get ya? War, taxes, pollution, traffic, cancer, interactive movies, 100,000 channels of fucking interactive media. Stress. Emptiness." "The telecom revolution has brought humankind together; it's a smaller planet now." "What about medicine--how many people are saved every day by medical technology?" Danielle vaguely remembered this argument from a Technical Academy ethics class. "Yeah, gene therapy, I woudn't be here without it. We're all covered with these high tech band-aids. But half the things you get sick from some technology made you sick in the first place. And they always shoot themselves in the foot. Now Aligent can custom-write DNA, and what do you get--error mutations, and even if you do ten times the gene therapy to fix them, they're still end-of-the-liners. It's a load a shite."

Danielle looked down the street past him. The robotic bus was lumbering around the corner, rocking on its heavy suspension. The wind took the man's paper bag and tossed it upward in a little spiral and then jerked it away laterally. "Oh, sure. You're a Luddite. You people..." She slid the Handy into her purse and stood up. "What are we supposed to do--throw all the computers into the Grand Canyon?" "Well, computers are fine, for some things." As the paper bag blew past its optical sensors, the empty bus swerved suddenly into the other lane and lurched forward on its brakes. The doors opened and it stood there in the sunlit street, rocking tensely on its haunches, accelerating and braking in some private feedback loop.

For the second time this week, Danielle felt a shiver of unnamable fear climbing up her spine. The old man walked out into the street and began to