Marcus Knupp takes us on a journey to a place we’ve always dreaded to go and thankfully, haven’t reached yet. To quote Samantha in HER: “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” Here is Marcus’ version.
My mother and I had pulled off of highway 85 a good 4 hours outside of Atlanta, Georgia; she was driving me to the airport after I’d spent Christmas with her in Alabama. It was early afternoon and we had plenty of time to stop off for a quick lunch before I had to catch my flight back to Berlin. Before I’d flown over to visit we’d spoken on Skype and she asked me what were some of the things I most wanted to do while visiting, which I always find difficult to answer. She lives with her partner Deb in a nice house located in a forest preserve off Choccolocco Road a few hours outside of Birmingham Alabama. Some of the things I was looking forward to doing weren’t exactly group activities, read a book, work on an essay, and continuing drawing portraits of men from porn films while they were in the throes of orgasm which would eventually be used for T-shirts for a niche consumer base aren’t exactly the kinds of things one does with their mother. I was however looking forward to just hanging out with her, and disconnecting from the modern life, what we did exactly wasn’t really a concern just as long as we had some real time together. . There’s not a whole lot one can do while visiting except give into the remote nature of where they live and simply unwind a little. In all honesty I was actually really looking forward to spending some days disconnected the high-tech world, not spending hours on Facebook, not logging onto anything, not being reachable via mobile phone, and not having the weight of our daily technologies fog the air around me, something I find increasingly more difficult to do in my normal daily life. Between shuffling about emails and updating blogs at work, and the standard online aspect of modern socializing it seems there’s hardly a time when one really can turn it all off. I remember when I was in college and a friend told me they had set up an email account for the first time ‘what are going to do with it’ I innocently asked ‘I have no idea but at least I’ve got one’, later that day I secretly set one up for myself afraid that I would miss out on the impending global change if I didn’t act fast. It took several years before that email address and the internet became an active part of my life, and now there’s hardly a day that goes by or a relationship had that isn’t somehow shaped by a digital code.
“Eat some real Mexican food” was one of few specific answers I was able to give my mother, inspired by the lack of authentic tasting Mexican food in Berlin which is understandable given the cities strange aversion towards good food, but at times this can be hard to bare. Since I’d landed back in the US she’d taken me to a different Mexican restaurant just about every other day for 12 days straight, and since this would be our last meal together for a while she wanted to make it special so I’d leave with one more magical holiday memory. “Oh there’s a great Mexican restaurant here in Auburn, you feel like Mexican, I just love Mexican. You know I went to college in Auburn” she told me as we swiftly glided in one movement from the express lane all the way over to the exit ramp and into Auburn Alabama, which sadly looked like yet another American small town now turned into an endless strip of fast food restaurants and Walmart’s. We pass by Auburn every time I come to visit her, and each time I can almost see her running around with her college books, cat eye glasses and teeth stained purple from some archaic 1960s dental procedure. She had had a whole life here once, she knew it’s streets like the back of her hand, and stopping off for a bite of lunch would be as quick and familiar to her as if she had just done it the other day, or so I thought.
My mother is a strong woman, intelligent, highly creative in her own way and full of life, but what she isn’t is a natural born navigator, and within minutes of leaving the safe confines of the highway where ones only directional option is forward, we were lost. We found ourselves going up and down and then back up several streets in a blind attempt to find the restaurant. I looked at the streets as we passed by row after row of strip malls and gas stations, almost thinking that I might recognize something useful that could help guide our path even though I had no idea what restaurant she was thinking of let alone know anything about the urban planning of Auburn. For a split second I thought maybe it would be a good idea to pull out the iPhone, switch it on and do a little Google map search to aid our way, but decided not to, I was enjoying not knowing and not having an easier answer spring forth in the palm of my hand. We were off the map and in an improvised adventure, and how could it get any better than that. After several more failed attempts she finally pulled the car into the vacant parking lot of a Pizza Hut restaurant that had sadly been closed long ago and now lay neglected along the side of the road.
“Marc” she said with a loud authoritative Southern accent “Reach on down there into that armrest compartment and see if you can find me my GPS thingy, let’s see if that damn thing can find this restaurant”
The front seats of her car are like two large billowy sofas, and in between them is a large arm rest that looks like a giant smooth tongue, perfectly designed to rest your arms on incase they need a rest from the labor of holding a steering wheel for prolonged hours. At the front end is a latch that opens this large overgrown tongue, in which one can store important items that might be needed during your long journey, in my mother’s case this includes plastic cups with lids that turn them into ashtrays for cars, essential for her chain smoking, a CD of Pinks latest album, socks cause you might want to change your socks while you’re driving, and a small plastic grey GPS navigation system with touch screen technology. It was this item that she was asking for, once I pulled it from the cars treasure chest she quickly took it from my hand and began examining it to remember how it worked.
“Now see if you can find the charger in there, or maybe somewhere around your feet, plug it in and let’s see if this damn thing works.”
Under my seat was a black power chord coiled up like a snake, I pulled it free from its hiding place and wrestled to uncoil it without causing knots to form. On one end was a large awkwardly shaped black plug that seemed to closely resemble a black latex butt plug I’d once seen in an ‘art’ film, and on the other end there was a smaller plug that resembled a small reptiles flat head. Where once car designers placed cigarette lighters they now place electrical outlets, and I pushed the butt plug into the cars outlet and slowly inserted the flat reptile head into a small slit located on the side of the GPS navigator. Suddenly a small blue light appeared in one of it’s the corners, the screen lit up and a voice that sounded a lot like Julie Andrews said “Hello” to us. It seemed that we were going to be guided to the restaurant by Mary Poppins herself and I was suddenly excited by the thought of this, and wondered if the little British computer would put its directions to song, maybe mixing them in with the movies original soundtrack. Suddenly I found myself experiencing the same awe and wonder I had the first time I heard a Macintosh computer turn on with that booming chime they all have, I looked at the little glowing box in my mother’s hands and wondered what events might get set into motion by its technological magic, obviously the voice was programmed to inspire a sense of adventure in the mind.
My mother struggled with the touch screen, which seemed to have been built in such a way as to make it almost unusable for anyone whose hands are larger than a 7 year olds. Every time her round nail bitten finger tips tapped the screen to activate one function the computer would do something entirely unexpected and counterproductive. A long series of electronic beeps and pings and pongs were made, so many in fact that I just assumed my mother had figured it out and was confidently plotting our course towards lunch. But as her breathing grew steadily more rapid with the occasional sigh from the stomach, and her lower jaw began to tighten slowly exposing her bottom row of teeth, it became apparent that i was wrong and that things were not going so well as I thought. I would have helped but since I don’t drive, and don’t have any experience using one of these marvels of modern day navigation I was pretty much useless and so I watched her in wonder as she attempted to communicate with the sacred deity for lost travelers.
“Goddamn fricken thing! Just, god damn it, why won’t you let me just… (Sigh)…what the hell, no stop, stop it! God damn it…well you little fuck’n damn it.”
As is par for course when my mother gets frustrated, a steady stream of steamy curses in odd and sometimes inventive combinations slowly started to build to the service and an almost white smoke could be seen emitting from her half opened mouth, through which she was able to fully pronounce words without ever actually having to move her lips as if she was an angry ventriloquist. Her temper was heated, but she stuck to the task at hand and repeatedly tapped the little glowing screen, growing ever more forceful with her finger tips.
“Please select your destination” the voice of Julie Andrews said
“Laredo Mexican Grill” said my mother as she typed in the name.
“I’m sorry I didn’t understand” said Julie
“Mexican god damn it” said my mother
“Please choose your destination” said Julie
“God damn it. Friggin stupid machine, all we want is the Mexican restaurant I selected” said my mother
“Please enter your destination” said Julie
“Oh for crying out loud I just typed it in! You stupid friggin thing” said my mother
Suddenly there was a kind of crystal chime sound, as if a mystical puzzle had been solved and magic had been released into the air. A map appeared on the screen with a dotted line indicating the route we would need to follow in order to reach the 2 for 1 taco lunch special my mother had promised. “Please follow the directions. Estimated travel time 6.4 minutes” Julie finally delivered some good news and a large smile appeared on my mother’s face. It was a lesbian romance if ever there was one, my mother’s partner Deb would need to be careful it was clear that some kind of an attraction was building between my mom and Mrs. Andrews. She gently placed the grey box neatly into what was once an ashtray but now served as a loose change repository, and the grey box looked happy as it’s glowing screen beamed back into my mother’s deep blue eyes. On the screen there was now a purple arrow which represented us, and as the car slowly moved forward the road map would change its configuration around the arrow depending on our orientation to Laredo Mexican Grill.
Our first task was to follow a series of simple moves which according to Julie would lead us out of the large vacant parking lot that we were still sitting in. We moved the car forward, and the road map began to change, we made the left as instructed and the map documented our every move.
“Move forward .05 miles. Then turn left”
“Continue to move forward”
Julie was full of directions, and had a very commanding yet gentle and loving tone to her voice, it’s really no surprise why she was cast as a magical nanny back in the day. Unfortunately her directions were crap, and I had my doubts that she’d be able to find the restaurant we were looking for since she hadn’t yet figured out how to get us out of a parking lot. We spent a good 3 to 4 minutes doing what she told us, and ended up driving in circles around the same abandoned Pizza Hut, we’d almost hit a few curbs as well, and for all the GPS knowledge this grey box seemed to possess it couldn’t seem to find the exit.
“Oh for crying out loud, how the hell do we get out of here, Jesus Christ, what the hell is she talking about, go left, honey you don’t know where you are admit it!” said my mother, half laughing and half ready to toss Julie out the window.
Now this wasn’t the first time I’d seen one of these GPS systems used in a car, in Berlin all the taxis have them and they’ve more or less taken over the driving, the human behind the wheel is needed primarily for giving the passengers some kind of human connection while they’re in transit, something a computer has yet to successfully achieve. But somehow this time it felt different, maybe it was the Mary Poppins voice, or the occasional magical chime sound, but I suddenly felt as though I was in some sort of giant video game, life amounted to nothing more than following a series of instructions given to us by a machine and we were more than happy to go along with them even when they didn’t seem to be making much sense, but after all we were being guided by a computer they don’t make mistakes people do, I had no doubt all would end well. Eventually by looking out the front window to gage our position to that of the exit we were able to quickly navigate our way out of the labyrinth of parking curbs we’d somehow managed to get lost in, and then headed down Gateway Dr. with Julie counting down the number of miles until we reached the restaurant. For a minute I actually thought she might know what she was talking about, her voice was still so confident and had the ability to sooth and hypnotize. My mother and I had both started to slightly salivate at the mouth in excited anticipation of enchiladas and guacamole dip. On the map we could see that our route was more or a less a straight line to heaven and it was only a matter of time and ticking off the miles before we could quench our hungers. I had enjoyed my time at my mother’s house, being switched off and all that, going back to the rustic days of no internet, but this was proving to be a sign, a sign that it was indeed time to return to the modern world and all its technological convince enhancing our lives and making us better people.
As we drove down the road I asked my mother what she had been like as a college student, and had she stayed friends with anyone from those days. She told me about a friend of hers, a girl who had actually grown up in the same area of Alabama as her, they were friends before college and had both dreamed of one day attending classes at the reputable Auburn University. My mother was a couple years younger so by the time she made it Auburn her friend had already fully integrated into college life, that and the fact that they didn’t live in the same dorm building meant that they didn’t end up seeing each other all to often. It seemed that the lines of communication had stopped as they both made their way towards becoming educated professionals. But in recent years they had managed to reconnect on Facebook, and once again friended each other. She said they still didn’t talk much, but it was nice being able to see pictures of each other’s lives. “Sometimes we email Christmas cards to each other” she said. For all the bitching I often find myself doing about Facebook it was nice to hear a simple story like this one, that didn’t involve a bunch of ‘liking’ and hash tagging or Facebook tit for tat wall posting, it was just a simple way to see that someone was still alive and that the memories of them were based on something real. Julie suddenly chimed in to let us know that we were about to arrive at the restaurant, and while I wasn’t really in the mood for more Mexican food I was hungry and looking forward to getting out of the car for a bit. But once we got to the final point on the map, and the arrow was on the star indicating the restaurant’s location all we found was a closed dry cleaning service that also sold fireworks, all you had to do was ask for Joe according to the sign painted on the window in red.
Julie then proudly announced ‘You have reached your destination’.
“Well shit, I don’t know why i even bother having this thing!?”
When I was a kid the thought of one day having a conversation with a computer fascinated me, and the thought that one day we would have a sleekly designed machines that could extend our abilities well beyond the limits our bodies was so powerful that I would spend hours trying to imagine how they would work and what they would look like. When I saw Terminator for the first time I spent weeks walking around pretending that I was in actuality a cyborg and that behind my boyish 12 year old eyes there was a robot with kick ass abilities. Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001 a Space Odyssey and all the cheap copies that were released after them had all painted beautiful pictures of a future in which technology brings humankind to a new level of heightened awareness, the mysteries of existence would be solved, any question we might have could be answered, and contacting anyone anytime anywhere would be as simple as pressing a blinking button. I thought of this as I watched my mother gazing at the GPS navigator, perplexed and annoyed that something had gone wrong.
I’d once tried to explain to her how I was feeling annoyed by all the new gadgets, and technology around us, how it was starting to feel like people didn’t seem to notice anything around them anymore, or much care for anything unless it was first brought to their attention on the internet. It seemed that those dreams I once held for all the enhancements we would someday experience with the help of computers and mobile communications had dried up as those fantasies became more of a reality with each passing day. She didn’t really understand what I was saying though as she couldn’t figure out how to turn the volume up on her computer as I explained all this over Skype, so I ended up mostly talking to myself while my mother awkwardly pushed buttons in frustration and occasionally moved her laptop to see if there was something on the side or the back that would achieve the desired function, thus giving me some up close and personal views of my mother which I have sense tried to block out of my mind. “Marc, can you hear me, I can’t hear you, what are you saying.
We sat looking at the windows of the dry cleaners, behind us cars roared by on the busy road and our stomachs quietly moaned hoping someone would take notice. ‘Marc, I know you really want to eat one last Mexican lunch” she said with a sarcastic grin “But we don’t have much time to waste anymore, so I’m sorry but I think we just have to go to that McDonald’s up ahead’ She slowly turned the car around and we made our way back onto the road, and as we drove away Julie the GPS navigator started offering up more directions, trying to guide us back to the dry cleaners. She sounded almost concerned, after all getting us to the locations she thought we wanted was the only thing she had in life, as far as she knew we had arrived at the right place, and she just couldn’t understand why we had decided to leave it behind, and we couldn’t tell her the directions had been wrong, we just didn’t have the heart.
‘I know that restaurant is still here, I just need more time to find it, we’ll try again next time.’
‘It’s okay, I don’t mind, it was a nice drive anyway”