Lust for a Laptop, or the Madness of the Obsessive Collector, pt. 5

(go to part 4)

I stored my growing stock in a small third bedroom at the rear of my house. When the floor grew crowded and my ad hoc stacks became unwieldy, I went to Home Depot and bought a quartet of heavy-duty steel utility shelves. I filled the shelves disconcertingly quickly. I stacked boxes on top of boxes, laptops on top of laptops. I squeezed petite subnotebooks in their padded cases between humongous Osborne Portable Computers and Panasonic Senior Partners.

I made no attempt to order and arrange the machines by age or brand or model. There simply wasn’t enough room. I figured I’d sort them all out at a later time, when I was ready to begin selling them, or when I needed to pull particular machines to do research for the book. I maintained a rough sense of where everything was. I wrote model names and numbers on the sides of boxes, but the units not in boxes, the ones inside carrying cases, quickly became hidden mysteries, like the Ark of the Covenant, lost in the gigantic government warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

my house starts filling up... with laptops

A month or two after I had purchased and stocked the utility shelves, I began to notice something odd. Two of the four sets of shelves, the ones closest to the back door, were leaning. Not just a little, but rather severely. I measured the legs of the shelves. They had stayed true and even all around. The shelves weren’t buckling. It was my floor that was buckling.

Remember, this was a ninety year-old house. The timbers in the floor had likely never been replaced. And I soon learned they had recently been munched upon by termites which had migrated from my back shed. I couldn’t move the utility shelves and their laptops–there was nowhere else in the house I could put them. I hired a contractor, who jacked up the rear right corner of my house off its piers and replaced the underflooring and the joists. I sacrificed another twelve-hundred dollars to the laptop gods (although I suppose the termites should bear part of the blame, too).

Buying laptops wasn’t all I was doing with my life in 2000. I was revising Fat White Vampire Blues. I continued my efforts to find romance (or even a coffee date) through JDate.com. But the frustrating lack of response from any local women, my fatigue with driving hundreds of miles to meet young ladies with whom I’d instantly discover I shared zero chemistry, and JDate’s decision to double their monthly fees convinced me to let my membership lapse.

On my very last day of membership eligibility, I decided to check JDate’s database of local women one final time before saying the hell with it and resigning myself to being a vintage computer hermit. As Ye Olde Fate would have it, that same day was the very day Dara Lorn Levinson posted her description on the site. When I read her description, she hadn’t even yet had a chance to post a photo. Something about her self-description hooked me. She didn’t try to sugarcoat herself. Her description struck me as endearingly self-deprecating. She sounded honest and funny. It worked for me. And she was local, a New Orleans resident. With nothing to lose, I clicked the button that sent her an invitation to look at my profile and get in touch through email.

She got right back to me. We emailed a couple of times, and then she asked me to call her. We went out on our first date the night before Halloween–dinner at Kim Son Vietnamese and Chinese Restaurant (tons of great vegetarian choices), followed by coffee and book browsing at the Books-a-Million next door. Unlike with any of my prior JDate connections, I sensed a mutual attraction. Finally.

We made arrangements to go out the next night to a Halloween event, Decadence Night, a kind of bohemian outdoor fair held on an empty lot by the railroad tracks in Bywater (not far from where I had located my vampire Jules Duchon’s house). I introduced her to some of my more off-beat friends from Borsodi’s Coffeehouse. One of them, Jimmy Ross, complained that he had invited some acquaintances to howl naked at the moon, but he’d been the only one who’d actually done it. Dara didn’t bat an eye. That impressed me.

the acid test

I lent her the manuscript of Fat White Vampire Blues to read. This was an acid test. She told me, much later, that she’d shivered inwardly when I’d handed her the big, heavy manuscript, fearing that she would hate it and that she’d have to think of some gentle way to tell me. She read it. She enjoyed it and thought it was funny, even though it wasn’t her type of book. She didn’t find me repulsive or creepy after reading it. That impressed me even more than her accepting attitude toward Jimmy Ross had.

But one thing I wouldn’t tell her was how many laptops I’d bought. She’d poked her nose into the storage room, where I had covered the utility shelves with patterned sheets. Oh, I was happy to introduce her to the other off-center parts of my life. Weird friends? Check. Weird horror book that I’d written? Check. Weird compulsion to buy mass quantities of vintage portable computers. . .? No.

She knew, in a vague way, about my thing about laptops. She’d ask me now and then how many I owned, and I’d say, “Lots.” And then I’d tease her about her cats. I was agnostic on cats; I had grown up with dogs. She had ten house cats. None of them declawed. They had torn all the furniture in her living room and den to stringy shreds. Her house possessed a distinctive eau du litterbox. When one cat got sick, all ten got sick, and she would nurse them all on her bed, all night long. I’d kid her that at least I didn’t need to feed my laptops, or take them to the vet, or scoop out their litterboxes. So there!

Elvis buys Graceland

Our romance grew warmer the weekend we took our first out of town trip, to the Heartbreak Hotel in Memphis over New Year’s Eve. This was the first time I’d permitted myself to leave New Orleans on a New Year’s Eve since my cousin Amy had been killed six years ago and I’d started the New Year Coalition. By now, though, the New Orleans Police Department was handling the bulk of the annual public education campaign against holiday gunfire. I felt I owed it to myself to get away. Plus, I needed to visit Graceland to do some research for my next book, Calorie 3501, which later became The Good Humor Man.

swimming pool at the Heartbreak Hotel

We loved the kitschy hotel. We loved the 24/7 Elvis movies on our room’s closed circuit TV. We loved the Australian tourists in the breakfast room. We loved the mansion. We loved Elvis’s car museum and his collection of personal aircraft. We bought Elvis coffee mugs. Best of all, it snowed on New Year’s Eve, one of Memphis’s rare snowfalls, and the snow made the Graceland estate look like a set straight out of It’s a Wonderful Life.

the Lisa Marie, Elvis' airplane

We started talking seriously about merging households (she talked about it more seriously than I did, at least at first). Both of our houses, however, were too small to hold us, Dara’s nine year-old daughter Natalie, all our stuff (laptops in particular), and the ten cats (nine after one came down with feline leukemia and had to be put to sleep).

Also, the situation in my immediate neighborhood had become nearly untenable. My next-door neighbor, the dealer, had acquired one customer to whom I referred as “The Whistler.” The Whistler would come around at three or four in the morning, stand on the sidewalk outside my neighbor’s house, and whistle for his connection to come out. He did one of those “insert two fingers in the mouth” whistles, and it was as loud and piercing as a train whistle. Got me to leap out of bed every time, heart pounding. Running the air conditioner didn’t cover up The Whistler’s whistles, nor did running a noisy box fan. Wearing ear plugs didn’t muffle the whistles; I had become acutely sensitive to that shrill, infuriating sound.

I talked to my neighbor. Repeatedly. Each time he mumbled noncommittally about asking his “friend” to be more quiet. I started screaming out my window every time I was awakened by the whistling. That didn’t work. I called the cops at least half a dozen times. The cops at my district station didn’t give a rat’s ass about The Whistler or my dealer neighbor. I half-considered buying a gun. What would I have done with it? I don’t know; that’s why I didn’t buy it. I managed to make the situation semi-tolerable by spending as many nights as I could sleeping at Dara’s house on the West Bank, in detached suburbia, then driving the Crescent City Connection across the Mississippi to the office the next morning. Out of hearing, out of mind.

Dara’s ailing father gave us his blessing in the last lucid conversation he had with her before he passed away. His youngest daughter and I were married less than a year later, in May of 2003. Soon thereafter, our first son on the way, we each sold our houses and bought a larger home in the Algiers neighborhood on the West Bank, not far from Dara’s former house and Natalie’s elementary school, right around the corner from Dara’s mother. (Goodbye, Whistler, you bastard, and good riddance!)

The moving men silently hated me for my ninety boxes of books. They would’ve hated me even more for my laptops, had I not already moved them myself, filling the back of my Ford Focus at least a dozen times and driving back and forth across the Mississippi. I trusted no one to move my laptops but me. Thank heaven, the new house was well stocked with walk-in closets. I commandeered two of them for the laptops, plus a spare bedroom that would pull triple duty as storage space, my office, and a guest room.

One of the biggest and most welcome changes I made in my life after getting married was handing over the financial management of the household to Dara. I had always been a lousy bill payer. It wasn’t that I lacked the funds; I just hated the act of paying bills, and I procrastinated, typically until utilities got turned off. In fact, the only bills I had regularly paid on time had been payments for computers, because my eBay sellers demanded payment up front. (I still retain a sterling rating Feedback Score on eBay. Not one single black mark.)

But now that Dara was paying all of our bills and tracking all of our expenditures, I couldn’t “sneak buy” laptops anymore. “Big Sister” would know. Anything I determined to buy in the realm of vintage computers, I had to justify. Rationally. Impulse buys were mostly out of the question. Some purchases I justified as Father’s Day or birthday presents to myself. I managed to justify a few others on the basis of needing certain peripherals or supplies, such as an external floppy drive, in order to make full use of the machines I already owned–and, oh, by the way, the external floppy just happens to come with another NEC Ultralite laptop attached.

An even bigger impediment to buying more laptops was that I quickly found myself with much more important things on which to spend my money. Levi arrived at the end of 2003, and his brother Asher joined the family exactly fifteen months later. Disposable diapers, even the generic kind from Wal-Mart, are expensive, and babies use a whole lot of them. I was trying to get my professional writing career going (Del Rey brought out Fat White Vampire Blues in 2003 and Bride of the Fat White Vampire the following year), and I was working full-time, and I was helping to raise two sons–I didn’t have time to play with my old laptops in my (cat-free) office upstairs.

Still another factor came into play. I had bought virtually everything there was to buy. I now owned, with a few notable exceptions, at least one example of every significant pre-Pentium, pre-Windows95 portable computer that had been made (and lots of the insignificant models, too). Of some machines for which I felt an especial fondness, I had bought three or four. I owned half a dozen Poqet PCs and nearly all of the rare ROM software cards that had been made for them. I had not one, but two external floppy drives for the Poqet PC Classic and Poqet PC Prime (each of which outweighed their accompanying computers by a good measure). It was as if I had completed my entire Silver Age runs of Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Daredevil, only missing those elusive first appearances of Dr. Doom, the Masked Marauder, and the Jester.

So my buying petered off. It petered off precipitously. More gradually, my acquisitional fever receded. I lost interest in writing my book on collecting vintage laptops; I was too busy working on other writing projects. I slowly, very slowly and gingerly, came to the conclusion that perhaps, just perhaps, I had bought enough.

Enough?

Enough.

I figured I could just stand pat and let the market come to me. At least until the boys grew older and demanded their own bedrooms (and closets), I had all the storage space I needed. The laptops weren’t hurting anybody. I could afford to sit on them for years, decades, if I had to, until a true collectors’ market matured. Then I would sell them off, keeping, of course, a few especially precious units, the pick of my litter, to fondle and play with.

Like a man coming down from a weekend binge of debauchery and chemically-induced derangement of the senses, I began to feel sheepish, then rather ashamed of myself. I had blown a lot of money. Oh, I might recoup all or some of it, someday, but that was far from assured. Worse, I had let myself get completely out of control. My inner Puritan worked me over, hung a scarlet H around my neck (for Hoarder), trundled me into the stocks, gave me two hundred and fifty lashes (one for each laptop), and then tarred and feathered me.

Soon I’d have more than just guilt and faint regrets to bedevil me, however. In the words of the ancient Chinese curse, my family and I were about to live through some very interesting times.

Next: Hurricane Katrina traps my family first in Albuquerque, then in Miami. I suspect everything has been lost. We replace our roof, but the laptops survive (as do the cats, temporarily). Hard economic times when Dara’s job disappears after the storm. I try selling Saturns. I go to work for FEMA, temporarily. With the clock ticking down, I search desperately for a permanent job. I finally find one–in Washington, DC. I realize I won’t be able to take most of the laptops with me. I go through the painful process of culling my herd. The mysterious fate of two-thirds of my collection…

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