Man vs. Machine: My Miracle Worker Drives a Harley

Photo by Anne Fishbein

When the crash came, I tried Ctrl-Alt-Delete. Nothing. I tried Esc. Nothing. No files, no desktop. And rebooting only made things worse. My computer just sat there, taunting and omnipotent in its refusal to give me a break, which is how I often think of God.

I stepped out onto the second-floor walkway of the converted motel where I keep a small writer’s hooch and stared across the courtyard toward Hollywood Boulevard. When you’ve lost your C:\ drive and with it the only trickle of inspiration in a long dry spell, you spiral.

“Ouch, that sucks,” said my friend Randy when he called and heard what happened. “There’s only one thing to do.”

“What’s that?”

“You gotta call Colin.”

“Who’s Colin?”

“He’s a genius. He can fix any computer.”

I took the number. The first message I left explained how I’d just lost the beginning to the novel I’d been carrying around in my head for three years. I was hoping to sound more needy than anyone else vying for Colin’s attention. I got no call back. I called again. Nothing. I called Randy the next day and told him the problem.

“Yeah, he doesn’t answer his phone a lot.”


“Because he doesn’t have to.”

I pleaded with Randy to use whatever influence he had to persuade Colin to call me, then tried Colin again myself. No answer. I was fucked. I tried to think of alternative careers for 37-year-olds with little or no experience at anything.

Then Colin called.

“You the guy that’s been leaving me messages?” he demanded.

I was frightened, but said, “Yes.”

“You friends with Randy?”

Usually when someone asks that, good things don’t follow. But what else could I say?

“Are you a rich guy or a poor guy?”

“I’m certainly not rich,” I said.

“Well, you can’t afford what I charge, but since you’re a friend of Randy’s, maybe I’ll stop by and see if I can fix that piece of shit.”

I don’t know what my preconceived notion of a computer troubleshooter was, but it wasn’t a tall, wiry guy dressed in black from head to toe, riding a shiny Harley-Davidson.

The crazy, cross-eyed old man who lives below my office and who is always shuffling around in pajamas came out to see what was up. He gave Colin, who was already smoking a cigarette, the cross-eyed glare.

Colin blew smoke in his face and said, “What’s up, man?”

The crazy old man turned to me and smiled like I was a chump and went back inside. Then Colin looked at me, stubbed his cigarette and said, “Let me see this piece of shit.”

He sat down and immediately started banging on the keyboard, diving into layers of computer I didn’t know existed. He was my Captain Nemo, and we were 20,000 leagues under the C:\ drive, swimming deeper into the operating system. All the while he was talking, cursing, swearing, cajoling, seducing.

At one point something that looked like hieroglyphics filled the screen, and he shouted, “What the fuck was that?” and slammed down hard on some keys and made it go away.

After a while he got up and said, “This thing’s full of shit.”

I felt ashamed.

“You’ve got two choices. Go and buy all new software and reload your operating system, or grab your hard drive and follow me.”

“Do you think we can fix it?” I asked sheepishly.

“If you buy new software and we load it here, it’s 50-50. You bring that bitch to my place, and your chances go up to 85 percent.”

By the time I got to his apartment in Santa Monica, Colin had set up command central on the kitchen table. I shambled into the doorway with my impotent hard drive under my arm.

“Wait!” he said, freezing me in my tracks. “The shoes, man. Take off the shoes.”

I took off my shoes. The apartment was no-frills but neat. I noticed two packs of Marlboros on the coffee table and a pack of generic cigarettes on the kitchen table. He asked me to hand him a pack of Marlboros. I asked why he had a pack of generics.

“I’ll smoke anything. I used to smoke crack like a madman until I had a near-death experience, so I don’t give a fuck what cigarettes I smoke,” he said. Then he told me how a couple of Crips once held him hostage for two days. He showed me the scars on his forearms where they sliced him with a butcher knife.


“I still have the knife,” he said. “I keep it in a drawer in the kitchen.”

“What did they want?”

“What did they want? They were crackheads, that’s what they wanted.”

Colin hooked my hard drive into his computer. Then he inserted some floppy disks into his A:\ drive. He worked furiously, looking for programs and start-up sequences and compatibility and stuff I didn’t really understand.

I noticed a shabby acoustic guitar propped against the wall. It was little more than a beginner’s guitar.

“You mind if I check out your guitar?” I asked, acting like I’d barely seen one before.

“No, go ahead. It’s a piece of shit, though.”

I started fiddling around with a basic 16-bar blues, adding some flourishes here and there in case he was paying attention. His focus never strayed from the computer monitor.

“It has a nice dirty sound,” I said solicitously.

“Yeah, you think so? Let me see that,” he said, a bit annoyed.

He then proceeded to rip into a furious jazz/blues progression, fingering chords beyond my comprehension.

“Nobody uses 13ths anymore,” he said.

He continued with some Pink Floyd, Yes, Everlast, and finished with Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing.”

“I spent some time at a fancy music school,” he told me as he handed the guitar back like he was handing an empty glass to a busboy. “On a scholarship.”

He went back to the computer with an inspired volley of curses, pleas, cigarettes and exclamations, interrupted only by business calls.

“Most of my clients are stars who don’t want to go out of the house,” he scowled after one call.

I started strumming the guitar again. Without looking at me, he held up his hand and told me to stop.

“I just have to concentrate on this part,” he added to soften the blow.

A few tense assaults on the keyboard followed. Then we waited for signs of life on the monitor. Nothing. Even Colin seemed deflated. Then he hit a few more keys, sucked in his breath and watched as images started to come to life on the screen.

“Does that look like your desktop?” he asked. A familiar configuration of icons and folders appeared before me. His tone had switched from that of a SWAT-team sergeant to one of almost paternal concern.

“Yes, it is,” I said, awed.

“Now what folder contains this novel you were so worried about?”

I told him to click on the file code-named chnovel.doc. It opened.

“All there?” he asked gently.

“Yes,” I said. “Thank you. Thank you.”

I felt like crying. I searched for some way, other than the $250 check I was making out, to show him how much I appreciated everything: the motorcycle, the black couture, the cheap cigarettes, that I was in the home of a genius who doesn’t take new clients, watching him turn my despair back into hope.

He must have sensed a sappy moment coming on, because he picked up the guitar and started improvising a punk song. It was something about a dark bar, last call, a priest and Randy.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said when he was done. “It’s what I do.”

Conventional Wisdom: My Car, My Self

The pursuit of personal identity through automobile affiliation is not new, but coursing through the circles of New Car Hell at the L.A. Auto Show this weekend, I find its ultimate expression — and maybe an entire philosophy of life — in a pamphlet, for the rectangular little Austin Mini Cooper, called “The Book of Motoring.”

“Let’s burn the maps! Let’s get lost! Let’s turn right when we should go left! Let’s forget everything we know about driving!” This car seems just a step away from offering apartment listings in Silver Lake and a gift certificate to the Soap Plant. And, perhaps in an attempt to sell cars to the confused, the marginally depressed and the slovenly, the pamphlet advises, “Don’t freak out if your mini gets a nick or a ding. Just think of them as scars. And as most people will tell you, scars are sexy!” What better way to get those sexy scars than to forget everything you know about driving?

I’d kind of like to buy a new car, but trying to figure out the differences between the various models sends my eyes spinning in opposite directions. I thought a trip to the L.A. Auto Show would help. My friend and near rock god Andy Prieboy agrees to play Virgil to my Dante.

“Mud men and mints spells Toyota,” Andy says suddenly. We have just been handed a box of Toyota mints, an obvious seduction ploy for the muddy-boy contingent, who must be the target consumer group for Toyota’s Rugged Sport Coupe, a car so angry and muscular it looks like a fist with the face of a grouper. “Boys will be boys,” says the commercial playing nearby. The screen shows little boys playing in mud and then transforming before your eyes into hard-living mud-covered men. Here at last is a car for guys for whom there is no such thing as too much mud. Not me.


“Welcome to Humshwitz,” Andy says as we walk up to a section of the L.A. Convention Center that looks as if it’s been transformed into a POW camp. Inside a chainlink fence posted with a sign that reads, “Danger. 500,000 volts,” and beside a faux control or gun tower, the brand-new Hummer rises and falls on a hydraulic lift. “Unique. Authentic. True. Daring. Powerful. Reliable,” reads the sales copy.

“What is this place supposed to be?” I ask one of the Hummer women. “Um, I think it’s kind of a futuristic brewing pot,” she says. “Too bad the smoke isn’t working right now.” At least it’s Unique. Daring.

Meanwhile, the “Wake up and drive” slogan at the Mitsubishi display doesn’t exactly inspire confidence either. And I’m not sure I buy into the rescue theme that seems so central now to the marketing of luxury cars. Consider the filmed dramatization of the successful businessman who, upon driving his car into a field, hears a voice in his dashboard asking, “Mr. Jones, are you all right? We’ve been notified that your air bag has been deployed.” I think I’ll just avoid driving my non-luxury car into random fields.

Maybe, I decide for a few brief moments, I’m part of the heretofore unacknowledged Nihilist/Anarchist market that Pontiac seems to be reaching for with its commercial for a minivan called Vibe. The words “Free spirit! Punked out! Cyber-freak! Punk rock! Rock star!” fly about as we consider a group of mussy-haired, 20-something, semi-waster kids loading arty accessories that prove they are painters, musicians and dancers into the back of the van for a day of good-natured if occasionally rage-driven creative posturing. Darby Crash wouldn’t have wanted a new car that pandered to punks, even if he had the extra cash, but Pontiac is pretty sure that kind of silly, grouchy attitude is behind us now.

Just in case it’s not, Acura is going after the more compromised rebels with its film of a late-30s white couple sporting an expensive messiness as they race along PCH. “People with good jobs and drug problems,” Andy says. Still not me.

I walk out of the show no closer to a new-car purchase than before. And when I get back to my old car, I discover that some weasel has placed a red, white and blue Mickey Mouse ball on my antenna and a plastic cup full of orange soda behind my tire. “As car vandalism goes,” Andy sniffs, “this is pretty sad.”

My thought? “Damn those good-for-nothing Pontiac punks.” —Merrill Markoe

Our Favorite Book Blurbs by Jerry Stahl

Spontaneous, by Diana Wagman:

“If Flannery O’Connor had popped out a daughter, her sentences would sound like Diana Wagman’s. She writes with the pen of a poet, the eye of a sage, and the heart of the best friend you ever had. Spontaneous is a pitch-perfect, deeply felt, massively enjoyable jewel of a novel.”

The Other Side of Mulholland, by Stephen Randall:

“If Bridget Jones had a sex change, and teamed up with Nathanael West, the result would be the scathing, hysterical, drop-dead-accurate portrayal of contempo L.A. captured in Stephen Randall’s The Other Side of Mulholland. With laser-sharp wit and sentences you want to read out loud to strangers, Randall lays bare the pretensions, rituals and peculiar air-conditioned dementia of life in the City of Angels. A hugely readable debut by a terrific new voice in American fiction.”

The Bus, by Steve Abee:

Steve Abee is the Walt Whitman of up-from-the-gutter contempo poetry, the Kerouac of every corner you’ve ever slimed by without listening to the music of word-drunk skeeks and beautiful mutants with matted hair. The Bus is a naked celebration of love for the damaged, and damaged love – the gritty yin and savage yang of the real Los Angeles.”

Sarah, by J.T. LeRoy:

“J.T. LeRoy writes like Flannery O’Connor tied to the bed and plied with angel dust. Sarah is an exhilarating, hysterical and beautifully written disturbing novel. Whatever young LeRoy had to live through to write a book like this, we’re lucky he’s here. An off-the-map brilliant, brutally funny debut.”


Mall, by Eric Bogosian:

“Eric Bogosian writes like an M-16 ripping through the brain pan of Western civilization. A read-till-your-eyes-bleed chronicle of American appetites run amok.”

Apocalypse Culture II, edited by Adam Parfrey:

“Adam Parfrey’s astonishing, un-put-downable and absolutely brilliant compilation . . . will blow a hole through your mind the size of JonBenet’s fist. This book should be in hotel rooms.”

Another Day in Paradise, by Eddie Little:

“A brilliant, deeply satisfying novel that instantly elevates Eddie Little to the top shelf of American tough-guy fiction.”

How To Stop Time, by Ann Marlowe:

“The little black dress of dope books. Smart, sleek and savagely subtle, Ms. Marlowe is the most gifted druggie to pop out of Harvard since the late Timothy Leary.”

Go West Young Fucked-Up Chick, by Rachel Resnick:

“F*cking amazing! Imagine Irvine Welsh with a sex change and airdropped onto Hollywood. Go West . . . is more than a great book, it’s a phenomenon. A flat-out hysterical guide through end-of-the-line Los Angeles. Rachel Resnick can write the ass off any man.”

—Compiled by Deborah Vankin


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