My daughter Tafv answered the door to Daphne, who was crying hysterically, saying she thought her daughter had been murdered.
“It’s been so long since I’ve seen her,” said the 74-year-old woman, weeping and holding out the key hanging from around her neck.
I was out jogging, and my husband was at Trader Joe’s, so Tafv, 14, walked Daphne across the street to where she used to live with her grown daughter. She led Daphne up the many stairs, and tried the key in the front door while the woman told Tafv that she thought her daughter’s body was probably inside, and that they needed to call the police. The key did not fit so, at Daphne’s suggestion, they went to the side door; it did not open.
“Maybe we should try the front door,” Daphne said. Tafv suggested that instead she should come to our house and have some tea, which is what we’d done when we found Daphne a month earlier, wandering down the street in the dark.
We hadn’t seen Daphne in six months. For five years before that, we’d seen her daily, gardening, or taking her car on as many as a dozen short trips a day, so many we’d joked she was a “gramma drug dealer.” When we’d seen her again that first time after she moved, I noticed she’d become frail. I’d asked her if she was okay. She told me she’d come to see her sister and began a convoluted story about how her sister had written to her and invited her to visit.
“No, no, that’s not right,” said Daphne, wringing her hands. “I wrote her letters. But she didn’t answer them.”
We brought her inside our home. She did not know us, but settled comfortably with a cup of hot tea and told us how she’d been a nurse for 30 years, and about her three daughters, and how they’d fussed at each other as teenagers. She was lucid and delighted to chat about the past, but about the present she was uncertain, and she knew it.
“I never thought my mind would be affected,” she said, and again asked about her sister, who does not and never did live across the street.
That time, I’d gotten an ancient phone book from her purse, and phoned people with her last name. I eventually reached her ex-husband, who said Daphne was suffering from dementia, and gave me the address of the group home where she’d been staying, a few miles south. I drove Daphne there; she thanked me and told the attendant what a nice girl I was. When her daughter came home from work that night, she told us Daphne had been going downhill rapidly; that they’d had an electronic monitoring bracelet on her, but that she’d ripped it off.
When I came back from running, Daphne was still crying, standing by her old gate with Tafv and my husband, saying we needed to wait for the police. Somehow my presence convinced her it was okay to come inside our place for tea. We chatted, though less this time; she seemed more frightened. Tafv and I then drove her back to the group home, where in the lobby, she told the nurse, “They are such good neighbors.”
On the drive home, Tafv said Daphne had said to her, “This is no way for a person to have to live.” We talked about Alzheimer’s, how it can happen to anyone, and I told Tafv I was very proud of the kindness and responsibility she’d shown.
I know Daphne will show up again; that she somehow remembers the name of this street and gets the cab drivers to bring her. But we are moving at the end of January, and while I suspect some flare of self-preservation will tell Daphne to knock on our door, there will be nobody here that she knows.
Punch Tape, Hairless Hounds and Broken Fan Belts
on a recent saturday afternoon, while a jazz combo jams at the Downbeat Café on Alvarado in Echo Park, hipsters at the Machine gallery opening next door sip Tecates and puzzle over the array of obsolete computing devices from the ’50s through the ’70s in Tom Jennings’ “Story Teller” installation. Pushing a button on a black box the size of a DSL modem feeds a reel of 1-inch-wide computer punch tape into a wooden box on a pedestal. This box reads the tape and sends a signal to a shoebox-size wooden container on the floor — a crude voice synthesizer that belches out barely decipherable syllables in a clipped monotone while a clacking, waist-high Teletype machine outputs text on sheets of 50-year-old, buff-colored paper. Modern computer chips that Jennings has installed in each device enable the machines to communicate.
“It’s basically a multimedia system,” he says brushing a hand over the voice synth’s surface. “A laptop beats the pants off of this kind of computer. But this is made of stuff you can touch.” An aging punk rocker, Jennings has a thin white goatee, ears stacked with silver hoops, and arms covered with tattoos that reveal his deep love of computing and its history. On his left forearm he has the International Telegraphic Alphabet; on his right is the FIELDATA precursor to the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. A renowned computer programmer, hacker, artist and queer activist, Jennings created the Homocore zine and, in 1984, FidoNet, the first public bulletin board and a forerunner of the modern Internet.
The octopus-like physical network in front of us tells an eight-hour story about Alan Turing, the legendary gay British code breaker and mathematician. Nearby, Jennings’ canine duo, Dart (a Mexican hairless) and Molly (a moon-eyed Peruvian hairless with a white Mohawk), play close to the front window. Dart nips Molly in the leg, and the pair take off running past a portrait of Turing, the only art on the gallery’s walls.
“Almost all spaces dealing with new technology look like the Mac store,” says Mark Allen, the artist who created Machine and designed the space with the architect Fritz Haeg. “I’m against the idea that you have to have money and corporate backing to do something with technology.” Jennings and his low-tech “Story Teller” installation perfectly embody this ethos. Allen’s choice of a daytime opening was intentional. “I figured if we had the opening during the day, more people might come to check out the art instead of just to drink the free beer.”
His strategy pays off. Art fans, friends, and people from the Downbeat and the 33 1/3 bookstore steadily stream in and out of the gallery all afternoon while Molly and Dart play tag between the crowds’ legs.
Allen is a founding member of the C-Level collective, a group of artists who have gained notoriety for their video game–based performance pieces that interrogate the relationship between humans and technology. The modular Machine space will showcase similar technology-related installations and sculptures, on an ongoing basis.
“The ‘Story Teller’ story is fine, but it unfolds very slowly,” Jennings shouts over the buzz of the crowd. “I have something that’s tangentially related, but it’s only 18 minutes and it’s much more chatty.” As he hand-winds punch tape, he admires his antique computers. “The Teletype machine cost the price of a small car in 1960, but they would run for 20 years. Now you spend two grand on a laptop, and it’s gone in 18 months.” But as Jennings knows, old school isn’t always more reliable. A Western Union telegraph printer and a graph plotter Jennings has modified to output handwriting are connected to the network but aren’t functioning. “The fan belt isn’t working,” Jennings says as he tinkers with the plotter. “You just get done in by the dumbest stuff.”
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