S p a g h e t t i
L a n g u a g e
I took my first course in BASIC Programming for Educators at The New School soon after the IBM PC came out in the early '80s. My teacher was a plump, sixtyish Greek man who used to work at Bell Labs back in the days of cathode-ray tubes. He told us that at one point they built a giant computer on this island off the coast of North Carolina and that when they wanted to expand its memory, they needed so much space that the Army Corps of Engineers had to come in and add landfill to the island so there was room for more computer.
Our class was held in the basement of this building on lower Fifth Avenue that The New School had recently taken over. I was sure I had been in that building before. In the '70s it might have been an art movie house, one of the Walter Reade or Cinema 5 chains which then gave discount coupons to college students, where Mara Koenig and I once spent an odd afternoon (odd in that we were not so much friends but friends of friends and found ourselves doing something together in the way that two college students do when they hang out in a larger crowd) watching this Andy Warhol movie, L'Amour. All I remember about L'Amour is some druggy-looking debutantes being told to look "fabulous" by these effeminate guys who wore ascots and acted silly even by Warhol movie standards. I first learned BASIC programming in the building that had once been that theater, either that theater or the place where I used to pick up my friend Vito, who long ago died of AIDS, from his modern dance classes with a fierce Korean instructor on whom Vito had a crush and who was the first person to introduce us to kimchi, which I originally found much too spicy but which I now eat regularly.
My first BASIC Programming for Educators teacher, John -- his real first name was Constantinos -- told us that some of his friends disparaged BASIC as "spaghetti language" because of all the loops and GOTOs and the way you couldn't tell how the program was structured.
I took to BASIC right away. I liked spaghetti language.
So here I am in Atlanta, working for one of those companies whose IPOs (initial public offerings) are supposed to make us all millionaires someday, or so long as the World Wide Web bubble lasts, and I've got a goatee with a few grey hairs emerging on the right side of my chin, and I've got gel in my hair, and long sideburns (I had them when Mara Koenig and I grew bored at that Warhol movie), and a line through my hair below which the hair stylist has used a clipper with a number three guard. I'm wearing Calvin Klein chinos like the sexy adolescents I spotted this morning in full-page ads in Wired and Swing, and a madras plaid woven shirt I got at Rich's at the Lenox Square mall, $19.99 marked down to $12.99 marked down to $7.99 minus the 10% discount for credit card customers during last Friday and Saturday's sale, when the cashier, this dreamy, curly- haired young African-American guy, said, "Aren't you excited by this bargain? I'm excited for you!"
So when he gave me my Rich's credit card slip to sign, I went, "Do you need my phone number?" and he, puzzled, went "No-o," and I went, "Too bad" and smiled ferociously.
Which is what I'm doing now in Derrick's apartment in Grant Park, sitting across from him, smiling, asking if he'd ever been told he should do modeling because he had such great bone structure, because everything he wore looked good on him, even that grunge stuff he apparently liked to wear around the house as opposed to his Rich's dress clothes or the tacky clingy blousy stuff he probably wore when he went out to the clubs.
Derrick is making spaghetti with what he says is his special sauce, which his mother (who, it turns out, is younger than I am) used to go crazy over back in that rural South Georgia town where he grew up as a perfect student and momma's boy.
Derrick, I will soon learn, has never heard of kimchi. I will wonder what kind of 24-year-old gay black guy thinks that Garth Brooks (whom I only know from "Achy Breaky Heart") is sexy. And I will learn that it's the same kind of 24-year-old gay black guy that thinks I'm sexy.
My grandfather never tired of telling me that I was responsible for his bad back. Except he didn't have a bad back as far as I could tell. I don't remember him ever being bedridden with sciatica or staying home from work because he was having lower back spasms. Anyway, my grandfather believed that I was responsible for his imaginary bad back because he injured himself picking up my chubby three-year-old self one day after I'd said something impossibly cute.
What I'd said was this:
Three-year-old me: "How old are you, Grandpa?"
Grandpa: "I'm fifty."
Three-year-old me: "Gee, you should be dead already."
He didn't die, of course, until he'd smoked two packs of Chesterfields a day for another thirty years.
On the other hand, my grandfather had another story which he would tell about his own boyhood -- although never in conjunction with the story about me and his bad back. (I've supplied the GOTO here myself.) He and some childhood pal back in Brooklyn in the days before World War I (he tried to enlist at fourteen but was rejected because "the doctors couldn't find a hair on my body") had come into the living room where mourning neighbors were holding a wake. My kid grandpa saw the dead man lying in his coffin and asked how old the guy was. When told that the man was fifty-seven, my grandfather said, "Oh, he was very old," or some such thing, perhaps using a phrase like "Gee willikers" or whatever kids said back then.
The life expectancy of white American males increased sharply between 1914 and 1954.
I've still got years to go before I'm fifty, but not that many, and having just found myself in the category of "older white men" -- as in Derrick saying, "I like older white men" -- I feel a new kinship with my grandfather and his pseudo-bad back.
My grandfather ate spaghetti with Heinz Ketchup. Heinz Ketchup and Breakstone's Lightly Salted Butter.
By the mid-'80s I was taking grad courses in computer education at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, where IBM's PC division was located, and the IBM personnel who worked as adjunct professors were trying to teach us Structured BASIC.
I rebelled. BASIC wasn't Pascal, and pretending that it wasn't spaghetti language was like calling guacamole pesto. I understood why IBM people would like the neat, modularized, logical format of a structured programming language but what I liked about BASIC was that it was a mess, that you couldn't follow the program one line at a time because of all the GOTOs and quirks. At the time I was doing teacher training in Miami, teaching an ten-week, three-hour class in BASIC on Apple IIe's every Tuesday afternoon for teachers at this junior high in Little Havana. My class learned very unstructured BASIC programming.
After the course ended, the teachers didn't know what do with what they learned, but that would have been true of structured BASIC programming as well.
Back in those days we thought everyone was going to have to learn to program. Yeah, right -- like everyone getting their driver's license needed to be a mechanic.
Vito's memorial service at The Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul on West End Avenue and West 86th Street in Manhattan. I look around at people I've seen at other friends' memorial services and I see my late grandfather's face.
"You should be dead already," Grandpa tells me as Vito's law partner ends his string of funny anecdotes about the departed.
So I'm walking through the vendors' hall at the National Educational Computing Conference in the Baltimore Convention Center and I go up to the Compton's New Media booth looking for freebies to put in my Microsoft Network canvas bag and who do I hear being talked about but Mara Koenig, my old college friend-of-a-friend. So I go, "I know Mara Koenig," and the women from Compton's tell me she's out in L.A. designing their new Children's CD-ROM Bible, and I get her e- mail address and tell her I'd like to visit the next time I'm in L.A.
In her first e-mail back to me, Mara says hi but she can't see me in L.A. because she's about to move to Carlsbad in San Diego County because Compton's has been taken over by Softkey. She says she found this house by the beach, which will be great because her mother died after three months on a ventilator at Jackson Memorial in Miami and she's got to bring her father, who's very shaky after a stroke, from Delray Beach out to live with her. Mr. Koenig loves the beach.
So Mara comes to South Florida the same time I'm down there visiting my parents and I go to the Delray condo where she's having a hard time getting her father to focus on getting all the stuff ready for the movers the next day. We go out for pastrami sandwiches and Mr. Koenig says I should take his framed Saul Steinberg Manhattancentric New Yorker cover poster for my wall, which I do.
"How are you going to deal with having him live with you?" I say later to Mara as I'm about to leave while her father is absorbed in his just-unearthed paperbacks of Playboy Party Jokes.
"Paxil, 20 milligrams a day," Mara says, kissing me goodbye and promising to e-mail soon.
Mara's next e-mail is a mass posting. I recognize some of the other names on her list. The e-mail begins:
"Well, friends, what a funny old world this is..."
Softkey has not only taken over Compton's but now has bought The Learning Company, and Mara's kept her job, only she (and her father) have to move to the San Francisco Bay area in two weeks, just a month after she'd settled in at her perfect Carlsbad beach house.
Which is why when someone tells me our my company is the next Netscape, I say we could just as easily be the latest Next Inc.
I still haven't gotten used to the Atlanta TV stations switching their network affiliations.
When I was taking LOGO for Educators from this IBM person at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, the teacher was this woman who had absolutely no sense of humor.
She worked on the IBM LOGO software, which was programmed to say "I DON'T KNOW HOW TO..." when you gave the LOGO turtle a command it didn't understand.
I made this very simple four-line program I called NOGOLOGO which had the program respond to every command, including legitimate ones, with "I DON'T KNOW HOW TO..."
I called the teacher over one day and pretended to be frustrated. "I can't understand what's wrong," I said, and showed her:
I typed FD 20. Instead of moving the LOGO turtle forward 20 spaces, the program said I DON'T KNOW HOW TO FD 20.
I typed RT 90. Instead of moving the LOGO turtle 90 degrees to the right, the program said I DON'T KNOW HOW TO RT 90.
For five minutes, the teacher tried to figure out what was wrong with the software she had helped design, until finally I showed her my NOGOLOGO program that was underlying the software's refusal to follow the simplest commands.
Needless to say, she was not amused. She probably was less amused seven years later when IBM laid her off.
I got an A anyway. It was a graduate course in education, remember, and nobody ever got less than an A.
I'm standing next to Derrick in a sea of people at the Music Midtown festival on the site of the future headquarters of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta as The Village People perform. Derrick says he remembers them from when he was a little kid: he'd sing "Macho Man" and everyone would think he was adorable. I lived through disco the first time and think it's better in retrospect. But The Village People are fun. I remember what the corner of Christopher and West Streets looked like in 1978 and marvel that the original cop, construction worker and cowboy are still alive.
Their final number is their signature song, "YMCA." Derrick and everyone else use their arms to spell out Y, M, C, A every time the letters are sung. I try to keep up but duh, I can't get the hang of it. My body wasn't meant to spell out letters any more than my brain was meant to program in anything but spaghetti language, moving clumsily from here to there, there to here.
Derrick is so graceful as his hands go Y, M, C, A. The first time I went to his apartment, I watched the way his arms waved around as he spoke, and I thought he was going to need a Hartsfield air traffic controller's permission to take off. I'm crazy about effeminate black guys when they are incredibly tough cookies like Derrick.
I'm on the home page of Vito's law partner and his Korean-born architect wife, finding out about his recent bypass surgery and looking at the pictures from their trip to Seoul last fall. In one photo their gorgeous four-year-old daughter stands in front of the Kimchi Museum in the underground arcade of the Trade Center Building (take the #2 subway to Samsung Station and walk two blocks).
I had dinner with the family last summer at their house in Westchester. That was when I fell in love with Brianna, who has this incredible IQ, reads on a third-grade level, and can count to 20 in three languages: English, Korean, and Spanish.
Like me when I was her age -- the same age at which I told my fifty-year-old grandfather that he should already be dead -- Brianna mispronounces spaghetti pis-ghetti.
Richard Grayson is a Florida lawyer and college instructor. His short-story collections include With Hitler in New York (Taplinger, 1979), Lincoln's Doctor's Dog(White Ewe, 1982), I Brake for Delmore Schwartz (Zephyr, 1983), and I Survived Caracas Traffic (Avisson, 1996). He was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress in Florida's 9th Congressional District in 1994.
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