The cable man came in June ’83. It took a while; cable was an urban extravagance, and our family occupied the Suburbs, long sprawls of lawn cresting toward hovels slashed in lattice and topped in backboards.
The town was young then, north of 120. Even the 7-Eleven, past the curve and six blocks yonder, was near brand new. Freaks still stopped to sniff the paint. Gearheads gaped at the Slurpee machine. Fifteen-year-olds cultivated mustaches and hickeys, wore denim year ’round, gunned the eff-word past Marlboros, produced plastic combs in the presence of reflections. With only one newspaper, multiple subscriptions to People, three television networks, various home gaming consoles and 17 million overplayed copies of Def Leppard’s “Pyromania,” we were innocents, isolated from the outside world.
But we kids knew about cable. Heard stories. Whispered of its glories in sleepover tones. “If’n it comes,” Manuel swore, “I’m gonna sit in a Cheetos bag and watch nothing but Kool & the Gang’s ‘Joanna’ video until I die.” “Forty channels!” Danko gasped. “How can a man be bored with 40 channels?” “I heard,” said Hudson, “that when women take their shirts off, the camera doesn’t even blink.” That, we agreed, was a fine fine thing.
Much juvenile rejoicing commenced as the cable wagon pulled into the neighborhood, steered by a rake in a newsboy cap. “Whoa, Econoline,” he said as he came to a stop, throwing us a wink.
“Whatcha got in the jalopy, mister?” asked Levon, whistling through his braces.
The stranger regarded us with a paternal grin as he unfurled miles of cord. “Boys,” he said, “I bring you magic.”
“Imagine,” he continued, “a universe in which you can watch baseball, live from Atlanta, Georgia, each and every evening the whole summer long. Dare you ponder buffets of ancient sitcoms? Would you think me insane if I described channels that never signed off, but kept broadcasting and churning, bathing you in chatter even as you slept? Do you like the news? Now you can watch it whenever you want, becoming doubly, triply informed. Exotic journeys await you, friends, to transport you to realms unfathomed by your parents. You are the chosen generation, poised atop the precipice of mass edification. It is all within your grasp. It is all within your power. What courses through these wires, gentlemen, is dreams.”
“Gee,” we chorused.
With that he excused himself and leapt to a rooftop, where he tore an antenna from its moorings, held it aloft and cried, “I call upon the gods to BANISH thee, oppressor!” And, lo, the heavens trembled, the valley shook, and a single burst of lightning tore toward its prey, ravenous, enraged. Man and scepter were soon engulfed, conduits wreathed in currents. “Yes! YESSSSSS!” he laughed, absorbing untold powers. Cackles gave way to babble as his body surrendered to crossed transmissions:
Join Pat Robertson on “The 700 Club.” … Pipe down, Beav, will ya … long fly to center; Dale Murphy retires the side. … From the right, I’m Pat Buchanan. … To be the man, you’ve got to BEAT the man! Woo! … Don’t forget: we’re bringing you Ozzy live and giving you the best seat in the house! I’m Martha Quinn. … Baaaaaack, backbackbackbackback, GONE! … “I married Joan / What a girl, what a whirl, what a life” … This is George Plimpton and you’ve been watching “Mousterpiece Theatre” … The following film has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America. It may contain sexual situations and language unsuitable for children. Parental discretion is advised. … I’m Bill Harris; we’ll TALK again.
Radiant, he turned to us. His mad eyes danced with logos. Showtime. The Movie Channel. The Disney Channel. Cinemax. Nickelodeon. The “o” in HBO pulsed past his pupils till it devoured his face, humming and spinning, producing maelstroms of programming no mortal could withstand. He fell to his knees. “Complete!” he barked in a timbre I’d someday recognize as anchorman Bernard Shaw’s. “The transformation!” His outstretched arms formed blocks bearing the letters WTBS. His chest and torso contorted to form a CNN as his feet exploded into MTVs and USAs. Fingers twisted and stiffened into ESPN. The shouting resumed, pained yet commanding, reaching its absolute peak: “BASIC! PACKAGE! ACTIVATED!” Thus summoned, a blinding flash flattened the sky, reducing humanity to an iris in a void, all life silenced by divine remote.
Then, in benevolence, a pair of numbers registered across the otherwise blank expanse. First a zero, followed by three. The earth returned, more vibrant than before. Larger. More profane. Less attired. With the freedom to watch “An Officer and a Gentleman” six times in a single weekend.
The cable man, once bound in electric wrath, was whole again, beatific. “Congratulations,” he said, handing us copies of Movie Lovers Monthly, free with our subscriptions, so that we could begin plotting glimpses of avarice undisturbed by Protestant restraint. “You now have cable television.” We each took turns bleeding into vials, relinquishing our souls forever to That Which Provides. And someday, when our time comes, we’ll alight to the Final Bundle: high-speed absolution, Turbo Rapture and an eternity of high-definition “Emmanuelle” sequels.
Oh, well. As bad deals go, it still beats Comcast.