Table of contents


by Alfred de Grazia



The way back to Washington Square was strenuous, requiring some dodging and sidestepping. The world was stygian, people pushing cars and cars pushing back, plutonic hirelings hasting to show displeasure at their circumstances. Beneath the streets were locked a quarter of a million people breathing fetid air that they would readily exchange for the exhaust pipes above. In the skyscrapers thousands stood locked in stuck elevators.

Candles cost a half dollar now. The rising curve of taxicab rates had bottomed out at two hundred percent of the normal, multiplied by five. Thomas peeked into the Istanbul at 30th Street and, sure enough, Safra, the Belly Dancer, was readying her bumps and grinds.

He backed away to let in several clients lately of Penn Station and stepped on a turd. The experience deglamourized the setting, and he wondered whether the Mayor-elect, John Lindsay, had any plans to deal with the growing menace of uncurbed dogs. La Guardia had been the last great reformer in this regard, but the situation had since gotten out of hand -- and underfoot, he thought, pooping a bit of humor.

Since little troubles drive out big ones, he had walked practically to Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue before concerning himself with how tragedy might have changed the countenances of higher animals. There was no sign that it had.

He had been a little disappointed all evening by the failure of something Big to happen that would match the bigness of the blackout. He was becoming exasperated, and spawning in him was an urge to create the disaster that he had expected to occur naturally. But he was a long way from committing an act of desperation. He was first, last, and nearly always a social voyeur.

People looked a little more contented, if anything, with life. They might all admit that an enormity was occurring. But this was from a statistical point of view. From each individual, only a small torture was being exacted. He coined another law: "The greater the number of people sharing a disaster, the less of a disaster it is for an individual person. Therefore, the less of a disaster it is." It is the historians, blinded by objectivity, who conceal subjective fact.

He longed for human companionship amidst the throng and decided that before he should seek a bet for the night he would visit the Cedar Inn. This idea presented no difficulty of execution, inasmuch as the thought occurred when he was already on University Place near Eleventh Street, that is, in front of the Cedar Inn.

"Nice old new place. Antiqued beams, wood all over, no neon, leaded glass over the heavy bar, lots of room at the tables, tall ceilings, and my kind of people." Gilded on the window gothically is "Established 1965."

This evening the nice old new place was crowded; never in its 179 days of existence had it been so mobbed, or possessed by thirstier or friendlier people. It was New Year's Eve in November, marveled the bartender, the manager, and the waiters. There were small problems. No lights, but the customers were carrying in their own and had not yet thought to ignite the chairs, all of which were inconveniently occupied, even over occupied, with two to a chair. No draft beer, because the pressure in the coils slumped for lack of power. No cigarettes from the dispensing machine, either, which depended upon electric current to trigger off the package-drop.

All around in unending files and circles stood people. The very front table, the big round heavy wooden one, next to the full window, held acquaintances of Thomas, several at least, with a half dozen other persons, sitting and standing.

"Did you vote for Buckley?" exclaimed Plasma Girard, in tones used for the question" Did you really murder your wife?"

"Is that good?" Sylvia wanted to know.

"It's not good, but it's the way we are."

"Well, I for one don't like the way we are."

"And how, pray tell, would you change it?'

No one answered but they lit cigarettes, jiggled ice in glasses, and looked to see who was coming in.

"We're stuck," decided Thomas.

"Yes, we're stuck."

"All we can ask of the Mayor is that he be on his way to some place reasonable."

"My friends," Stein offered soothingly, "for those who have or see a duty, let them get on with it. If not, then take your pleasures."

Hyman Hess phrased it differently: "Now you have it: If trouble is relative, then duty is also. A man who believes there is no trouble must believe he has no duty."

"Hey, let's cut this talk and get back to the game. "The Grove Press Editor was thirsty.

"Yeah, what a crappy conversation. I'd never publish a book with it in." (Having to stand while drunk does made a man negativistic!)

"No, now wait a second. It's a serious question!"

"So is being in the predicament of wanting a drink while you all psychoanalyze the blackout," said the Grove Editor and with a self-praising "Hurrah" he took a long pull at the bottle.

"Better a fearful end, than an endless fear". Thus spake Hyman Hess.

"True," intoned Sterling. (This was, after all, the Fox Plan.)

"Hitler said that."

"Even a stopped clock is right twice a day."

"But it's not true." Thomas abandoned logic for a dim notion of rightness. "I should rather drift along hoping…."

"What I can't understand," said the man from Macmillan, "is why the switches weren't pulled. There were people watching the witches. If there weren't there should have been. If there were not possibility of human controls, there was the possibility of setting the system by computer. They could act like lightning.

"It is interesting that you should mention computers." A standee was speaking now. "That's my line of work, you know."

"I should know? I don't even know your name!"

"Really now." Interposed Sterling, "tonight's no night for names.. I've forgotten yours."

"Sorry. Anyhow we have them, we use them, our accounting, our budgeting, everything we do is more and more tied to them."

"Names? I don't think we'll use names much more."

"No, not names. Computers."

"And your problems as publishers are solved." The standee was going to be tougher now, after his rebuff.

"Of course not."

"Are less than they were five years ago."


"Perhaps not." The standee set his tape spinning and sat down.

"The only result of the computer is that faulty decisions are made in different places and by different people. The machine errors are made in different places too."

"The computers are the despots of the new democracy," orated Hess, "They will never rule intelligently of course, but their presence will make us believe that our problems can be solved if only some machinery were correctly installed. Do you understand?"

"Yes." "No." "Maybe." "Sure." "What did you say?" The group was in superb communication; they were, that is, exhibitionists: Thomas practicing self-disgust; the Macmillian Editor exuding destructiveness; Plasma Girard still fighting election; the UN girl wishing she were back among her friendly blackamoors; whilst the sociologist laid his eggs of jargon.

"The computer is a philosopher-king to many people. It is supposed never to go wrong, except by accident.

"But accident is part of the design of the universe. Every man is a computer with his own personal program - look at those three faces in the window.."

Thomas looked and saw two tall youths with long unkempt hair and their noses pressed flat against the pane; their eyes stared in, bold and arrogant and menacing. The candles from within shone on their squashed faces and drooping sack jackets. Could it be that they recognized him?

"Where's the third," he asked Hess nervously.

"He pulled away.. It doesn't matter anyway.. What I'm saying is that those bums have their own visions that differ in a million ways from any one of us who may happen most closely to resemble them. Like you, Thomas. They could be your brothers….

(Thomas saw his own image in the window.) "Well there's old Thomas Dubienski. Too dark to see him for what he is."

…and, still, your programming would be so different that no computer now or ever to be designed could ever run the two programs in parallel without everyday off-line compromises, adjustments, rewriting of programs -- in short and in sum -- Politics."

(I love me, I hate me, my game of Predicament.)

"A computer can only operate at all," added the computer man, "even when in perfect condition, if you all agree on what goes into it and what should come out of it. You cannot get this agreement on input and output."

"Yes, we can. We know that we want unfailing electricity," spoke the Macmillan man ….(He disliked being cast in a positive role, but he disliked the computer man more.)

(Small eyes, small nose, small dick.)

…."Yes, we do," retorted Hess, "but we want lots of other things. Some want privately-owned, others publicly owned electric power. Right?…"

"Right," put in Thomas,….

(Big dome, big mouth, big bottom.)

…"And some want a common power source with a common decision made by governments as to who should get how much power under what conditions.". . .

(Four hours light-less. . . How long did Dr. Jekyll take to become Mr. Hyde?)

…"And those conditions change all the time," asserted the computer man, "for instance, when somebody wants to build a factory in Buffalo instead of Boston or New York City. Right?"

"Sure," Thomas agreed,. . . .

(Women like me. No threat.)

. . . "And others want local determination of what power they should have and don't want that decision made by others outside! And even some militarists agree because they want to prepare for a total was by decentralizing everything, so that if one source of national power is destroyed another will still function. . . .

(Mildly sexed . . . impotent fury)

. . . "So if all of this is so, then who in hell is going to program the computer? Whoever does so is the dictator, even if he is somebody like me, who knows nothing about politics."

The Macmillan editor pinched his personal candle viciously and began to cast wild glances at the door.

"Well, if you can compute the model on that one," said Thomas, "I might go along."

"It'll be a future without human beings."

"Correct. Let the monkeys take on the future and bang away at their genealogical typewriters for another million years. They might write a better book."

"That's it! The zoo. What is happening to the tropical snakes, and the tropical fishes. . . I win a round!"

"What of the predicament of the orchids in the botanical gardens?"

"What of the million gramophones what will resume playing rock-and-roll come light."

"Gramophones! That's funny. I haven't heard a phonograph called a gramophone in years."

"Drink up. . Drink up . . Here's the new bottle, hardly touched."

"But we are done in," says Sylvia. And Sterling arises with her.

"I must find a pillow for my weary head," says Thomas, pushing backwards on his chair. "My dizzy head, I should say."

"Come stay with us," said Sylvia.

"You're welcome," adds Sterling.

"Maybe I shall, then thanks," replies Thomas.

"And I'm going to go over and wreck our computers,' said the Mackmillan man, rising abruptly, clutching his candle.

Only the computer man realized the import of this astonishing reversal: "Oh, no, you're not," he exclaimed, grasping for his adversary, but he was eluded and thereupon rose to pursue him.

And they are up and moving out through the crowd, while their places at the Great Roulette are promptly filled.

"Help me, some of you," he called back.

But no one minded him. After all, everyone kills what he loves most.

"Predishamed! Predishament! Preshcement!" essayed the Editor of St. Ballantine's Press, calling the players to prayer.

"Brush your teeth with Pepsodent," declared a cool and suave newcomer, seating himself. He looked like one to win at this game.


Table of contents