Getting the Picture

You can bring the world into sharper focus, but do you want to?

By Paul Pekin

“So what’s the trouble?” he says.

“It’s the line,” I say. “Go to Channel Two and you’ll see a big white line right down the center of the screen.”

The cable guy is tall, he’s thin, he could be a basketball player. He is a basketball player.

“But not much longer,” he says. “Getting too old.”

I’m feeling sheepish. A week ago the service went out, blooie, and the cable company generously gave me an appointment for today. Then the service went back on, just as I was about to attach an antenna and abandon ship forever. Who needs cable anyway if Michael retires?

So I should have called them back, right? For five days they’d kept calling me–well, not exactly calling me; they have a prerecorded message they send out after you’ve made an appointment. It says, “If your service has been restored…”

But I tried to talk to this message. “Yes, it’s back on,” I tried to say.

The message kept right on playing. If I were to call a certain number and cancel the service call, it promised, I would be given credit for a free premium movie.

This is what irks me about Prime Cable. You call them, you get a recorded message, press 1, press 2, press 3. And always you get a recording. Not only that, they come back to you the same way. They’ve set up their business so you never talk to another human being.

But now I have a human being standing before me. The cable guy!

“Go to Channel Two,” I tell him. “You’ll see that line.”

He switches to Channel Two, and of course there is no line. It always has been an on-and-off thing. Uh-oh, I’m thinking. I should have taken the free movie.

The cable guy shakes his head. “Ahhh. That’s not good.” He switches back to Channel Five, my one good channel. “See that?” the cable guy says. “How long have you had this box?”

He means the control box. Six years? Eight? I don’t know. I can’t even find my way around the Loop anymore, let alone remember when I got cable.

“A long time,” I say.

“I’m giving you a new one,” he says, and he has the new one ready. “How about a remote?”

“How much?”

“Twenty cents a month.”

“I’ll take it,” I say.

Within minutes we have a picture so sharp it takes my breath away.

“No, no, no,” the cable guy groans. “It’s still there.”

A faint vertical line runs down the side of the screen. It’s always been there. Meanwhile, the NBC talking heads are discussing the latest Clinton apology. “What will be the president’s fate?” they ask each other in solemn tones.

I really don’t care about that stupid line. All I want is to turn off this crap and never hear another word about it again.

“Ten times he had sex with her,” the talking head intones. He’s shocked, deeply shocked. So am I. Ten times? I could do better than that and I’m almost 70.

“I’m going to have to check all these connections,” the cable guy says.

“What about some other channel?” I say. We switch. The cartoons are coming in great. The soccer game is coming in great. The Spanish soap opera is coming in great.

The cable guy switches back to Channel Five. “There it is,” he says, pointing to that faint vertical line on the left side of the screen. A woman is standing in front of the White House discussing resignation, impeachment, perjury, the outraged American public.

The cable guy cheerfully disconnects cables, tightens screws, strips wire. The picture disappears in a cloud of snow, reappears; it’s still Clinton and his ten pitiful sexual encounters. “I’m going to have to look in the basement,” the cable guy says.

While the cable guy does whatever cable guys do in basements, I sit and watch the set. This is my part. To see if the line goes away. I’m stuck with Tom Brokaw, who seems determined to make the president go away.

The line is really quite faint. I could live with that line. I have been living with that line, and worse. Maybe I should tell the cable guy to go away and leave things as they are. Then I could turn off NBC and the television altogether, go back to my computer, and check out the latest adult Web site.

The cable guy reappears. “I’m going to have to go up on the pole,” he announces. “Can you open your back gate?”

I keep my back gate chained with a combination lock. Otherwise, half of Logan Square would be using my gangway for a shortcut. Before the chain, I got people with baby buggies, guys drinking beer, lovers seeking a little privacy. Must I be responsible for all that?

The lock is almost rusted shut, naturally, since I never open it. Meanwhile, the cable guy brings his truck around, pulls out an extension ladder, and the next thing I know he’s 30 feet up in the air, tearing down wire. He’s decided to replace every bit of wire from the pole to my house, quite a project, I would say, just to get rid of a faint vertical line.

Seeing this is going to take some time, I go back to the TV and wait. The screen is blank, silent, covered with whizzing white snow. A copy of Newsweek is open on the couch. More Clinton. I toss it. Maybe I should go back to my computer, try the Internet. Maybe I should try a game of Pac-Man instead.

Cable TV, I’m thinking. When have I watched it since the playoffs ended? Why am I paying 30 bucks a month? Why is this guy so intent on doing a perfect job? I thought these cable guys were supposed to be a joke.

I’m surprised how quickly he brings that new line in from the alley and down to my basement. And he does all this without tripping over that giant pumpkin vine that’s threatening to take over the yard. At last he’s back upstairs making a few final adjustments.

“There,” he says, with obvious satisfaction.

It’s the White House again, and that same woman, and she’s still talking about impeachment and public apologies; it seems the nation requires both. And that’s when I realize what a fine job the cable guy has done. Not only is the faint vertical line gone, but my picture is clearer, sharper, more exactly defined than I have ever seen it before. And now I’m going to have to see Henry Hyde in it.

The cable guy bends over my dining room table and writes out his work order. “Is that OK?” he asks.

“I’ve never seen it so beautiful,” I say. “Can we try some other channel?”

They’re all beautiful. Come back, Michael, please! o