TV Dinner

Trashman channel-surfs his way into hell

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
--William Shakespeare

She got a TV eye on me.
--Iggy Pop

A few weeks ago, I bought a Zenith black-and-white portable TV from a hawk shop for $39. The set came with a fucked-up channel-changing knob, a coat hanger doubling as an antenna and a sticker across the side that read: GIULIANI is a JERK.

I brought the TV home, plopped it in place of my old one--the one I kicked in during an insufferable local news telecast--and was back in business.

Then one night last week I bent over the set to switch the channel. I was drunk and holding a fresh bottle of beer. I jiggled the knob until I could change the channel and the beer got away. The bottle bounced on the television set and rolled across its top, chugging out frothy glory into the TV's netherworld. Horrors: sizzles, a hiss, then a kind of popping sound, followed up by a noxious odor, an odor of something burning that by nature shouldn't burn.

In an instant, the picture blipped into itself, back to a sad electronic dot, then disappeared altogether. My cat raised his sleepy head, looked to the TV with indifference, then shifted his belly, turned his head and went back to sleep.

The living room returned to its broken, destitute-tinged boredom. The next day the Zenith portable, unbelievably, worked again. The set fired right up on the first try and was running smoothly, steadily flickering off the standard fare of soul-chiseling escapism for relentless fun-filled piss-and-moan sessions. And the set had more clarity and picture depth than ever.

But all was not well. As a result of that spilled brew, the TV had taken to dispensing a dull, high-pitched squeal that rose into my space like the sound of a cat in the squeezing arms of an overzealous 6-year-old child; a squeal that when tolerated ensured neuralgia.

Even more unusual, the vile tone only aired on certain occasions: the exact moment some shit broadcast came across its screen. It seemed that the Zenith had figured out a way to guard me from ill, to alarm me of televised atrocities and crow until the channel could be changed--like an air-raid siren signifying peril.

Jesus, a fuckin' miracle, I thought. A thinking television for thoughtless times. Who would believe that a television could have the power of reason? The power to liberate the viewer from such energy-consuming burdens like decision, accountability and speculation?

After a few days with the Zenith, it wasn't hard to figure out that we despised the same TV programs, and whenever some ghastly show would air, the portable would lay out its unavoidable squeal: "Screeeeeeeeeeeeee."

And I tested the thing to make sure that it wasn't just me suffering some side effect of going days without seeing another human being, that I wasn't going mad. I flipped the channel to the local news; Channel 3's "The Place With More Stuff." I found the cast of face-lifted, narcissistic prop-ups delivering its "feel-good" news in the usual moronic dollops--the commercial breaks preceded by patronizing phrases like "You don't want to miss this," or "You won't believe your eyes." To that the TV rightly droned "Screeeeeeeeeeeeee."

I tried America's fave half-hour slice of celebrity ass-wiping, Entertainment Tonight. "Screeeeeeeeeeeeee," the Zenith repeated. I switched to a glossy drama on which a line of Ken/Barbie dolls parade, exchanging pouts and dull dialogue. Once more, "Screeeeeeeeeeeeee," chimed the Zenith.

Every night the cynicism went on and on as I bonded with the tube. We became one; while I drank and laughed, we bitched like misanthropic batchmates. Even the cat quit coming home. I had finally partnered myself.

Or so I thought.
Too much sarcasm does not a healthy household make. The air becomes heavy with a sense of dread, an unyielding like a big coke-binge crash. I started seeing the Zenith as a friend who is on a bad drunk, and bitter to boot--just a presence of sour gibberish that won't listen to reason and always gets his way. I hate those kinds of drunks, and I refuse to kiss their asses. I certainly won't tolerate that of my television. No way. And besides, I was missing my cat.

Then our relationship ended. Last night during one show that I actually can tolerate, Frasier, the TV sounded off: "Screeeeeeeeeeeeee, screeeeeeeeeeeeee." I yelled at it to shut the fuck up. It didn't. It just kept right on, "Screeeeeeeeeeeeee."

"Shut up, you two-bit titmouse!"
Through Frasier, all the commercials, and on through Letterman, Conan, the whole thing. "Screeeeeeeeeeeeee."

That was it. I grabbed the little pecker by its antenna, pulled it off the chair and the plug came out of the wall. Even without electrical power the TV kept right on chirping, "Screeeeeeeeeeeeee, screeeeeeeeeeeeee." I opened the front door and heaved, letting her sail deep into the dark night. I closed the door, removed my shoes and went to bed. For a while, I could still hear that eerie echo from out in the dark: "Screeeeeeeeeeeeee, screeeeeeeeeeeeee."

I lay there and wondered what had just happened and tried to make sense of it. The stars came through the window, and I could hear the wind. I listened to the idiotic night birds sing the song of home for all the late-night drunks who might have lost their way. Or maybe it was the Zenith, I couldn't tell. I went to sleep.

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