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A Man with a Hard Drive is a Hard-driving Man

Ohio magazine

September 2, 1984

I know a man named Jim Schwartz, who is a teacher at Wright State’s lake campus in Celina and understands more about computers than God does. If the universe had a software problem, God would get in touch with Mr. S., and Mr. S. would show up wearing a Hawaiian shirt and carrying a little valise with a handful of tools and some floppy discs, ask for a Holy Roman Empire size cup of coffee, and have the universe back on line in a couple of hours. Then for payment, he and God would go out and have half a dozen tacos. “You really can’t afford me,” Mr. S. would say to God.

Until I had known him for about a year, I wasn’t entirely certain Mr. S. had any feet. I never saw him away from a computer console, and I thought that perhaps he was hard-wired into the machine and at the end of each day someone just rolled him home and stored him. Wherever he is, it is eternally Saturday morning at Mr. Wizard’s house and there is an experiment going on involving the wizard and a computer. If there is no computer in the place, he knows it’s the wrong place.

He rolled into Wilmington one weekend not long ago to trouble-shoot a desktop publishing problem at the establishment of my friends, Annie and Mike. He was a snake-eyed man stepping off the train into a dusty street, his mouse finger itchy. He took one look at Annie’s recalcitrant system, his eyes narrowed to slits, and he said in a guttural growl, “Ain’t no technology gon take over your life, girlie-girl, for I am here and I am a take-charge kind of guy.” We knew right away he was from out of town, and we liked the cut of his jib, whatever that means.

Immediately, he dusted off the scanner and the illustrator software, trying to straighten out the configuration. “Hmmmmmm,” he said. “See how goofy that map looks? It’s scanning in too thin. Where are we anyway? Ohio? This map looks like Indiana, for Christ’s sake. I wish I were that thin. Let’s fatten ‘er up.” He began to sing to himself while his fingers flew around on the keyboard. He made little noises and spoke in tongues, always the mark of a good wizard. Ooopeedooooo, he sang to himself while racing through the utility files. “Look at all those wonderful dots. Why is this thing beeping at me? Don’t beep me. Beep yourself.”

We had a slowdown when Mr. S. inadvertently got cheesecake on his mouse, but that was only momentary. In Mr. S.’s world of trouble-shooting, the prickly difficulties of electronics remind him of human situations, equally prickly but less accessible. Does, for instance, cheesecake go directly to your hard drive?

“This conundrum here,” he said, about something I could only vaguely recognize as a conundrum, “reminds me of a woman I know who had three kids, a husband who was into acid rain, and a llama. She said to me, ‘I don’t know whether to divorce Lawrence, have another child, or buy another llama.’ Now I am a doctor and I should have patience. But I have no patience. Perhaps it is because I am a real doctor; I am a doctor of philosophy. So my diagnosis is this: the woman is crazy, not fun crazy but crazy crazy and I said, ‘I think you should get on your llama and ... ’ Well, she’s now divorced, she has another kid, and six llamas. What does that tell you? Does anybody know what happened to the cheesecake?”

Mr. S. is an unlikely philosopher in that he grew up on the south side of Akron, which was the working side of town, and his earliest expertise was in bowling. He likes to take his kids back to Akron to show them the scenes of his earlier triumphs, when he was Akron’s junior bowling champion, but their eyes glaze over. Not that he blames them, being a philosopher. He waited until he got them home then he said, “What is it that I am running here, a motel? Leave home ... ”

Not long after the early triumphs came the early failures; he found himself at Ohio University where he accomplished what he to this day contends was the lowest GRE in the history of the school. “My wife left me, then my girl friend left, both my parents died, and I flunked my Masters English comps. So I said to the bartender, ‘Jack, I could do with another beer ... ’ I recall that time and I say, well, what you can do for your own kids is to be there for them. Of course, I’m not there for them. I’m in Wilmington ...

“Annie,” he said, crashing his own reverie, “I just got you another 2MGs of RAM and I’m just too excited to hide it. Schwartz here, pulling the electronic rabbit out of the hat. Just when I was beginning to think the full import of technology was designed to cause me personal chagrin.” 

In closing, all systems go, Mr. S. offered this advice. “Annie,” he said, “two things a good designer needs to ask: ‘When did you say you needed this?’ and ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’

I walked Mr. S. to his car, surprised to see that it was a sports car of some kind. Should a philosopher drive a sports car? Is there an inherent moral dilemma here?

“I like fast cars, loose women, and ... something else, I forget,” he mused. “No, that’s wrong. It’s loose cars and fast women, isn’t it? No, that’s not right, either.”

I was at a loss myself but I knew that I am always sorry to see him go. I imagined technical problems I might conjure to get him back but his tail-lights winked at the intersection, and he was gone, a hint of cheesecake, about a megabyte’s worth, wafting on the evening air.

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