The basement of the Maryland home I grew up in is charmingly antiquated. There are unvarnished wood steps, brick walls lined with pink insulation, and boxes of old clothes that smell like a Camden Lock thrift store. My parents once considered renovating the space into a more livable dwelling––drywall, bathroom, a carpeted staircase––but never went through with it, which I always appreciated. Sanitized basements are boring.
Ours was of particular interest thanks to the collection of old machines amassed by my father, Barry. There was the Palm Pilot V, 1970s red princess landline phone, Sanyo tape recorder, VCRs and floppy discs and hard drives––all once used, now sitting in darkness, collecting dust or waiting to be stripped for parts.
"I am a junk collector," said Barry, after we rummaged through the pile on my most recent trip home. The plan had been to dig up and catalog all of these cellar-dwelling machines, taking portraits of each item as I asked him about their origins. I am still unsure of what prompted the idea in the first place, whether it was a way to give us a brief reprieve from the foul stench of American politics, to carve out time for a fun father-son outing, or to possibly write about it down the road. Maybe all three.
My dad wasn't sure of the exact date he began the collection, which now includes more than 100 items, but it was definitely before I was born, in 1985. It started with old telephones, some dating back to the first half of the 20th century, including a wall contraption that once belonged to my grandmother. "It was an antique she got from a cousin of hers, who took the phone, cut the bottom, and put in an AM radio, thus destroying the value," he said, with a hint of annoyance.
Studying electrical engineering in college, and working as a computer security analyst for the last three decades, he was mostly interested in holding onto devices like these and their workable parts as a way to fix newer, broken ones, often fusing pieces together like a mad scientist. The rest he kept because he loved the way they looked: the hilariously large 9-track tape, the boxy brown Melcor 400 calculator, the steampunk-ish 35mm Kodak camera.
(I should probably note here that, while this all might sound like a ripe case of hoarding, Barry neither keeps everything that comes his way nor has his collection ever overflowed to the point of physical hazard, so apologies to any A&E producer who assumed otherwise. As my mom later explained, "It's not all over the place, it doesn't take up space. If we gave it all away, dad wouldn't be miserable.")
For most of my childhood, I viewed the collection as a quirk, part of my dad's delightful and disarming nerd bonafides. He not only fixed things, but happened to own new inventions that fellow parents his age wouldn't know what to do with: a digital camera, a CD burner, even an AIM username. I was always proud to show off his technical acumen to friends and family––though that admittedly slowed down once I became a teenager. It's pretty horrifying having a parent who knows how to find out what Web pages you've been visiting even after you studiously clear your history. ("Clearing it doesn't do shit," Barry would say, before extolling the dangers of malware.)
The digital revolution is paradoxical. Technology has made it easier for us to communicate, while further dividing us into the communities and circles we feel safe in. That divide also extends to different generations, as baby boomers attempt to grapple with the strange new immediacy their Gen-X, Millennial, or Gen-Z offspring now deal in. That makes the relationship between my dad and I something of a rarity. Instead of a divide, old and new technology brought us together. From an early age, it became an in-joke between us, as we cracked about the underrated abilities of Linux, hummed along to pop songs turned into whiny MIDI orchestras, and mocked the absurdity of free AOL trial CDs, all in the shadow of his growing mountain of machinery.
My generation occupies a strange place in human history, part of the last faction that will understand and acknowledge what the world felt like before the digital revolution. Today, as tech and information begins to feel increasingly disposable, I find myself repeatedly drawn back to my father's interests. I inherited all his enthusiasm by osmosis, thanks to our basement's close quarters. My sister and I spent most of our time in one corner, practicing sketch comedy over a patchwork of loose carpet samples, as my father hung out in another, tinkering with his gadgets. I typically left him to his own devices, but I assume the proximity to his work transformed my thinking. Though I never had the machine-fixing skills he did (not for lack of trying), I approached technology in the same way: a wide-eyed interest with a hint of skepticism, and an appreciation of things both old and new.
That bridge felt even more potent as we made our way through the heap last December. Listening to him talk about an old transistor radio ("I've had it since I was a kid. That was the cat's ass"), an RCA video recorder ("We got it right after you were born; we had never had one before"), or a Motorola analog cell phone ("I found it lying in the road and tried to call numbers to see if I could return it to the owner. Cell phones were fucking expensive then"), reminded me of how alike we are, even when we don't agree on something. The way he spoke about these items was the same way I spoke about the movie posters and CDs and other ephemera I have held onto since I was young.
In his 1910 essay collection "What's Wrong with the World," British journalist and critic G.K. Chesterton calls the home a sanctum of independence. "It is the only spot on the earth," he writes, "where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim." My father seemed to endorse this worldview wholeheartedly, and bless my mother for being welcoming enough to let him do his thing.
"I think in the beginning I questioned why he had all this stuff," she told me, after he and I finished our latest round of excavation. "But then I realized he was using some of it, taking parts from one thing and using it somewhere else. Your dad was and is the go-to person to fix things. I think I was in awe of it."
So far, he and I have taken over 100 portraits. But there are more to go––and many more origin stories for me to hear. Despite spending much of my childhood building LEGOs while Barry created a new Frankensteinian contraption nearby, I am still learning new bits of information about his interest in technology and the collection that it spawned, trying to absorb all the memories and moments before my parents eventually decide to move.
"The changes that have happened in technology have been quite immeasurable," my dad said during one of our weekly calls, as we discussed the inevitable end to his gadget pile. "At some point in time," he added, "I am going to have to part with it."
For more photos of Barry's retro tech collection, check out @dadsbasement.
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