by Connie Willis
The terrible thing about Manhattan is that all the streets look alike. And I can hear New Yorkers screaming bloody murder already, asking indignantly, “How can you say that? The Village and the Upper West Side look nothing alike, and how could you possibly confuse SoHo with Midtown?” and bleating about Carnegie Hall and Penn Station and the Met, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the streets. Especially the cross streets, though what I’m talking about applies to long stretches of Broadway and the avenues, too.
They’ve all got two or three restaurants and a deli, a hole-in-the-wall shop selling electronics, and another one selling Yankees baseball caps and Statue of Liberty pencil sharpeners and Radio City Music Hall magnets. There’s a Duane Reade and a newsstand and a branch bank or a fancy-dancy pet store or a shoe repair. And there are always hoardings, those board fences they put up around construction sites, so that you have to walk half the block between plywood plastered with ads for Metallica or Hamilton or the Sels-Floto Circus. And maybe if you’re a local you can tell the difference between Petronelli’s and Antonelli’s and Antonio’s Pizzeria, but to an out-of-towner like me, they all look as much alike as the Starbucks on every corner.
Which means even if you do happen on that great little antique store or bakery, you have no idea where it was and no way to find it again, unless it happened to be next door to Radio City Music Hall. Which it wasn’t. Or unless you noted the cross streets. Which I didn’t.
I was in New York doing publicity for my blog, Gone for Good, and meeting with editors about publishing it as a book when I found the bookstore.
I’d just finished doing an interview on Backtalk on WMNH, and Brooke had called to tell me the editor at Random House I was supposed to meet with canceled our one-thirty appointment.
“Probably because he heard that train wreck of an interview and doesn’t want Random House’s name connected with a book-hater,” I said, going outside. “Why the hell didn’t you warn me I was walking into a set-up, Brooke? You’re my agent. You’re supposed to protect me from stuff like that.”
“I didn’t know it was a set-up, I swear, Jim,” she said. “When he booked you, he told me he loved your blog, and that he felt exactly like you do, that being nostalgic for things that have disappeared is ridiculous, and that we’re better off without things like payphones and VHS tapes.”
“But not books, apparently,” I said. The host hadn’t even let me get the name of my website out before he’d started in on how terrible e-books and Amazon were and how they were destroying the independent bookstore.
“Do you know how many bookstores have gone under the last five years in Manhattan?” he’d demanded.
Yeah, and most of them deserved to, I thought.
I hadn’t said that. I’d said, “Things closing and dying out and disappearing are part of the natural order. There’s no need to mourn them.”
“No need to mourn them? So it’s fine with you if a legendary bookstore like the Strand, or Elliott’s, shuts its doors? I suppose it’s fine with you if books die out, too.”
“They’re not dying out,” I said, “but if they were, yes, because it would mean that society didn’t need them any more, just like it stopped needing buggy whips and elevator operators, so it shed them, just like a snake sheds its skin.”
He snorted in derision. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Necessary things disappear every day. And what about all the things we don’t realize are necessary till they’re already gone?”
“Then society brings them back. Like LPs. And fountain pens.”
“And what if we can’t bring the thing back? What if it’s too late, and it’s already gone?”
Like the chance to have a decent interview, you mean? I thought. “That isn’t how it works,” I said, trying to keep my temper. “Bookstores aren’t disappearing, they’re just changing form. And so are books,” and I tried to explain about e-books and print-on-demand and libraries going digital.
“Digital!” he said. “How do you know all these digitized books won’t be accidentally deleted. Or disappear into the ether, never to be seen again?”
“That’s what the Cloud’s for,” I said. “It can store every book ever—”
He snorted again. “You’ve obviously never heard of Wheeler Field.”
Wheeler Field? What the hell was Wheeler Field?
“Wheeler Field was an Army airfield in Hawaii during World War II,” he said. “They got worried about sabotage, so they parked all the planes in the middle of the field. And when Pearl Harbor came along, one Japanese bomb took out the whole thing, bam! just like that. And according to your reasoning, that was proof we didn’t need those airplanes.”
“That isn’t what—”
“And I suppose you don’t think we need forests either. Or polar bears. I suppose you think closing one of the best bookstores in New York City is just fine?”
“Yes,” I said. “If it has outlived its usefulness.” And things really went downhill from there. By the time the hour was up, he’d accused me of everything from promoting illiteracy to setting fire to the Library at Alexandria.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Brooke said. “I thought you made some good points about how there are some books we’d be better off without, like Fifty Shades of Gray and Meditate Your Way to a Wealthier You. I loved that!”
“If I was so great, then why did Random House cancel the appointment?” I asked.
“Because he’s leaving for a big meeting in London. There’s supposed to be a huge storm coming in tonight, and he moved his flight up a day to beat it.”
by Greg Egan
“What is it, exactly, that you’re threatening to do to me?” The client squinted down at his phone, looking more bemused and weary than belligerent, as if he’d been badgered and harassed by so many people that the only thing bothering him about this call was the time it was taking to reach the part where he was given an ultimatum.
“This is absolutely not a threat, Mr. Pavlos.” Dan glanced at the out-stream and saw that the software was exaggerating all the cues for openness in his demeanor—less a cheat than a workaround for the fact that his face was being rendered at about the size of a matchbox. “If you don’t take up our offer, we won’t be involved in any way with the recovery of your debt. We think it would be to your benefit if you let us step in and help, but if you don’t want us to intervene, we won’t become your creditors at all. We will only buy your debt if you ask us to.”
The client was silent for a moment. “So . . . you’d pay off all the people I owe money to?”
“Yes. If that’s what you want.”
“And then I’ll owe it all to you, instead?”
“You will,” Dan agreed. “But if that happens, we’ll do two things for you. The first is, we will halve the debt. We won’t ever press you for the full amount. The other thing is, we’ll work with you on financial advice and a payment plan that satisfies both of us. If we can’t find an arrangement you’re happy with, then we won’t proceed, and we’ll be out of your life.”
The client rubbed one eye with his free thumb. “So I only pay half the money, in instalments that I get to choose for myself?” He sounded a tad skeptical.
“Within reason,” Dan stressed. “If you hold out for a dollar a week, that’s not going to fly.”
“So where do you make your cut?”
“We buy the debt cheaply, in bulk,” Dan replied. “I’m not even going to tell you how cheaply, because that’s commercial-in-confidence, but I promise you we can make a profit while still getting only half.”
“It sounds like a scam,” the client said warily.
“Take the contract to a community legal center,” Dan suggested. “Take as long as you like checking it out. Our offer has no time limit; the only ticking clock is whether someone nastier and greedier buys the debt before we do.”
The client shifted his hard hat and rubbed sweat from his forehead. Someone in the distance called out to him impatiently. “I know I’ve caught you on your meal break,” Dan said. “There’s no rush to decide anything, but can I email you the documents?”
“All right,” the client conceded.
“Thanks for giving me your time, Mr. Pavlos. Good luck with everything.”
Dan waited for the client to break the connection, even though his next call was already ringing. Give me a chance to let them believe I’ll still remember their name five seconds from now, he pleaded.
The in-stream window went black, and for a moment Dan saw his own face reflected in the glass—complete with headset, eyes puffy from hay fever, and the weird pink rash on his forehead that had appeared two days earlier. The out-stream still resembled him pretty closely—the filter was set to everyman, not movie star—but nobody should have to look at that rash.
The new client picked up. “Good morning,” Dan began cheerfully. “Is that Ms. Lombardi?”
“Yes.” Someone had definitely opted for movie star, but Dan kept any hint of knowing amusement from his face; his own filter was as likely to exaggerate that as conceal it.
“I’d like to talk to you about your financial situation. I think I might have some good news for you.”
* * *
When Dan came back from his break, the computer sensed his presence and woke. He’d barely put on his headset when a window opened and a woman he’d never seen before addressed him in a briskly pleasant tone.
“Good afternoon, Dan.”
“I’m calling you on behalf of Human Resources. I need to ask you to empty your cubicle. Make sure you take everything now, because once you’ve left the floor, you won’t have an opportunity to return.”
Dan hesitated, trying to decide if the call could be a prank. But there was a padlock icon next to the address, ruth_bayer@HR.thriftocracy.com, which implied an authenticated connection.
“I’ve been over-target every week this quarter!” he protested.
“And your bonuses have reflected that,” Ms. Bayer replied smoothly. “We’re grateful for your service, Dan, but you’ll understand that as circumstances change, we need to fine-tune our assets to maintain an optimal fit.”
Before he could reply, she delivered a parting smile and terminated the connection. And before he could call back, all the application windows on his screen closed, and the system logged him out.
Dan sat motionless for ten or fifteen seconds, but then sheer habit snapped him out of it: if the screen was blank, it was time to leave. He pulled his gym bag out from under the desk, unzipped it, and slid the three framed photos in next to his towel. The company could keep his plants, or throw them out; he didn’t care. As he walked down the aisle between the cubicles, he kept his eyes fixed on the carpet; his colleagues were busy, and he didn’t want to embarrass them with the task of finding the right words to mark his departure in the twenty or thirty seconds they could spare before they’d be docked.