“Alexa, Play ‘Those Were the Days’…”


“Alexa, Play ‘Those Were the Days …’”

By Wendell Abern

Dear Readers,

         When I was about thirteen years old, I became infatuated with the world of science fiction. Read everything I could by Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown and anyone else whose superb, imaginative writings appeared in monthly science fiction magazines.

         How incredibly ironic that I am now living in the world they foresaw … and  hate it.

         Ergo, I would like to take this opportunity to announce that I have now moved back into the world of 1962, where I intend to remain for the rest of my days. A few recent experiences have forced me to do so.


         Last month, I came a bit early to my Wednesday afternoon bridge game, sat down and started kibitzing with Esther, my opponent (neither of our partners had arrived yet). Next month, we’re giving Esther a 90th birthday party. She is the sweetest little octogenarian in the country, but a fierce competitor. Secretly, I call her Atilla the Hun.

         My cellphone rang. I plucked it out of my pocket, flipped it open and heard a sales pitch; turned it off, flipped it closed and was ready to return it to my pocket when Atilla said, “Wait! Can I see that?”

         “What, my phone? Of course.” I handed it to her.

         “Isn’t that cute!” she said. “What do you call this?”

         “Well, I call it a dumbphone.”

         Her partner, who had just arrived, said, “It’s just an old-fashioned flip phone, Esther.”

         “But why don’t you have a smartphone?” Atilla asked me. “Everyone has a smartphone.”

         “Yes, I know. I’m thinking of getting one,” I lied.

         “You should. They’re really portable computers, you know.”

         Wonderful. Someone older than I am giving me technological advice.

         On my way home from the game, I stopped at a gas station to fill my tires. A machine delivered air for $1.50.

         I paid for air! Air now costs money!

         Back in 1962, it didn’t cost a penny.  


         Every Thanksgiving and Passover, my friends Shel and Nadine invite me to have dinner with them at their club in Boca Woods. Best meals I eat all year.

         The afternoons start off with Shel and me smoking cigars on their patio while Nadine paints. (Nadine has become a renowned abstractist and now even has her own line of vases, clothes, purses, et al.)

         This Passover, as Shel and I were lounging, she joined us briefly and asked if I wanted to hear some Sinatra.

         “Of course!” I said.

         “Alexa,” she said, “play some Sinatra.”

         “Frank Sinatra,” Alexa answered.

         “I didn’t know you had an Alexa,” I said, settling back with my cigar while Sinatra crooned, “It Was Just One of Those Things.”

         Determined to win one over technology. I said, “Okay, Alexa. Please send Halle Berry to this house.”

         Shel and Nadine chuckled. Pause. Alexa said, “I don’t know that one.”

         “What do you mean, ‘You don’t know that one?’” I yelled. “I’m not talking about a piano concerto! Halle Berry is a beautiful actress. Please send her here.”

         “I don’t know that one,” she repeated.

         “Terrific,” I said. “Alexa continues a lifelong string of women who won’t do what I want. And she’s a machine yet.”  

         “Have another cigar,” Shel said.


         On April 30, I read two articles in the Sun-Sentinel that proved conclusively I belong in the year 1962 … that I am not mentally prepared for the technological advances the rest of you seem to devour.

         One article, headlined, “To mind the store, Walmart is mining Artifical Intelligence.” The article pointed out that the giant retailer has recently opened an Intelligent Retail Lab inside a 50,000 square-foot Neighborhood Market grocery store on Long Island.

         As I read, I thought, Okay, I have no idea what a retail lab is, let alone an intelligent one. So I continued reading. The article “clarified” things for me:

                  “Thousands of cameras suspended from the ceiling will monitor the                       store in real time so workers can quickly replenish products … spot                         spills, track when shelves need to be replenished … and even                                determine how ripe bananas are.”

         Just what I need. A camera to guide me when I pick out produce.

                  The article goes on to explain that “the lab is testing new features                          around a ‘Scan & Go App, which lets customers scan items as they                          shop and then buy from their phones, skipping the checkout line.”

         No more checkout lines. Fine. But back here in 1962, things are much more pleasant.  I mean, I may be 86 years old, but I still love to flirt with cashiers.


         And then there was the other article, about a firm called Magic Leap.

         Magic Leap, a Plantation-based startup, introduced its first product – Magic Leap One – in December of 2017: goggles that let users interact with digital content in the real world. Or, as the article states, “a wearable computer.”

         A wearable computer!? What?!  Wait’ll Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan hear about this! They and the rest of the world’s designers are going to be flooding the market with headbands in every color! And who knows what will be marching down the runway at the next Victoria’s Secret TV special.

         Wearable computers!!?  I can’t wait to walk into the men’s department at Macy’s next year and say, “I’d like a pin-striped computer to match my blue suit, please.” On the other hand, I might have to use my computer to order a computer; by next year, every retail outlet in the country will probably be digitized.


         I sincerely hope all of you are enjoying your lives in today’s science fiction world. But I really don’t know how you cope. The technological revolution we’re groping through keeps exploding exponentially; by the time we  harness the capabilities of some new discovery, that very discovery creates two new ones.

         So I cordially invite all of you to join me back here in 1962, where life is far more comfortable. Even with only a photo of Halle Berry.

I think we make a beautiful couple. Photo by Karen Gonzalez.

Cantankerously Yours,

Wendell Abern

Wendell Abern can be reached at dendyabern@gmail.com.