EXCERPT: The Pittsburgh Technology by Jeffrey Ford

CATEGORY: Observations in Psychological Cataclysms

RULE 6.022Na: If It Sounds Too Good To Be True, It’s Crazy

SOURCE: George Tisdale, cashier (with aspirations)

VIA: Jeffrey Ford

What does it take to change a life?

Not save a life, as Sally Struthers and the big-hearted non-profits working in Third World countries work to so hard to do. But to radically change the course of one’s fate. To make a better life for one’s self.

Outside of winning a lottery or hard work, it seems impossible. A person can struggle to move up in the world—but most of us are stuck with the hands we’ve been dealt. We’re only so smart and have only our own limited skills to help us along. We can get help from our friends and family, but there’s no magic switch a person can flip to suddenly make life better.

But in our next story, there might be a way to do just that.


The Pittsburgh Technology
by Jeffrey Ford

George Tisdale stepped off the bus at the corner of Merton and Pine and headed up the block toward his apartment building. As he trudged along, he considered the grim prospect of what he’d have for dinner. For a guy who worked at a grocery store, his refrigerator was always oddly empty. He pictured the frozen wasteland with its head of browning lettuce, a half stick of rancid butter, and a plastic bag holding a ball of chopped meat the color of jade.

“Same shit, different day,” he mumbled to himself and stepped aside to let a couple coming toward him arm in arm pass on the sidewalk.

“Hello,” said the young woman, making eye contact with George.

He nodded and was momentarily startled by her looks — dark hair cut short, striking hazel eyes and perfectly red valentine lips. It didn’t take much to get George excited, seeing as the last date he’d had was a year earlier. He smiled. The woman’s companion also said, “Hi,” but George paid no attention to him. The two passed in a moment, and just as George was about to head on his way, he heard the man say, “Tis?”

George spun around at the mention of his nickname.

The fellow had turned back and was approaching. Now George noticed him. He wore a sharp, camel hair overcoat with a plaid scarf around his neck. The guy’s hair was neatly cut and he was smooth shaven and handsome.

“Tisdale,” the guy said, wearing a big smile. He held his hand out to George, who was certain he didn’t know him.

“You must be mistaken,” said George, but the guy grabbed his hand and shook it.

“It’s me, Tis.”

George stared and some vague sense of recognition crossed his mind, as if he might have seen the face once in a dream .

“Loopy,” said the stranger. “From the grocery store.”

“What?” said George, but now it became clear to him. Loopy had been the cart collector at the grocery store. The first person called upon by the managers for any kind of scut work. He was forever cleaning out the fish and deli cases, mopping up broken jars of pickles and tomato sauce, scouring the toilets. But back then, his hair was long, greasy, and straight, which earned him the name, Shemp, from the old women in the bakery. Otherwise, he was Loopy, the guy who everybody shit on. A sad sack who could clear the break room with a single utterance. He’d been fired for failing to punch out one night. The manager caught up with him in front of the deli counter one afternoon, and in the presence of both customers and fellow-employees, proclaimed him a lost cause and told him to get out. People recounted the story in the break room and laughed for a solid month after his departure.

What George saw before him now was no less than a miracle, as if Loopy had been radically made over by a team of genius designers and beauticians. What was even more astonishing was that he had somehow traded in his dull affect for a look of—there was no other word for it—”intelligence.”

“How are you doing, Tis?”

“Okay,” said George, still stunned.

“I don’t go by Loopy anymore,” said Loopy. “I use my real name. You can call me John.”

“John, good to see you,” Geroge managed to get out.

“Are you still working check out at Bierman’s?”

George nodded.

“Since I left the store, I got a new position over at the bank on Main Street. I started out as a teller, but now I’m helping customers invest their money as smartly as possible.”

“That’s great,” said George.

“This is my partner, Cass,” said Loopy, and motioned for the young woman to step up and shake George’s hand. As she moved forward and lifted her arm, her coat opened and a warm, perfumed breeze wafted out. George went weak when he felt her touch.

“Do you ever think of leaving Bierman’s?” Loopy asked.

“Yeah, sometimes,” said George. “It’s all right, though. You know, the register’s the best job in the store.” He tried to smile convincingly, but he saw the young woman wince at his statement.

“Well, good seeing you,” said Loopy and draped his arm over Cass’s shoulder and pulled her close to him. They turned and walked and George heard them laugh quietly as if they were trying not to let him hear.

“See ya,” said George, who now didn’t have the energy to take a step.

The couple had gone about ten yards, and then Loopy stopped, turned, and headed back toward George, leaving Cass waiting.

“Listen,” he said as he approached again, “if you feel like you need a change in your life, you should check this out. He reached into his overcoat, took out his wallet, and drew a business card from it. He handed it to George. Printed on the card were the words The Pittsburgh Technology and beneath them was a phone number and an address.

“What is this?” asked George.

Loopy got close and when he spoke, and whispered, “They told me only to give their number out to people I thought were . . . , uh, really good people. The Technology is a little expensive, but just look at that piece of ass I’m with now,” he said and gave a breathy laugh.

“What do they do to you?”

“Go check it out. Forget Bierman’s. You’re stuck , buddy. Go see professor Werms, and he’ll free you from your ascribed fate.”

“My ascribed fate?” asked George, but Loopy was again heading away from him. He caught up to Cass and put his arm around her. George slipped the card into his back pocket, and as he walked the rest of the way to his building, he thought about Loopy saying, “Really good people,” and remembered how mean he and everyone else had been to the poor schlub. There was one time that stood out in particular. George had been in the break room, talking to the store butcher, Martone, about a football pool they were both in. Loopy walked in and sat down at their table. Before he could open his mouth, George said to him, “Beat it, retard.” The Loop cowered and slunk away. Later, he felt a twinge of remorse for having been so blatant, but he’d never apologized.

The next evening after work, George took a different bus that went across town. He got off in an area he didn’t frequent much by Gable Park. On a side street off the main thoroughfare, he found a store front that still had a barber pole out front and a sign above the door that said Cross-Cuts, Unisex Styling. But in the window there was a handmade sign, black magic marker on white oak tag. It announced, TPT, The Change of a Lifetime. He peered through the glass into the seemingly empty shop, but past the initial bank of shadows, he saw a light in the back and could just make out the figure of a man sitting at a desk.

He opened the door and a buzzer went off somewhere in the distance. Once inside, he could see that he was right. There was a white haired man wearing a white shirt at a desk with a gooseneck lamp, its glow dimly distinguishing him from the darkness. “Hello,” called George. The man looked up from his paper work and adjusted his glasses with his middle finger. “Come forward,” he said in a loud, flat tone.

[End Excerpt]