Short Story Title: Irate City is on the Way

Story Type: Fiction


This Short Story is Chapter Thirteen of "Early Microcomputer Experiences"

Date Written: July 14, 2019

Written By: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) July 14, 2019


As the end of the Spring 1983 semester drew near, Albert told me, "Josh called. We didn't talk long since it is long-distance. He's excited. He said to pick up the latest issue of 'Compute!' magazine. I did. Take a look."

I took the magazine. In the contents page, there was Vic File Case under Josh Cistern's name.

I said, "He really did it! Josh is now a published author."

Albert pointed out, "It's still not much of a database even if it did sell."

"I'm amazed he got any functional database to fit in an unexpanded Vic-20," I said.

Albert said, "With the money he earned, he bought a Commodore 64. He thinks the Commodore 64 will be a bigger market than the Vic-20."

I replied, "I expect he's right, especially with the massive price drop in the Commodore 64. Is that mail-in rebate still going on?"

Commodore International during a price war with Texas Instrument offered a hundred-dollar rebate if any sort of other computer or videogame, even a broken one, was mailed in. That combined with the Commodore 64 being around three-hundred dollars would make it more like two-hundred. Albert was still upset that he had paid $595 for his because he got it before the price war.

Albert replied, "No, that's over. However, the going price is now around $250 rather than three-hundred. That's still less than half what I paid only about eight months ago."

I asked, "Are you working again this summer?"

Albert answered, "I'll have the same job as last summer. I plan to use some of the money I earn to buy a printer. A dot matrix printer like yours is now about half what it used to cost."

I said, "I got heavy use of my printer over the last year, so I can't cry too much about paying too much. I'll be here this summer."

Albert noted, "You mentioned that your Dad needs you to be done in four years, so you have to do that."

I admitted, "I am worried about making it through Linear Algebra in ten weeks rather than sixteen, but I have to pull it off to stay in EE."

Albert said, "Good luck getting through that math class during summer session! I heard it's tough."

I suggested, "Maybe if you have some time this summer, you could sell a type-in article to a magazine like Josh. Maybe do the database program like you think it should be done, but for the Commodore 64 with the much larger memory it has."

Albert replied, "I think unloading trucks is a much more reliable source of income. With my luck, if I tried what you suggested, I'd put in tons of hours coding and writing, but sell nothing. I'm sure with you trying to get through that math class in the summer session, you won't have any time for writing programs yourself!"

I agreed, "Probably not."

Albert suggested, "My roommate Mark Ronson is not coming back next year. He's joining the Army full-time. I could use a new roommate."

I readily agreed to that! I figured I would learn more about microcomputers hanging out with Albert and his friends than I would ever learn in my classes! I might even start learning about what the big deal was with UNIX.

As final exams came in, I helped Albert take down his suspended bed. It seemed strange to see both halves of the room look in their normal state. Mark Ronson had never moved his bed or other furniture so the room had reminded me of panels in the Batman cartoon with a villain named Two-Face. Two-Face would have the room split, totally different on one side than the other. This room had seemed like that until now at the end of the semester.

Albert suggested, "I still have Josh Cistern's four-by-four beams, chains, and other hardware. Next semester, we could raise both sides. That'd give room to put a table or small desk for you Commodore 64 under it, and then maybe room for some chairs or small couch for TV watching."

I said, "I see what you're getting at. I'll try to come up with something this summer."

For me, final exams went fine.

Because of what I had been told during a long-distance phone call, I knew at least one of my parents would arrive to take me from Cornfield City where I attended college back home to the papermill village.

Looking out of the dormitory window, I saw in the nearly empty parking lot the large yellowish-tan Chevrolet Suburban. I hurried out. Everybody in the family except my brother Tim got out. That is, Dad, Mom, my sister, and my youngest brother had all come down to Cornfield City. My youngest brother was about eleven or twelve then, while my sister was a couple years older.

Dad explained that Tim, who was in high school, had an event to attend so could not come. Tim was involved in many sports and clubs, so this was not surprising.

In that time of the fifty-five mile per hour national speed limit, it was a three hour drive down to Cornfield City and another three-hour drive back to the papermill village. I was impressed so many of them had come down. Personally, I did not think anything about Cornfield City was worth that length of a drive given that they had all been here before.

Once everybody was in the Suburban and we were rolling, Dad announced, "We'll go through Irate City. It's on the way home."

I countered, "It is not. It would add another sixty or so miles."

Rather than argue, Dad said as though saying made it so, "Irate City is on the way."

Dad, Mom, my sister, and my youngest brother were all grinning, so it was obvious something was up with this detour. It was likely so many of them had made the trip because Irate City rather than Cornfield City was the attraction.

When we got to Irate City, Dad drove into the parking lot of a large superstore that specialized in selling stereo systems, televisions, appliances, and computers.

I knew of this superstore even though I attended Cornfield University because my friends Josh Cistern, Darnell Priest, and Albert Rose lived in Irate City or its suburbs. They knew of this superstore, and told me about it. Josh lived in Irate City all the time now because he had transferred to Bill-of-Rights University from Cornfield University. Darnell and Albert were Cornfield University students so were only in Irate City when visiting parents for the holidays, but they should be in town now since the semester was over. The advice I had gotten from all of them was to go to this particular store only after thoroughly researching what I wanted to buy. Bringing in documentation like Consumer Reports articles and competitor's advertisements was highly recommended. The store advertised about meeting competitor's prices, but that only helped if you had documentation showing what those were.

The superstore was a strange place. Prices were not listed on anything other than some minor items that cost less than twenty dollars. Every other price was arrived at by bargaining. I had been warned that the sales people were experts at getting one hooked on some item. I was told this was then often claimed to be out of stock. They would then direct you to something else that was supposed to be an even better deal, but might be just more profitable to the store. (I believe that after losing court cases about bait-and-switch like this, this superstore then put prices on all items. In this story, that had not happened yet.)

I tried hard to warn my parents about what I had heard about this place, but they did not seem to hear me. They and my two siblings fearlessly hurried in to the place that I was nervous about entering. Feeling as though tragedy was inevitable, I trailed along. I still did not know what they wanted to buy here.

They went to the computer department. That is when I finally learned they planned on getting a Commodore 64 computer system. Not just a computer, but an entire system with disk drive, monitor, and printer. It was a well-thought out system for the time. Basically, it was the system my friend Albert Rose had, but with the addition of a printer.

Something that relieved me is it would be very hard to do bait-and-switch because all Commodore 64's were the same. I was sure my parents would not fall for a swap to a more primitive Commodore Vic-20 or to some other computer system.

Getting a Commodore 64 was a bold thing for my parents to do at this time. The Commodore 64 had come out less than a year earlier. My friend Albert Rose had bought his Commodore 64 system back in August as soon as he possibly could get one in the city of Irate City. For him, the cutting edge of technology turned to the bleeding edge because of reliability problems in the very earliest machines. According to one of the computer magazines, minor changes helped improve the reliability of the latest Commodore 64 computers.

The big promotion at the superstore at the time was a "free" bicycle giveaway. Since there were no prices printed on anything, what did a "free" giveaway mean?

The salesman quoted a price. It was $595 for the Commodore 64 itself, as well as fairly high prices on the disk drive and everything else.

I knew the new price on the Commodore 64 was $250, nearly three hundred and fifty dollars less because Albert Rose told me so.

I tried to explain the drastic price drop to my parents and the salesman.

The salesman squeezed me out, both vocally and physically. I expected that based on the reputation of this place. My parents were ignoring me as well, which irritated me a whole lot more.

With blunt rudeness, I loudly spoke over the top of others because it was the only way to say anything. In that loud tone, I told them about the drastic price change.

The salesman laughed gently, as if I was a gullible fool for believing that wild rumor. He made it sound like a price drop might be coming eventually, but not in a computer introduced less than a year ago. He claimed even if there was a price drop later, it would only be slight. He made it sound like there was no way I could prove what I claimed in writing because it was so obviously silly!

My parents seemed to believe him and went on bargaining!

I knew I could prove it in writing! Albert had shown me several articles in several different magazines referring to this. In fact, I had not been able to get Albert to shut up about it long after I had grown sick of the subject. It was huge news in the computer field! The mail-order advertisements already reflected the new price. If my parents had warned me, I could have borrowed the magazines with proof from Albert and brought them along.

Now, the only way I could prove it on paper was to get my parents out of this entrapping superstore!

My sister was wisely keeping her mouth shut through this, but my youngest brother was making things worse by pleading for the "free" bicycle to be his. He had the excuse of only being eleven or twelve years old, so did not know any better.

I felt treated by my parents as though I were Youngest brother's age, while they seemed to blindly accept what the salesman told them, which I knew to be wrong.

The deal seemed it would have been made, but the only remaining sticking point was the "free" bicycle that my youngest brother wanted. It seemed it was not so "free" after all. The salesman claimed he could reduce the cost of the Commodore 64 itself from $595 to $550 if my parents chose not to take the bicycle.

Ignoring any trace of pride, almost to the point of tears because of sheer frustration, I desperately pleaded with my parents to leave and think this over. My parents would not do this! I was so frustrated with them!

The salesman acted like it was wounding him greatly and risking his job to let them shave almost fifty dollars off the Commodore 64 by my parents not taking the bicycle. He acted like he could never again give such a good deal if my parents left and came back.

While my parents were still hemming and hawing over the "free" bicycle that would really cost them almost fifty dollars and my youngest brother coveted...completely ignoring my repeated comments that they were getting a price that was at least three hundred dollars too high even if that fifty dollars was taken off...I looked at my watch.

I announced, "It's dinner time, and I'm hungry. Can't we please get some food first?"

Despite superheroic efforts by the slick salesman to prevent this, my parents followed my suggestion!

We went to a nearby restaurant. My parents and siblings looked over the menu deciding on food. I had no interest in food. I had flat-out lied about being hungry as a ploy to get them out of the superstore! Instead, I raced to the pay phone. I knew Albert Rose was probably home. He would know exactly what articles and advertisements I meant. He also knew about this superstore and their widely advertised we-beat-any-price policy.

Albert's parents lived in a suburb that was a fair hike away. Not really that far, but my parents seemed so eager that I did not think I could talk them into a delaying trip that long.

The closest choice to visit was instead Josh Cistern, the former Cornfield University student now attending Bill-of-Rights University. He lived with his parents. I was greatly relieved when he answered the phone. I rapidly explained the situation.

Josh had kept up his reading in the computer magazines. He certainly knew what I meant about those articles about the unbelievable price drop from $595 to $250 for the Commodore 64. He had essentially the same information that Albert had. Josh had the computer magazines that clearly stated this sitting right in front of him on his desk! He said that since he was home anyway, we could borrow them just by stopping by.

I went back to where the others were eating. Now that we were away from the slick salesman, my parents did not treat me as nearly as invisible or stupid. I explained we had to stop by Josh Cistern's house before going back to the superstore.

Both my parents were against that extra trip.

I told them it was close. The delay would be about half an hour. I promised them this detour would save them at least three hundred and fifty dollars!

I doubt they believed me about the sum of money. They might have believed it if I had been claiming fifty dollars or even a hundred less, but this sum was just too much. Yet, it seems what I was saying was intriguing enough that they allowed a half hour delay before going back to the superstore.

When we got to his house, Josh was waiting for us. He could not have done a better job! He had found the articles about the price drop. Not only that, he had found mail-order advertisements in the magazines proving some places already were selling the Commodore 64 for the vastly lower price. He had everything bookmarked and ready.

About half an hour later, just as I had claimed for the time, my parents, my siblings, and I returned to the computer department in the superstore. I held Josh's magazines.

A salesman came up, although a different man than we had the first time. Mom explained what she wanted.

He quoted a price on the system that was about the same as the first salesman had given us.

Both my parents nodded and looked like this confirmed that the price was the same price after all. Without actually saying it, I got a look from them that seemed to say the trip to Josh's place had been a waste of time.

I pulled out the articles and advertisements and asked, "Will you match these prices?"

The salesman glanced at one of the advertisements very quickly, then without batting an eye gave a new price that did match them! It was about three hundred and fifty dollars less for the computer itself without a single argument or complaint! I think the ads also showed a lower price on the disk drive as well, so the overall saving was around four hundred dollars. It was a huge percentage of the cost of the overall system! This happened despite how the first salesman had put on such an Oscar-winning performance about the difficulty of knocking even less than fifty dollars off the system only if the "free" bicycle was left off.

Mom and Dad looked stunned. Not only had I not exaggerated, but I had underestimated the savings that we would get just by taking a short drive to Josh's place! I had expected to win in terms of price matching once I had the magazines to prove it, but even I was shocked that the new salesman had not given any argument whatsoever about the much lower price!

With a glance at my youngest brother, Dad asked as though he was embarrassed, "That doesn't include the bicycle, does it?"

The salesman said, "Of course you get the bicycle. It is included free with all large purchases."

Only then was the deal actually made.

By the way, my parents could have gotten the same price if they had been willing to mail order, but of course without the bicycle. I felt the salesmen knew few customers would have done research on prices, so would unwittingly pay the outdated price for the Commodore 64.

I think my parents then bought Josh a present in appreciation. I forgot what that was. It did not cover nearly what they saved, of course, but it was something in the order of thirty dollars, I believe. Money would have been better because it would help one survive in college, but my parents never believed me about money being a good gift for college students, insisting custom demanded an actual thing as a present.

I certainly do not claim I can do anything like this deal at a store like that ever again! The price matching policy was later changed to make it clear only local area prices would be matched, but that was not the language used in their ads at this time. I had been so keenly aware of the new retail price on the Commodore 64 not only because of Albert's repeated comments on it with complaints about what he had paid for his. It was also because of how it would likely greatly reduce the resale price of my Commodore Vic-20 system, which was the predecessor system and considerably more primitive. I feared I might have to sell my Vic-20 to get money to survive college, so I was much concerned about what it was worth. This was why I had paid close attention when Albert complained of the price drop.

When we got the new Commodore 64 system home and set up, my brother Tim, who had not been along at the superstore, took to the new computer like a duck to water. He was soon vastly outdoing what I could ever do on a microcomputer. Dad used his woodworking skills to make a special desk for Mom's Commodore 64 system. With the system on the new desk, I showed Mom how to use a word processing program. She soon was getting regular use out of the new computer system writing documents.

My youngest brother often rode his new bicycle, and he and my sister sometimes played videogames on Mom's Commodore 64.

This was how my parents were the earliest family in the papermill village and the nearby papermill city with a Commodore 64 computer system. Tim was soon the microcomputer guru of the neighborhood. No stores in that papermill area even sold any Commodore 64's yet.

I discovered Mom had a serious academic use for her new Commodore 64 system with printer. Dad was no longer the only one employed because she had started working for the county's social service department. She needed to complete continuing education college credits. She decided to come to summer school at Cornfield University to do it! Her session only took four weeks, not the entire ten weeks that I would be there, but that meant she was there for a month.

Therefore, for the first four weeks of the summer, Mom was in one dorm room in the girl's wing. I was off in another. I did not spend much time showing Mom around as Albert had been right that the math class was intense. Mom did not have much spare time herself because in a mere four weeks, she cranked a seventy-page paper that looked almost like a master's thesis. She certainly earned her college credits that summer. Mom and I had supper together, but that was about it as both of us were so busy studying.

When Mom returned to the papermill village, there still were no stores in that area that sold a Commodore 64 or peripherals. Yet, by the time my summer session was over six weeks later, with me doing fine in Linear Algebra and two Liberal Arts courses, there had become several department stores in the papermill village area that did sell Commodore 64's at a good price. Those stores were selling Commodore 64's like hot cakes! One of Tim's best friends had one, as did one of Dad's co-workers. That was a dramatic lesson in how fast technology changed, availability increased, and prices plunged in the microcomputer field.

What did surprise me is that Dad rarely used Mom's new Commodore 64 despite knowing the math capabilities of it. I had never considered Mom too technically proficient, but besides making great use out of her system for word processing, she bought software that made greeting cards, banners, posters, and schedules for her various clubs.

I told Dad of Albert Rose's suggestion for a computer desk for myself and a small couch or chairs. I had a sheet of plywood in the basement that once had a model train set on it. Dad and I came up with a design for a fold-apart computer desk. Dad showed me how to use his router to round over the edges. By then, I was short on time before I had to move back to Cornfield University. I merely painted my new computer desk rather than the beautiful staining and varnishing that Dad had done on Mom's desk. While mine was not pretty, it was functional. So, for the two weeks between summer school and the start of the Fall Semester of 1983, Dad and I completed a wood working project together.

Dad had another idea. Tim was driving now, and they had three cars since the VW Dasher made three with the other two a Chevy Suburban and a Chevy van. Despite the rust and years, Dad had kept his twenty-year-old blue Chevy van, at least for the present. Dad said that I could take the van down myself in the last week in August, then bring in back on Labor Day Weekend. I would simply have to find a ride back from the papermill village to Cornfield University on Labor Day.

Since it was a full-sized van, I phoned up Albert, who lived in a suburb of Irate City. It was about a sixty-mile detour, but I did not mind that. He always had lots of stuff to bring down. He was delighted by the idea of having half of a full-sized van to put things in. I told him when to expect me.

Mom had a torn bean bag chair she was going to throw out since little foam beads were slipping out. Using scrap cloth and with Mom's help using her sewing machine, I put a cloth bag inside and got it back together. In addition, one of Mom's friends was throwing out a half-couch because the cushion had torn. Mom helped me make a new slipcover for the torn cushion.

When I got down to Irate City in the van, I stopped by briefly to visit Josh Cistern. He took me to see the video arcade that he worked at, which had a space station motif. The day he showed it to me, the video arcade was very busy. He pointed out features of video games that had never occurred to me before. His latest videogame interest for the coin-op games was in what he called scaling hardware sprites to create a pseudo 3D effect.

Josh told me that a brand-new type-in magazine called "Compute!'s Gazette" started in July 1983, so quite new. While "Compute!" featured many types of computers besides Commodores, the new "Compute!'s Gazette" was a spin-off that only featured articles for Commodore computers. He had already submitted a couple articles to it. He had also made an actual sale to "Commodore Power/Play" magazine. He had honed his skills on Vic-20 redefined graphics to make animated cartoons, and the editor had bought one of those programs. It was due out soon. Thus, while his hopes for a successful startup software company had been dashed last year, things were going well for publishing his work in the type-in magazines.

I then went to get Albert Rose. Filled with both of our stuff, the blue van was tightly packed. It did not seem a dorm room could hold all this. However, after we got both twin beds raised on their four-by-four posts, it was not so bad. He got his computer desk for his Commodore 64 tucked on one side, and I had my plywood desks tucked on the other. It still left room on my side for the half-couch and beanbag. On his side, he put his two stereo speakers and twenty-inch television. It ended up being a home theater system that was the envy of everybody in the dorm.

What especially topped this off as a home theater is besides getting a printer, Albert had also used some of his summer income to buy a VHS videocassette recorder. That semester, our room became a very popular hangout. Huge crowds would come filling the couch, the beanbag chair, the desk chairs, and resorting to sitting on the floor to watch Tom Baker as Doctor Who when it aired on Sunday nights. That did not happen yet on Labor Day weekend, though.

As for Labor Day weekend, as I had feared and expected, Dr. Silver piled on his huge stack of homework to prevent people from going home during this three-day weekend. However, unlike last year, he had also gotten a 24/7 terminal room put into the engineering building.

I phoned up my parents.

I said, "Dad, I have a ton of homework to do that's due by Tuesday. I have a plan. I did get a ride back to Cornfield University on Monday. So, I'll leave early Sunday morning. That'll give me all day Saturday to handle this mess. You'll have your van back on Sunday. If I get it done early enough on Saturday and can still make the drive then, I'll let you now. See you soon."

I had an informative conversation with Darnell Priest on Friday evening. As we talked, I tried out accessing the new Vax mainframe using the modem. While working over the modem worked fine, the 300 baud was a bottleneck. Therefore, early on Saturday morning, I went to the new 24/7 terminal room to get cranking away using the directly connected terminals there. With almost nobody around and the new Vax fast anyway but hardly a load on it now, things went very fast. I got everything done by the middle of Saturday afternoon. Therefore, I was back in the papermill village on Saturday evening despite the three-hour drive. The old blue van ran perfectly all the way back. I felt good knowing I would be one of those students with the mandatory thick wad of work all ready to turn in on Tuesday morning to Dr. Silver, yet was also returning Dad's van on time as promised. My brother Tim was glad to have the van back as having three vehicles with three drivers kept him mobile without having to do any swapping around of cars. He had badly missed that when the van was gone for just one week.


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