How the other half lives

Steve DeLassus e-mailed me with a computer question. I think he just wanted someone to confirm whether his reaction was right. And it really got me thinking hard.
Friday night after work, I drove up to north St. Louis to help out an acquaintance with a computer problem. For those of you not familiar with St. Louis, north St. Louis ain’t Beverly Hills. It’s not East St. Louis, but I’ll just say this and move on. In my neighborhood, it’s very rare to find a house for $165,000. If you do, it’ll be a one-story. If it has any kind of a yard, it’ll be a two-bedroom house. If it doesn’t have much yard, it’ll be a three-bedroom. In north St. Louis, for $165,000 you can buy an entire city block.

I went up there to install a USB card in her system so she could use her new multifunction printer. She’s a teacher, and she’s taking correspondence courses to get her doctorate, so she needs to be able to send and receive faxes.

The computer is an old Cyrix. I didn’t pay much attention to the clock speed. It runs Windows 98, which means she bought it in 1997 or 1998. It’s adequate for what she does, which is mostly word processing. She told me flat out that the chair I was sitting on cost her $10 at a nearby second-hand store. That’s where she gets all her furniture, she said. She obviously has a good eye, because her stuff matches pretty well. Her desk was $35 in a package deal. She bought it off someone who was moving.

I didn’t really feel sorry for her. I admired her, in reality. Spending her money wisely like that, she won’t have to shop like that much longer unless she chooses to. She may choose to. She may choose to teach in an area that won’t pay her enough to ever afford anything else. But she’ll be doing it for the reward of knowing she’s doing something to make a difference.

I installed the card and left the case open in case anything went wrong. I booted the system, then Windows found the card and dutifully loaded a driver for it. Then I plugged in the printer. It recognized the printer and asked for a driver. I fed it a driver and printed a test page. It worked fine. I was happy.

I closed the case back up. I booted up again and configured the device’s fax subsystem. She told me she paid $1,000 for this computer (complete) at a time when the best price she could find on anything in a store was $1,500. She was glad you can get something now for $799. She wasn’t angry or bitter about it; she was happy that the people buying a computer today didn’t have to stretch their budgets as much as she had to.

I told her that even if a person had as little as $200 to spend, they can get something these days. It’ll be used, but it’ll be something. She was glad to hear it. Even in America, where everybody’s supposedly rich, there are people who can’t afford anything more than a $200 computer.

I remember now when I was in Farmington, New Mexico, back in 1999 or 2000. I went in to a used computer store down there, and in addition to new systems, they also were selling used systems. I saw a 386SX powered on in a corner, running DOS. It had 4 megs of RAM and a 40-meg hard drive. The price on it was $100. Of course, a faster 386 or a 486 cost a bit more. I saw someone buy one while I was there. I was shocked, because in south St. Louis–most of St. Louis, for that matter–you couldn’t give those kinds of computers away, let alone get somone to give you a hundred bucks for it.

Meanwhile I listen to spoiled yuppies complaining about how anything less than 1 GHz isn’t a real computer.

It makes me sick.

One thought on “How the other half lives

  • August 19, 2003 at 8:02 pm
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    I own a computer troubleshoot and repair business in Wasilla Alaska. I find myself getting frustrated with people who don’t have hight speed internet. Most of the people that got the latest blaster worm are people on dialup that don’t bother to update their OS or their antivirus because it takes so long to download anything. I have 512 DSL and am sssooooooo spoiled. I’ve had it for 2 years now and can’t even fathom going back to a dialup. So like I say, I go to someones house to work on their PC and they are on dialup. It take 45 minutes to download a 3 meg patch. I have to make myself understand that not everyone can afford DSL, and that they are doing the best they can with what they have. If I were a cyber missionary, I would bring the joy of broadband to the entire dialup world!!

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