Loss of Project Does Not Compute

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By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Man knocks at the door, steps inside, hat literally in hand, ready with his sob story. He's just out of rehab, clean since September, and things are finally starting to go his way. He's looking for work, and what he really needs to get going is a computer, any old one will do.

Gerry Rosenkrantz cuts the man off just as he's getting into the part about how he doesn't have much money. "You get me a letter from the rehab clinic, and I'll give you a computer for $5 cash," says Rosenkrantz.

The news is so amazing, the response so quick, that the man at the door of Project Reboot on Fleet Street in Rockville can't process it. He pushes on with his tale of woe, and Rosenkrantz has to interrupt: "Listen, I said, get me a letter and it's yours for five bucks."

"Really?" the man asks. And off he goes to get the letter.

All day long, they come to the door of the little white house -- a Salvadoran immigrant mom who needs a computer for her 18-year-old son, an agency picking up machines for the disabled, a charity that's building a school in Uganda, social workers collecting PCs to give to foster children in Montgomery County. More than 50 computers a month go out the front door, used PCs and laptops, all refurbished by Rosenkrantz's crew of volunteer retirees.

But come the end of March, Project Reboot is scheduled to go into deep sleep. After giving Reboot rent-free headquarters for several years, the county is kicking the computer guys out so that the house and the rest of the block it sits on can be redeveloped as a mixed-income townhouse project with 30 units of affordable housing.

Although not obliged to find them a new home, the county would like to help relocate the volunteers and their piles of computers. "They meet an important need, but we have competing interests," says county government spokeswoman Mary Anderson. The county wants to get computers to those in need, but it also needs to build affordable housing for those who cannot pay the rents in a very pricey part of the world.

Although the county is still looking for surplus property where Reboot might relocate, and the deadline to leave the house on Fleet Street might slip back by a few months, right now it appears that an eight-year-old program that costs nothing and salvages thousands of computers otherwise bound for the dump is about to die.

The loss would be felt immediately by a slew of social service agencies that depend on Reboot computers for their clients. And although this is hardly of much concern to the bureaucrats of Montgomery County, the old guys who toil away inside the house on Fleet Street would lose something they hold dear: one another.

"We're all guys whose wives want us out of the house," jokes Rosenkrantz, 74, a retired metal and energy analyst for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "They married us for better or worse, but not for lunch."

Joe Simonetti was at Social Security for 35 years. Eli Rosenfield taught math at the University of the District of Columbia until he got pushed out in '97. Sid Fratkin spent 30 years as an engineer at IBM. Richard Dean was a manager for Exxon Mobil in Asia; his wife, Renata, consulted for Bell Labs. Now they spend long afternoons in the house on Fleet Street, in small rooms packed tight with stacks of discarded computers.

For many of the volunteers, it all started at the Silver Spring Philatelic Society. That's where a bunch of the retirees, passing their days comparing stamp collections, heard Rosenkrantz getting downright evangelical about how he was harvesting old computers for the lead and gold and other metals hidden inside, and how he was salvaging some of the machines and rebuilding them for people who could not afford to enter the digital age.

"I heard them talking about how the school system dumps 10,000 machines a year, and Gerry and these guys were getting them out to kids who needed them," says Simonetti. "I didn't know anything about computers. Now I can build one from scratch."

Few of the guys at Reboot had a computer background. But now they're specialists: One handles memory issues, another is the printer maven, another knows from drives. "We learn to take them apart and put them together again," says Rosenfield, "and nobody cares if we destroy a few in the process."

Along the way, they talk about memories of a different kind. Fratkin is telling stories about the moment he heard about Pearl Harbor. They talk about how pensions are vanishing from the work world these days and how their retirements, with the freedom to learn a new craft and help another generation, may be the last of their kind. They marvel at the kid: Nathan Lefler, a student at Kennedy High School who is working in the basement refurbishing laptops for community service credit.

"So young! He's got eyeballs! He's got fingers!" Rosenkrantz says. "Manual dexterity! I remember that." And they laugh.

And then they shake their heads at a bureaucracy that could displace a program such as Reboot, one that costs nothing and gives so much.

There's always more on my blog, Raw Fisher, athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/rawfisher.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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