LETS CALL THEM the Smiths and say they live in the suburbs where he is an accountant and she is a housewife and where they have four children - two boys and two girls. I have only talked to them once, and that was on the phone and it was Mrs. Smith to whom I talked. I knew right off, though, that something was wrong.
It was the little things that tipped me off, Mrs. Smith answered the phone around 6 p.m. and whe did not say that I had caught her in the middle of the news. She did not ask me to call back. She did not say, "wait a minute while I turn down the set," and she did not yell at the kids to stop fighting over which program they would watch. The Smiths have nothing to fight over. They have no television set.
It was all very strange. There was no background noise. I asked questions of Mrs. Smith the very way Margaret Meade must have done in Samoa. I asked about the kids and Mrs. Smith reported their whereabouts. One girl was in the kitchen with her, helping to bake a cake. The other girl was at her father's office, helping him to clean up the place. The two boys, she said, were upstairs in the house, probably fighting. She said fighting was normal. In fact, she made the whole thing sound normal.
Mrs. Smith acted very blase about her family's lack of a television. She says they all read a lot and listen to music together and spends lots of time doing things as a family. She made their whole existence sound like an old Saturday Evening Post cover and when I hung up the phone I checked in the paper to see what they had been missing. Channel 4 had the news, and Channel 5 had the Partridge Family, Carroll O'Connor was on 7, the news was on 9, Hodgepode Lodge on 22 and Sesame Street on 26. With the exception of Sesame Street, it was clear the Smiths were missing nothing.
I mentioned the Smiths to some people around the office and their faces glowed. It was clear they sort of envied this family that had stumbled across the true path. Even the person who first mentioned them to me said their names with reverence - as if they had devoted their lives to science. For a while, I shared their attitude and I assigned myself the task of some day going out to see the Smiths - look into the corner where the television set should be and maybe writing how there was a bookcase there.
After all, we are always reading stories about those rare families who have no television set. We are told their lives are richer, their kids have speed-raad Plato's Republic by the age of 9 and the family sits around the fire at night, playing chamber music while grandma knocks off a quilt or two. The image is so appealing and I have been tempted from time to time to either get rid of the set or at least lie to may kid and tell him that it was stolen and Batman is on the case. I am not much of a watcher, anyway, and it wasn't until last week, actually, that I finally saw the Fonze. I thought the T-shirts referred to Friends of the National Zoo.
Since I talked with Mrs. Smith it has snowed and there has been an inaugural and I have either been busy or iced in. At any rate, I've never had the chance to get out to their house and take a look at the spot where the television set should be. But I was going to go, and I was going to write one of those pieces that trigger lots of mail from people who blame television for everything from juvenile deliquency to the draught in the West. I found the Smiths lifestyle intellectually appealing.
But then on Sunday night I rushed downstairs to see either "Roots" or "Upstairs, Downstairs," opting at the last minute for "Roots." I was excited, because my wife had read the book and loved it and because the reviews of the show have been good. It was then that I wondered what the Smiths were doing, and I imagined them sneaking out of the back door of their house with a blanket over their heads so the neighbors would not see them. I imagined they spent the night in a motel, watching television. I hope they did that. They would have seen some fine television.
It was then I had to acknowledge that I loved that box in the basement - the one where Alisair Cookes face comes in a nice shade of purple. I've thought about it and I'm ashamed to say that I would miss my set - Miss Hudson and Mrs. Bridges and especially Georgiana whom I love in a noncommercial sort of way. But I would miss more than them. I would miss really fine shows like "Roots," but I would miss also those truly atrocious shows that I turn to when my head has had enough of this world and I'm looking for a visual martini. At least television doesn't kill your liver.
The truth of the matter is that I am old enough to remember how things were before television - how as a kid I would lie on the floor and listen to my father tell my mother what had happened that day at work. Then we would turn on the radio. It was my family and it was a good family.
But it was not half as interesting as the family in Upstairs, Downstairs.