Manhattan and the Mephistophelean Mind

by James McGirk

The-fountain-of-prosperityI learned about the MONIAC in my high school marco-economics class: a.k.a. the Financephalograph or the Philips Hydraulic Computer, MONIAC was a massive machine, the size of two grandfather clocks bolted together, only instead of gears there was colored fluid inside, sluicing through tubes, pushing valves open and filling cisterns. Here, fluid was a metaphor for money, and by manipulating how much trickled through the system (pour in investments, drain out expenditures…) MONIAC could model Great Britain’s fiscal policy. Hence its name: the Monitary National Income Analogue Computer. This was absolutely an idea borne of its time (which would be New Zealand circa 1949, when feedback loops and whole systems were to Big Business what networks and disruptive capitalism are today) and as an idea was quickly repurposed from oracle-like pronouncements on fiscal policy to the teaching spotty undergraduates studying intro to Economics. My instructor—I don’t remember her name—mentioned the MONIAC as a way to demonstrate the hubris of economic models. It was inconceivable to her that a bunch of transparent pipes filled with dyed water could model something so complex as a national monetary policy. I think that was the point. But I found the MONIAC quite appealing.

Psychiatrists refer to a patient’s system of belief. This is like a personal philosophy only it goes deeper than that; it refers to how a patient conceives of reality on a granular level. A paranoid schizophrenic might have a system of belief that relies on malevolent imps who undermine his every attempt to function in society. Or if you take enough acid and close your eyes as you peak and glimpse the whirling clocklike machinery undergirding reality and believe it is still there once you come down: well, that too would fit, albeit in a slightly more subtle way. At the time I was thus afflicted. A peculiar fellow, obsessed with control panels, who decorated his jeans and filled notebooks with doodles of speedometers and squignometers and gauges and switches and rows of buttons; a guy who re-read William Gibson’s Neuromancer forty times and gobbled cognitive enhancing Nootropic drugs (and pined for girls who reminded me of the main character Molly, a neo-noir villainess with retractable claws; wan, freckled redheads especially reminded me of her, but thanks to the aforementioned eccentricities, the female of the species was really more of an abstraction at the time).

So MONIAC was delicious concept to me. The idea that there could be a machine explaining everything and allowing you to manipulate reality like engineer manning a locomotive slotted neatly into my personal system of belief[1], and stayed there until I moved to New York City at the age of 22.

I had this idea that I would be able master the city the way I had mastered the manual transmission of my crappy slate 1995 Mitsubishi Galant S. Not entirely without effort, mind you, but after a few herky-jerky lurches not too much effort for someone as creative and brainy as yours truly. But making it in New York City was nothing like mastering the control system of a cantankerous Japanese motorcar. It was like joining a cult. You see, unless you arrive in New York City through a Manhattanite’s birth canal or by clomping down the handsome milled aluminum staircase of a Russian kleptocrat’s private jumbo jet and are so rich it doesn’t matter, you enter the city as a rube, exuding a petrochemical fug of expectation and stupidity that feeds madness directly into the city’s economy. Sure it’s a system just like the MONIAC was, but instead of being a rational machine, it’s a cruel swindle, a game of snakes and ladders played with pit vipers and toothpick rungs and loaded die. But my expectations were more unrealistic than most.

When I was a lad and my family would travel through New York City we would always stay with a friend of my father’s who he knew from the Blair Academy, a New Jersey boarding school that looked after the children of expatriate executives. He was a bachelor who lived by himself in a magnificent penthouse apartment on the western edge of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. This place was about the size of a suburban three-bedroom home stacked on top of a twenty-storey Art Deco skyscraper. There were balconies so big you could play soccer on them, and banquet halls and a maid’s quarters and best of all it was peaceful, so high up that you could be aloof from the city if you wanted to be. This friend of my father’s was a antiques dealer, so his digs were furnished with antebellum furniture that was worth tens or sometimes even hundreds of thousands of dollars per piece (think deep mahogany sideboards and satin cushions and tables with eagles carved into their legs and capped with foot-thick slabs of marble and gleaming silver adornments), and whenever we visited he would take us out drinking and to glamorous restaurants full of elegant, pale hostesses who looked like they could appreciate a conversation about Kiwi computing systems with a longhaired ranting Nootropic abuser.

I assumed it would be an easy thing to replicate the lifestyle of a bachelor heir to shoe manufacturer. And when I moved to the United States for college my dad's friend generously and rather unwisely told me that if I ever needed someplace to stay, his door was open. He would come to regret saying that.


After I dropped out of the University of Colorado and took a job at a tiny newspaper in the Berkshires, I figured I had a standing invitation to come stay with him in New York whenever I wanted. Of course, my host’s life had changed considerably since he had made me that offer. He married and had young children and his business was struggling, but those Manhattan problems seemed puny next to mine in Massachusetts: the cub reporter position I thought I was taking at the Pulitzer Prize-winning Berkshire Eagle turned out to be a competitor with a triple-digit circulation and a cruel Yankee boss, a short guy with bright pink cheeks and a white quiff, who tried to live up to the tight-fisted stereotype, and set me up in, and then deducted most of my salary for, rent in a graffito-tagged flop in the nearby town called Pittsfield, whose main industrial activity, according to the local Chamber of Commerce was administering to a federally funded toxic waste clean-up site (an electrical transformer manufacturer who’d been dumping PVCs into the Housatonic River for about seventy years). I was supposed to report and sell ad space. Most of my salary would come from commissions. Could I get an advance, at least, to help set myself up and pay the deposits on my utilities?

“No. That’s shuffling paper,” he told me. “Shuffling paper is poison. For years that’s what I did to keep the paper going. So no. Double no! Earn it with your commission.”

My one glimmer of hope came when this stinky boss of mine—did I mention his poor standards of personal hygiene? He reeked—took me down to Boston in an old pickup truck for a regional reporters’ convention, and then he got so drunk that he ended up howling at counterparts: he had been robbed of his regional reporters prize, they ignored him because of his small circulation, which was all the fault of the goddamned Eagle, and if the bastards on the prize committee could give him just one a fucking chance… he was kicked out of the hall, and then I guess he drove home without me, because I couldn’t find him afterwards and it was starting to snow, and I had to find the Greyhound Bus station in the middle of the night and ride back home to my Pittsfield flop beside a creepy Vietnam veteran who kept telling me Asia’s countryside was beautiful but smelled like shit and the women were all whores and the smack was super cheap.

Enough was enough. The next morning instead of coming to work I bought a ticket for Grand Central Station. So I guess I was a little shell-shocked and my poor MONIAC-addled mind wasn’t so good at picking up subtle social cues when I pestered our family friend's doorman that afternoon.

This is an excerpt of a larger piece of work I'm working on. Eager to hear your thoughts.

[1] (“Mephistophelean” is how a snickering professor of mine at Columbia described it, after she read a later, equally deluded attempt to describe a whole system of literature based on hidden shapes, although I wonder if she were really thinking of the Kids in the Hall sketch “Bobby vs. Satan” where Bruce McCullough duels the devil over an electric guitar using what he called “sound shapes”.)