A Glimpse of the Future

Our present, as seen from 1982

If it's a record-breaking summer, you don't want to miss it. You're going to want to talk about it someday. Sometimes on a hot day, after spending a morning in an air-conditioned office, I like to experience this famous heat.

So I walk down to the site of one of the hottest summers of my memory, World's Fair Park. Some afternoons when I worked there, the heat shimmering visibly off the concrete, I almost giggled, going a little mad perhaps, like Peter O'Toole on the burning desert. They called me Lawrence of the Saudi Arabia Pavilion. Back then, fortunately, the Saudi pavilion was near the Budweiser pavilion.

One ninetysomething afternoon last week found me in the upper part of the park, and just when the giant eyes of the art museum were starting to make me feel self-conscious, it occurred to me I was passing near where the geodesic dome known as the Home of the Future was. Did we ever get to the Future, I wondered. Did I miss it, maybe back during that spell when I didn't have a TV?

I walked off the sidewalk across the dry grass, just taking it in, feeling this summer and trying to remember that other one, when I suddenly caught a whiff of something, like a combination of lightly burnt polyester, vanilla Coke, and Petros. And in front of me materialized, as if out of a pixilated Spielberg effect, a man in deely-bobber headgear. He carried a device I was old enough to recognize as a Kodak disk camera, and wore a T-shirt with the defiant manifesto, "I Don't Care Who Shot J.R." He had a Tom Selleck mustache and a tastefully understated white-man Afro.

"What do you know?" he said. "It works."

"What works?" I asked, naturally.

"That bitchin' Glimpse of the Future machine," he said. "So what year is it now?"

"This year? It's 2012."

He looked at me skeptically. "That doesn't even sound like a year," he said. "I was aiming for maybe 1999."

"It wasn't much like the Prince song," I said. "Or if it was, I missed that part."

"Ten-four," he said, his deely-bobbers bobbing, tracing independent oval letters in obscure cursive. "But have a look at this place. Art museum? Condos? Fountains? So after this big success, I guess Jake Butcher must have gotten elected governor for life," he said.

"That part went a little off script," I said. I didn't want to get into 1983, the savings-and-loan scandal, the collapse of United American Bank, and the prison sentences. I was afraid too much information might give this first-time time traveler the bends.

"Right on," he said, uncertainly. "So, were we right? What are you using to generate electricity? Wind? Solar? Safe nuclear?"

"Coal, mostly," I said. "Around here, anyway."

That took him aback. "Huh. How about cars? What is it you guys are using for fuel these days? Methane? Hydrogen?"

"Actually, the Saudi pavilion was the one that had it right," I said. "We're still using gasoline."

"Don't jive me," he said. "Well, then, what kind of mileage you getting, on average? Past 100 miles per gallon by now, I bet?"

"Nope," I said. "We're still down around 20, 30 if you're lucky. It's about like it was in the '70s. Nobody in 1982 expected it, but cars got all bigger again. Even bigger than in the '50s."

He gave me a what-you-talkin-bout-Willis look. "You're freaking me out, man," he said.

"I don't mean to," I said. "It's just that nothing we expected to change changed very much. But a lot of stuff nobody expected to change did change."

"Like what?"

"Well, we have home computers, and they're not just for rich high-tech nerds anymore. Most people have them now, and there's this thing called the Internet, that helps you look stuff up without going to the library, and buy stuff without going to the store."

"If people don't move around much anymore," he said, "how do they keep from getting fat?"

I didn't want to get into that. "And there's this other thing called Facebook. You can check in on your friends without seeing them in person."

"Are they okay?"

"Who?"

"Your friends."

"Yes, they're fine, thanks. But see, now we can share funny cat videos, too. And one big difference is that everything's tailored to our preferences. We can find news that we already know we'll agree with."

That didn't come out right. I could tell he was looking around, a little desperately, for any trace of the Future as he knew it in 1982.

I grasped for positives. "And we can pay bills now on the computer without buying postage stamps!"

"Great," he said. "What do you do with all the postage-stamp money you save?"

"Well, that's the thing. The phone line does a lot more stuff than it used to, but my phone bill's almost 20 times what it was in 1982. TV costs more, too."

He was quiet for a moment, trying to figure that out. "You mean have to pay to watch TV?"

I shouldn't have brought it up.

"This is all too much, man," he said. "Can I cop a joint?"

"Huh?"

"Surely marijuana's legal by now, right?"

"Hum. Well, that's another thing."

He paused as it was sinking in. "So. You still have cancer, I bet, don't you."

"Sorry. Yes, we do. Lots of it."

He looked aimlessly over toward the Sunsphere, as if wondering what the Future was for.

"I bet there's not even a restaurant up there, is there," he said.

"No. They did try that, though."

The poor guy looked as if he'd just lost his personal future. "It's been real, man," he said. "They told me, when I was ready to come back, to just call on the solar-powered phone. But it looks like it's gone. Can you tell me where the nearest payphone is?"