The Budgies are Listless
On Thursday, January 5, I was waiting for the elevator in the lobby of my building when I was joined by a woman who lives up the hall from me. She was carrying a grocery bag with The New York Times poking out the top. “Why did you buy it?” I asked. “They just raised the price to $2.50. Who can afford that for a daily newspaper?”
“I have a very large birdcage,” she said. “It’s the only newspaper that fits the bottom of my birdcage.”
My neighbor is a classical musician who makes a living at it. She pays attention to politics and votes. She buys things. She’s a little older than the actors playing obedient yuppies in the NYT commercials that beg for subscriptions, but is otherwise their ideal reader.
“The only thing I don’t like about the Times is all the color pictures,” she continued. “One of my budgies is listless, and I think it might be chemicals leaching out of the pictures. So I cut them out before I put the paper in the cage. I may have to take my budgies to the vet.”
Afterward I sat in my apartment and thought, “Wow, that was the perfect lead to a Thomas Friedman column, one of those deals where he has a chance encounter that resonates with symbolism for some earth-shaking problem, like the death of print. Would Friedman see the budgies as upper management at the Times, making disastrous business decisions for the entire 21st century and crapping on journalists by cutting their benefits? Or would the budgies be the readers, listless with their diet of toxic ink? Or would the budgies be reporters caged by corporatism? The world is a flat birdcage, and the metaphors would drop like turds from the sky. Is it for Tom or myself that I cry?”
Perhaps I was being unfair, I further thought. Perhaps the Times had changed and I didn’t notice because I hadn’t read it regularly since the last millenium. Oh, I glance at it almost every day online. But a careful read? Nah. I hadn’t bought one outside of an airport for years. So, for $2.50, I bought a paper copy—“the world’s best journalism in its original form,” as the commercials say— the very same issue that my neighbor put on the bottom of her birdcage.
I spent three fitful hours reading that night. When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t remember anything, except for an article about a girl group in Myanmar who had just released their first album. It was hard to tell if the girl group had anything to say, or if they were just acting like they had something to say, in the manner of corporate commodities like the Spice Girls and Lady Gaga. They did sing and dance in a mildly suggestive manner, which is novel and controversial in a socially conservative country run by a crazy military junta, but...I don’t know...was I supposed to be happy that the girl group was expressing itself, or sad that Western-style junk pop might be penetrating Myanmar?