August 16, 2022

Senior Moments: WiFi at Libraries

Odd, the first time I noticed it.
It was a September evening just before I entered Peace Corps. I stopped by the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme. One of my favorites. Just one car in the parking lot. But the library was closed. I recognized the old car. Jack was behind the wheel—I’ll call him Jack.
I walked over to say Hi. He was hunched down. About 40. Walked to his own drummer. Worked at this and that, as he needed to. Fiercely independent. Sharp.

He was so intent that he didn’t notice me coming. 

The window was down. “Hi, Jack. What are you up to?” 
He had his fingers on a laptop keyboard. “Hi, John. I’m checking my emails.”
“Your emails? Out here?”
“Yeah. I’m tapping the library’s  wi-fi signal. Works fine. I do this often. No need to go inside.” 
It was all completely new to me. I had had no idea.  Wi-fi—Internet without wires. Without walls, so to speak.
I saw it again in Morro Bay, California. Was visiting my daughter Monique and her hubby David. I enjoy the little but very fine Morro Bay Library. It was late afternoon. Balmy day.  A VW Microbus was parked among the others, but close to the building.

I had a Microbus once. For about three years after I retired. Cruised the U.S. in it, even down into Mexico and up into northwest Canada. Sight-seeing, having fun, learning so much along the way.
One man in this Microbus. He had slid the broad side door open. Was sitting at the tiny table, working a computer. The radio was playing some Mozart. Was having a grand time.

I didn’t need any explanation now. I knew what he was doing. The library was open, but he was accessing its wi-fi. He preferred to be outside. His van had a Nebraska plate. I’ll bet he was looking up a library wherever he went on his travels.
I never saw anything like this in Ukraine during my 27 months of Peace Corps service. The technology just wasn’t up to snuff.  They had the Internet, but limited. I used public Internet shops, paying by the minute.

How happy I was when I discovered the huge downtown public library. It had only two Internet-connected computers, both thanks to uncle Sam. How delighted when I discovered them. Free! I kept it secret from my Peace Corps colleagues—didn’t want them in line competing with me for one. Finally my conscience bothered me and I told them. They reacted just as I expected, to my regret.
Well, I saw the same wi-fi behavior just last Sunday. Early morning. I went for  a walk down Main Street in my own Deep River. Our downtown is becoming so charming.  Deep River is really becoming the Queen of the Valley again.

Approaching our library, I noticed a man sitting in the sunshine on the stone wall in front of it. Right across from his gleaming parked Saab. His tee-shirt said Newport.  He was working a laptop. A tourist, I was sure. Again, I just knew–he was taking advantage of the free Internet. He had searched out our library to do this and was delighted to find it.
Wi-fi has become commonplace. When you buy that service, often you use a password to access it. Some people don’t bother. People like the three I have mentioned often troll for an un-protected service. Sometimes  they troll their neighbors do. Their computers indicate who is using wi-fi within a certain range, and what the relative strengths of the signals are. This way they get wi-fi free if they do sneak into somebody’s service. It doesn’t seem to be illegal.
I have come to believe that public libraries make the conscious decision to leave their wi-fi available this way. For anybody and everybody who wants it, even from outside. For them it’s just another way to serve the public. Libraries, how wonderful.  Few other countries approach us in the quality of their libraries. Take it from me. I’ve been to many.   How lucky we are.
I remember the first time I used a public computer in a public library outside the U.S. I was up in Quebec City. I discovered the big, splendid new library there. Ultra-modern in every way, including its architecture. I saw many public computers in one room. Many people using them.

I approached the librarian in charge. “I am a tourist from Connecticut,” I said in French.  French was my first language. Very comfortable using it…l enjoy using it. “May I use a computer.” 

“Oui. Of course,” she said with a smile. She wrote out a pass for me. “Here it is, with the compliments of Monsieur Gates!”

“Monsieur Bill Gates! What does he have to do with this.”

He gave us a grant that helped make all this possible,” she said. “I believe he has given such grants to libraries in other countries also.”

As it turns out, while I was in Ukraine I read that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was making a grant of millions of dollars for many libraries throughout the country over a period of years. Yes, to make the marvels of the Internet available to Ukrainians.

I believe the first company to make wi-fi available to its customers was  Starbucks. Starbucks was already providing free newspapers for customers to enjoy with their coffee. Free wi-fi was the logical next step.
Back from Ukraine, I made a happy discovery. Guess what? McDonald’s now provides free wi-fi in more than 12,000 restaurants in the U.S.
No wonder it’s the industry leader. I have enjoyed McDonald’s and Burger King for coffee and a pit stop for years. But I haven’t yet been in a Burger King with wi-fi. I am sure they will make the big leap. Will have to.
Public free wi-fi has become a standard amenity in many places. Hotels, shopping centers, airports,  universities, hospitals, resorts, book stores,  brake and oil lube shops, on and on.
This is when I discovered the new tiny enetbooks.  First came the laptop, then he notebook, now the enetbook…each one smaller. Had to have one. Bought a beauty. Has the standard software programs plus many bells and whistles. Even a tiny video camera (but I don’t use it…don’t want people to see what I really look like at times). Weighs less than two pounds.  Has everything except CD and DVD capability. But I don’t need these because I also own a Mac.
For nearly five years now–since the first week it appeared on the market–I have owned an Apple MacMini. It’s a full desktop processor.  Just the size of a cigar box, if you are of age to know what that is. Cigar boxes are not common any more.  My MacMini is full-powered…mighty! I even took it to Ukraine with me, but it was months before I found a place to live with where I could connect it.
Well, got to tell you that on my long zigzag journey home from California, where I arrived from Ukraine, I used my wonderful enetbook every day here and there…all kinds of places. All because of free wi-fi.
Hard for me to believe that I have been using computers for more than 40 years. I remember when all of us on the editorial side of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette received a memo from upstairs. It said all of us would get computers and we would have to learn to use them. Mandatory. “We will train you. Don’t worry!” The idea was frightening.

I was the editor of its Sunday magazine, “Feature Parade.” It wasn’t one that we just bought from a syndicate, all pre-printed, and just put our name on. We edited and published our own, with our own magazine staff and some free-lancers. I felt so intimidated by the new technology. But I got the hang of it. (But I am still learning every day.)
I remember my first portable computer. It was a Smith-Corona.  Laptops had not yet appeared. I used it at home and on the road. A bulky thing. It weighed 10 times as much as my little e-book. Nevertheless, marvelous. I remember the first time I walked into a public library with it. I walked it with an extension cord in my other hand.
I approached a librarian at her desk. “May I use this?” I said, and explained.
“Gosh, I’m not sure. We don’t have a policy for that.”
It’ll be for just 20 for minutes. Very quiet. No click-clacking of typewriter keys. Won’t bother anybody.”
“Well, all right. But I’ll have to report this.”
I set up at a table and went to work. She kept glancing at me. Finally she came and stood at my side and looked on.  “That is very nice, isn’t it!” she said approvingly. 
“Yes, I love it. They’ll become common.”
How right I was. That Smith-Corona of mine has become an antique.
And know what? Just yesterday I read in a newspaper—a digital newspaper, by the way, like this one you are reading—that the huge outdoor National Mall in Washington has been equipped with wi-fi.

More than 200 “hot spots” have been set up on its vast acreage. They disperse the wi-fi signal. Yes, right there in front of our Capitol.  People out there in the fresh air will be able to open their computers and connect to the world.  Without wires!
But not only laptops and enetbooks now. With Blackberries and their kind. With the so-called smart telephones of many kinds.  Millions now own one. Even the three oldest of my five grandchildren—the other two are less than four years old! All three are texting. That’s a brand-new word to me—typing with two fingers on the tiniest of electronic keyboards, sacrificing grammar and spelling to brevity and expediency. Maybe to you also. I don’t now how to text. That’s too newfangled for me.
All this is the fantastic result of the first half century  of this, our civilization-changing Computer Age.  And this is just the beginning.  I see the certainty—though I may not live to enjoy it—that entire towns and cities will have  free wi-fi. In fact, our whole country will have free wi-fi.  Someday the whole world. This I believe truly. Having a computer device to connect to it will be as basic and commonplace as wearing shoes.
I remember reading Buck Rogers comics when I was a kid. Buck Rogers was far-fetched and wonderful. But even Buck Rogers was not futuristic enough to keep up with this!

John Guy LaPlante is a veteran writer, journalist and resident of Deep River.  His award-winning columns and articles were most recently published in the Main Street News.  He is the author of two books, “Around the World at 75. Alone! Dammit!” and “Asia in 80 Days. Oops, 83! Dammit!”  He has just completed his service as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Ukraine where his 27-month tour of duty began last fall.  John always welcomes comments on his articles.
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