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Jack Smith

In a world filled with standardization, it's all in the game that it's all the same

March 06, 1985|JACK SMITH

'I recently came across the following," writes Leslie H. Bennett of Agoura, "and thought you might find it amusing:

'The fearful standardization of this age is making one place so like another that there will be no point soon in leaving home. Architecture, dress and food as prepared by the gigantic hotel combines in their exactly similar restaurants and grill rooms are becoming the same the world over. . . .' "

What was the source of this complaint, which seems so contemporary?

It was in a book called "In Search of Scotland," written by H. V. Morton and published in 1929.

Thus, in a world that I still remember as one of kaleidoscopic individuality, compared with today's, a seasoned traveler was already noticing the creeping disease of our age--standardization.

Back in the 1920s, long before the low-cost European imports, there were dozens of makes of cars, not merely the Big Three of Detroit.

They were so distinctive in design that it was a hobby of most small boys, including me, to know them all by their lines, and to recognize them on sight. This pastime lightened many a long drive to visit our relatives over the three-lane highways of those days; one called out their names as soon as they came into view.

Franklin . . . Grant . . . Essex . . . Hupmobile . . . Chandler . . . Lafayette . . . Peerless . . . Velie . . . Jordan . . . Wills St. Claire. . . .

We owned , that I can remember, a Wills St. Claire, a Franklin, an Oakland, a Graham-Paige, a Terraplane and a Hudson. I myself once owned a Packard.

There were hundreds of them. They are all gone now, all but those made by the Big Three and American, and the imports that have come in like the Mediterranean fruit fly.

Trying to create the illusion of variety, the Big Three have given us a multitude of names to choose from, with a little face-lifting here and there, but underneath the cosmetics they are pretty much the same car.

But people like to believe they have a choice. Remember the outrage a few years ago when people who bought Oldsmobiles found out they had Chevrolet engines in them? Or something like that. I may have the wrong models, but that was the idea. The difference between them was one of image; of memory. People who had been buying Oldsmobiles for generations didn't want to find out that they were really buying Chevrolets, with a slightly different fender line and a different emblem.

But the trend has been toward standardization in all things ever since the industrial revolution began. In America it probably began with the Harvey House cafes along the Santa Fe railroad lines. They were familiar, trustworthy oases at the end of a long, dusty ride across the western plains. They offered good food and pretty waitresses--the famous Harvey Girls--all served and dressed alike. You knew just what to expect.

There was even a Harvey House at the Los Angeles Station, an excellent restaurant with a long copper bar that was always crowded three deep during the war. Then came the jet airplane; railroad travel became passe, and the Harvey House closed. It has been defunct for years.

What has taken its place? The airport Hiltons, Marriotts, Holiday Inns. They are all over the world, giving the traveler no surprises. One would hardly know whether he is in Los Angeles, Chicago or London; the service is the same, the lobby is the same, the bill is the same, and you pay with a plastic card.

People must like standardization. Everywhere the junk food franchises proliferate. You go to a McDonald's in Torrance, you get exactly the same kind of hamburger you get in Atlantic City, served in exactly the same way. You stand in line, give your order to the cashier, pay and take your order to a table on a tray. Everyone knows how to act. No manners to learn. No tips to leave.

A few years ago my wife and I set out to drive to Northern California, taking a leisurely holiday, and attempting to avoid chain motels and restaurants. We found out that you can't do it. They sneak up on you. We went to a restaurant that had once been a favorite of ours, an old-time, independent, individualistic restaurant. I was studying the menu when I noticed down at the bottom that the restaurant now was owned by some giant conglomerate--Coca-Cola, or Gulf Oil, or somebody like that.

The changes in its character were subtle, but critical. The old personal touch was gone. The waitresses were homogenized. They said "Enjoy your lunch" and "Have a nice day" with exactly the same distracted inflection as waitresses in Los Angeles.

By the time we got to Bakersfield, on our way home, we had given up the game and deliberately went to a Jolly Roger for lunch. At least we knew what to expect.

But more and more every private enterprise is swallowed up by something bigger, and that is swallowed up by something even bigger, until finally everything will be owned by one of a half-dozen enormous conglomerates that are fighting it out for control of the world.

It's like in that movie "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," in which these gourds come from space and settle down in a community and one by one supplant the minds and philosophies of its citizens, so that gradually they turn into automatons, mindlessly repeating the dogmas of the body snatchers. Mindlessly we surrender to the franchises, the chains, the giant conglomerates, which, in the end, tell us where we will sleep, what we will eat, what will entertain us, and how we will look.

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