Specialization in America has finally gone too far. I came to this conclusion last week while shopping for a pair of 24-inch, rust-colored shoelaces.
I can accept professional departmentalization. It doesn't bother me that the family doctor has given way to medical specialists, sub-specialists and sub-sub-specialists. A good friend who went through medical school has chosen not just ophthalmology as his particular emphasis, but specifically problems of the retina. I know that if my retina came down with something, I wouldn't want people poking around there who didn't know exactly what they were doing.
Likewise, I'm not too concerned that automobile mechanics are following suit, populating the garages of the world with carburetor experts, radiator specialists, muffler men and tailpipe trouble-shooters.
I've tolerated this trend so far because I always believed the adage about "jack of all trades, master of none," which was drummed into my head early and reinforced lately by those commercials for chicken stands that knock the way burger places make their nuggets.
After all, there's a certain logic to the notion that you're more likely to excel if you try to do just one thing well, even if it's only throwing chicken parts into a vat of boiling oil.
But I, like Sylvester Stallone and Clint Eastwood, can be pushed only so far. For me, it was a shoelace.
When I snapped a lace on my favorite pair of casual oxfords, I never expected that replacing it would turn into something like the search for the lost ark.
But that night I was going to wear them to the symphony, so I wanted to go all out.
There was a Sears store near the concert hall, so I arrived 20 minutes early--plenty of time to walk into the shoe department, buy the laces, thread them up and be on my way. Or so I thought.
But Sears--the nation's largest retailer--stocked only about six pairs of shoelaces. None were the right length. Forget about finding the right color.
No matter. I still had time to check out a few more stores in South Coast Plaza, one of the Southland's biggest malls.
The next logical stop: a shoe store, right? Hmph. First Thom McAn, which set my heart racing when I spotted the right color laces hanging on a rack. But they had only one length, which would have been great had I been wearing hiking boots to the concert.
Next was Kinney. Another strike. (It is called the Great American Shoe--not Shoelace--Store.)
On to a store specializing in athletic shoes. Yes, they had some laces, but, only athletic shoelaces. Again, it made a certain amount of sense: I wouldn't require the same kind of durability and performance that goes into the lace for, say, a basketball shoe, in a lace that was on its way to a quiet evening of Bach and Vivaldi.
Then three high-rent specialty shoe stores where I got the same answer: "Sorry, we don't carry shoelaces. Have you tried Kinney or Thom McAn?"
A shoe store that doesn't carry shoelaces? What's next--an ice cream shop without cones? A burger stand with no fries?
I thought of the old "Saturday Night Live" skit built on the ludicrous concept of a mall boutique that carried nothing but cellophane tape. Except that to the Not Ready For Prime Time Players and the audience, it was a joke.
I checked the phone book, which only heightened my frustration upon finding nothing remotely resembling Shoelace City or Laces R Us.
Who was it that said, "My kingdom for a shoelace"? I think it was Macbeth. Or maybe Imelda Marcos.
Driving through another part of town the next day, in desperation I stopped at yet another Kinney store. Same story as before--right color, wrong length.
But that's when it hit me. If there's anything that can conquer the curse of American overspecialization, it's the blessing of American ingenuity.
So I went back inside to buy the too-long laces, planning to cut them down to size and shore up the loose end with--what else?--cellophane tape.
I victoriously handed the 99-cent purchase to a young woman who had been sorting shoes, glowing with a smile I knew she wouldn't understand. But that smile quickly faded when she gave the laces back to me and said, "I'll go get Allan to ring these up."