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NO WONDER PEOPLE ARE CRABBY : Thoughts on a 20th Century Limited by Irritating Little Things

June 21, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN

I'll tell you what's really nasty about life in the '80s. It's the little things. Particularly when they are sold to us as improvements.

Take the banks. Whenever we get a brochure announcing a new customer service, we can be sure that it's really a withdrawal of service. A couple of years ago, my bank wanted to "store" my checks for me every month--that is, not send them to me so that I could square my bankbook and check their arithmetic. Gee, what a convenience.

Now, my bank is talking about charging a fee for each use of their automatic-teller machines. The minute this happens, I'm switching to a bank that hires people. It was a mistake to get away from them.

Another nasty advance comes from the phone companies. It is called "call-waiting." It is supposed to keep us from missing important calls. Its real appeal is that it gives us the right to put people on hold, the way they do in big offices.

Being put on hold by one's wife gives a man plenty to talk about when she comes on the line again. Still, if she doesn't put you on hold, what happens? The second caller only gets a ring--no busy signal. So the second caller gives up, assuming no one is home. Gotcha! What I want for Father's Day this year is no more call-waiting.

Speaking of being put on hold, I recently heard a radio commercial for a company that specializes in telephone commercials--messages to be beamed to the home caller while he's waiting for Ms. Anderson to come back to the phone. These are not necessarily commercials for the company you're calling, either.

This is noise-pollution masquerading as information. No wonder people are so crabby these days. They never get a moment of silence all day long in which to collect their thoughts. The beat goes on, and on, and on.

And what a stupid beat it is. Like that "Rocky"-type music under the evening news. As if this made tonight's car crash in Arcadia any different from last night's! Going for that same little blip of false energy, TV always cuts to the commercial rather than fading to it, and punches up the sound under the commercial by three notches.

We have become so used to these tiny assaults on our consciousness that we think we don't notice them, but deep down in the physiology they get registered. Why are Americans cynical in the 1980s? Why can't American audiences keep their minds on anything? Because for years we've been hounded by unimportant messages that claimed to carry weight.

Another mini-bane of the 1980s is false intimacy. I don't really mind when the waiter introduces himself as Bruce, but in some places these days they make the customer do it.

Check this out: I'm ordering a sandwich at a noisy health-food takeout restaurant a couple of months ago in Horton Plaza, San Diego.

"Name?" says the order taker.


"I mean your first name."

"What do you care?"

"That's how we announce the orders."

Remember, it's noon, and this place is really noisy. So for the next 15 minutes I keep reporting to the counter, only to told that that they didn't announce Dan's order just then over the loudspeaker, but Ann's order, or Sam's order.

The name is Sullivan and bring me my sandwich, Bruce.

That restaurant at least served real cream. The nastiest thing about the 1980s--and an excellent symbol of everything that's convenient and phony about our civilization--is powdered cream, or as it is known on some labels, non-dairy whitener .

I have long suspected that this stuff is made by grinding up the discardable plastic spoons that are used to stir it into one's coffee. It's particularly nasty when sealed into damp little squares that you try to open with one hand, spilling the powder on your blue blazer and the coffee on your pants.

Non-dairy whitener is the classic modern synthetic. It tastes like nothing, it is bad for you, and it doesn't cool the coffee, so that you end up burning your mouth anyway. The most prestigious theater in Orange County actually serves this stuff at intermission, little realizing the signal it is sending out about its sensibility.

If they get rid of powdered cream, I may accept the 20th Century.

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