A SOUND INVENTION

Thomas Edison accidentally invented the phonograph in 1877 when he was working on another project and was surprised to hear faint voices coming from the spinning telegraphic disc he was testing. Edison was fortunate to have heard the recorded words of his nearby helpers since he was quite hard of hearing.

Recognizing the importance of his discovery he quickly turned out a prototype model, recorded an assistant’s recitation of the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” poem and took the demo device to a Wall Street broker to ask for financial backing. Workers in the building, hearing about Edison’s latest “miracle”, rushed into the broker’s office to hear the world’s very first recording. There was fear of a floor collapse and the crowd was dispersed, but the broker, sensing the potential popularity of the invention agreed to help finance development. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” topped the charts in 1877

Nature had already provided a couple of ways for humans to capture and repeat their speech, but they were limited and unreliable. There was the echo which required a trip to the mountains and usually resulted in only a few repetitions of long “Hellooos!” One could also train a parrot to mimic and repeat what he said, but who would ever dictate a letter to a parrot expecting the bird would repeat it accurately to a typist and without interjected profanity and requests for crackers?

Since no other inventor had even conceived the possibility of recording sound, and if Edison’s deafness had been a little more profound, the phonograph and subsequent sound recording devices might never have been invented. What would the world be like today?

For one thing we would still be watching silent movies accompanied by live theme music on theater organs. Blockbuster musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “White Christmas” would not have been produced. TV shows would all be live, since reruns would require hard-to-read subtitles. Repeated live commercials would be expensive so there would be fewer of them. (What a shame!). Those intrusive, illegal telemarketer calls would all be live and we would be able to swear at real people instead of at obtuse robots before slamming down the phone and returning to our dinners.

We wouldn’t have voice mail or answering machines and when we called corporate headquarters to complain about mishandled accounts, we wouldn’t be told by a mellow-voiced female robot that our call is very important and then be subjected to ten minutes of brassy music and commercials while we waited.

If store owners still wanted to irritate shoppers with raucously loud bad music they would have to hire raucously loud bad singers and musicians. Sometimes I wish Thomas Alva had been a little more deaf that day.

BODY LANGUAGE

“Every little movement has a meaning all its own.” Those are the opening lyrics of an old Broadway show. It might have been about a hula dancer, but it could also apply to our universal body language which reveals our inner attitudes.

We should all learn to interpret body language to be able to detect the innermost feelings of those we’re dealing with. For one thing, it might improve our poker performance.

If you’re discussing politics with a small group try to get the pursed lips count, a subtle sign of disagreement, and you’ll have an estimate of the Republicans and Democrats in your audience. Those that you see tapping their fingertips together are thinking over your ideas, but have yet to come to a decision. They’re probably the independent voters.

If your wife or husband asks who ate the last two donuts, your shoulder shrug, indicating you have no idea, would be less of a fib than a wordy denial. It’s a kind of spasmodic Fifth Amendment plea.

Sometimes we’d rather delete our own body language message like the grimace that creeps across our face when a neighbor asks to borrow our lawn mower. It remains there until he explains he’s having a big family barbecue, his mower just died and his shaggy lawn will be an embarrassment. Your grimace changes to a sympathetic tilt of the head and he gets the mower.

I once helped a young mother by reaching for some top shelf baby food at the supermarket. I noticed the toddler sitting in her shopping cart was giving me the thumbs up sign. Imagine that, I thought, he probably hasn’t learned to talk yet and he’s giving me the body language sign of approval! But then he stuck his thumb in his mouth, so it was probably just a coincidence.

Last week I watched a five-man crew sent out to replace a manhole cover on my street. Body language was loud and clear during the operation. Two men, each displaying a “why me?” scowl began to lift the heavy cover while two others stood watching with hands in pockets. I don’t know what the hands-in-pockets body language signifies. It could mean “So that’s how it’s done” or maybe just “Boy, it’s cold today.”

The fifth man stood at a distance with his hands on his hips which is the usual body language statement for “I am in charge.” (For young girls it might mean “Don’t you think I’m pretty?)

A couple of days later I encountered my friend Pete, who’s far from young and pretty, standing alone on the sidewalk in the middle of town with his hands on his hips. “Pete,” I said, “you’re showing me the ‘I am in charge’ body language gesture. What are you in charge of?”

“I’m not in charge,” he said. “I’m in trouble. My suspenders broke. Have you got a safety pin?”

ACROSS A CROWDED ROOM

I was invited to a cocktail party in the city years ago during my freewheeling youth and soon after my arrival I realized I knew no one there accept the host and his wife who were busy schmoozing with guests and refilling glasses.

I ended up exchanging cliches and platitudes with a fellow in a green seersucker suit who, unfortunately, turned out to be an insurance salesman. He adroitly switched from small talk to actuarial subjects, starting alphabetically with accident policies and annuities. By the time he got to major medical and mortality tables I was looking around for an escape route and planning my exit scene. I’d planned to check my watch and suddenly exclaim, “Oh gosh, I’m late already! Sorry, I’ve got to rush!” And then I’d head for the door and maybe the nearest bar.

That’s when I noticed the attractive girl across the room who was staring at me fixedly and not paying much attention to the host who had just handed her a glass of wine.

I looked again when Seersucker Suit was finishing his presentation on surety bonds. Pretty Girl was still staring, but now she was walking toward me and smiling. I thought this could be the start of something big.

“Please excuse me, ” she said, reaching up to touch shoulder. ( I always liked it when pretty girls did that. ) “That’s quite all right,” I replied, trying to sound like Robert Redford. “What can I do for you, Miss?” She smiled again. What a great smile!

“I’ve been noticing your jacket collar is all twisted and it’s been driving me crazy. Please let me straighten it out. It’s one of my quirks. I hope you don’t mind.”

As she rearranged my collar I was hoping against hope that this was just her charming opening gambit, but then she turned to Seersucker Suit and said, “I think we should be going home now, Dear.”

It wasn’t a total loss. Seersucker Suit gave me his number and I ended up with a great life policy that protected the future of the much prettier girl I eventually married and our children provided I didn’t go in for skydiving or politics.

BRAND NEW ANTIQUES

When I was a boy I asked my mother what our neighbor, old Mr. Pie, did for a living. “He makes antique furniture,” she replied. It took me a while to realize that didn’t make sense.

“But, Mom, antiques are very old, maybe 100 years old. How can he make antiques?”

“There are ways,” she said. “Mrs. Pie explained it to me. You may know, there are worm holes in very old wood. Well Mr. Pie knows how to put them in the furniture he makes and he also knows how to make old-looking varnish.”

I never found out whether Mr. Pie sold antique replicas or counterfeit antiques. He’s long since dead, but just to be safe, I’m not using the nice old gentleman’s real name. If you’ve inherited or bought expensive antique furniture at a New Jersey shop, try to forget you read this.

Years later I discovered I could have been Mr. Pie’s talented journeyman assistant. It seems I have a natural gift for making furniture that looks very old. One day a visitor to our home remarked, “What an interesting rickety old coffee table! Where did you get it? Do you know anything about its history?”

I didn’t want to tell him that I’d made the table two days previously so I said I didn’t know its background and thanked him for admiring it. After he left, my wife exclaimed, ” ‘Rickety’ is right! Coffee and cocktails are going to spill off your wobbly table onto our expensive carpet!”

“As I explained before, Dear,” I said, “I’m going to solve the stability problem by adding a fifth leg and maybe a sixth. You know I enjoy challenges like that.”

Most people recognize the antique resemblance of the furniture I’ve created. One of my spanking new footstools looks like it’s endured a century of neglect and abuse. “What do you think of this bookcase I’ve just made?” I asked my brother-in-law. “I was aiming at Early American.”

“I think you overshot,” he replied. “It looks like it was made before books were invented. I’m thinking ‘Early Iron Age’ or maybe ‘Neanderthal’.” Some brothers-in-law can be quite sarcastic.”

My immediate family members have been more supportive. My son stopped by one day while I was cutting out the components of a Chippendale armoire. Examining my sketch he said something complimentary about my design technique. “Thanks Son,” I said. “But wait till you see the finished assembly. Come back in a couple of hours and I’ll have it all screwed up.”

“I’m sure you will, Dad,” he said.

FUELING AROUND

Remember when we called them “service stations”? That was back in the good old days when service was one of their chief products. I never called them “filling stations”. That seemed more appropriate for dentists’ offices.

You would drive up to the pumps and, while they were topping off your tank at 35 cents per gallon, a team of uniformed attendants swarmed over your car, washing the windshield and checking the oil and antifreeze levels. Before you left you’d get a free monogrammed ice scraper or a ballpoint pen and as many road maps as you needed. Now you can’t even count on getting free air for a sagging tire.

Worse yet, forty-eight states have been duped into allowing self-service gas stations. Only New Jersey and Oregon have seen through the false promise of cheaper gas if we’re willing (Grandmas included) to emerge in all kinds of weather in our Sunday best to wrestle with the stubborn hose, inhale toxic fumes and dispense a very explosive fluid hopefully without spilling any on the ground or on our new wingtips. Oregon has since caved and allowed self-service in rural areas. The New Jersey price per gallon of regular is widely available at less than the recently published average of $2.50 for the 168,000 stations in the USA.

When former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine (2006-2010) suggested we join the ranks of the unenlightened and allow self-service stations, there was a storm of protest and the idea was dropped. ( I’m sure the governor’s chauffer was relieved. ) A 2015 Rutgers University poll revealed that more than 75 percent of New Jersey drivers were against making self-service legal.

But back to the “Good old days”: I remember a golden moment in 1954 when I was trying to survive on my G.I. Bill’s monthly checks while going to college. A buck’s worth of gas would propel my jalopy about 80 miles, and more if I coasted down hills. “One dollar regular please,” I told the pump jockey one day.

“There’s a price war on,” he said. ” It’s down to 18 cents a gallon today. How much do you want?”

“Just a dollar’s worth,” I said, happy to learn my horizon had been widened to 100 miles. Years later during the so-called fuel crisis, I waited in a gas line for an hour, expecting to be gouged – and I was.

If you want to gain some modicum of consumer control, check Google and outfits like GasBuddy.com to find stations with the lowest prices in your area. If most of us patronize them, we might start another price war and maybe even get our windshields washed again.

REMOTELY CONTROLLING

Remote control devices may be modern accomplishments, but remote control itself has been with us since marriage was invented. Women have been using it from Day One. Eve probably said to young Cain and Abel, “Your father’s out by the apple tree. Go tell him it’s time to reset the serpent traps.”

Cleopatra surely sent off many a billet doux on scented papyrus that brought Julius Caesar, and later Marc Antony, racing to her in galleys and chariots with chests full of precious gems.

We can’t blame women for being remote controllers. When it gets right down to it, they’re the ones in charge and they’re usually very busy and can’t be every place at once for goodness sake. They’ve got to get their instructions out somehow.

It was a lot tougher for them in the old days when they had to send messengers scurrying in all directions, but modern technology advances, most likely invented by men, have helped women streamline their communications and solidfy their control of us guys.

Go into any supermarket and you’re sure to find a man in one of the aisles pushing a cart with one hand and holding a cell phone to his ear with the other while apologizing to his wife that he can’t find the exotic spice she needs for her new recipe. He’s also promising to stick to her grocery list and not bring home any more kielbasa or potato chips and dip. The poor guy will have to return the kielbasa and dip and eat a whole bag of chips while driving home.

What happened to my friend Frank, a vice president of a prestigious newspaper, might be entitled “Stop the Meeting, I Have to Get Off”. Frank was presiding over a high level strategy session one afternoon when his secretary came in and said, “Your wife’s on line one.”

“Tell her I’ll call her back after the meeting,” Frank said, looking apologetically at the six execs sitting around the conference table.

“She said it’s an emergency,” the secretary replied, trying to keep her voice down below a shout.”

Frank picked up the phone and the six execs leaned toward him to get in on the excitement. It was a very important meeting but even those can get boring after 15 minutes.

“Frank, you have to come home right away!” his wife cried.

“What’s happening, Diane?” Frank asked, frantic with fear and the six execs leaned in further while exchanging worried glances.

“There’s a mouse in the laundry room! A BIG mouse!”

“Oh, a mouse,” Frank said, greatly relieved. “Just shut the door and I’ll take care of him when I get home.”

“Frank, you have to come home NOW!”

“Dear, I’ll be home in an hour. Can’t it wait? I’m at a very important meeting.”

“Come home now, Frank! I’m not going to sit here on this washing machine for an hour. What if he leaps up at me?”

“She’s calling from on top of the washing machine,” Frank told the execs and then added to the editorial chief who was taking notes, “This is off the record.”

They took a vote and it was unanimous. The execs were all married men and understood the situation. Frank left immediately. He’d suggested they reconvene in his laundry room later, but they voted that down. Being late for dinner would get them in trouble, wifewise.

NIGHT OF THE FLYING MARBLES

My big brother Sonny was the best shooter in town. I mean marble shooter. Kids used to come over from other neighborhoods to challenge him and always left with empty pockets. He cleaned me out regularly, but I would insist later that it was a practice game and we’d been playing “for lends”, a term we sore losers used to get our lost marbles back. You’d get a sharp punch in the arm instead of marbles if the winner wasn’t your big brother and your mom wasn’t your court of appeals.

He was only ten years old then. We called him “Sonny” until he was 18 and wrote us from France not to use that nickname in writing but use his real name, Jim, since his buddies would razz him if they found one of our letters he’d left in a foxhole. What a thing to worry about when angry Germans were aiming machine guns and cannons at him. Jim was shooting in Normandy then, but not marbles.

Ten-year old Sonny kept his marbles in a tin cigar box and every night he counted his winnings and his total inventory. (Click, ping, ping, click, click, ping!). I got used to it watching from my side of the bed. We were learning numbers in the first grade then so I always checked my silent count against his.

One night the tally was very high and it was getting late. We’d already had two warnings from Mom that it was past lights-out and all the clicks and pings were driving her crazy in the next room. Sonny increased his pace but he wasn’t fast enough for Mom. She came in with a stern look on her face, grabbed the loaded cigar box and flung it out the open window. The box and marbles landed silently on the lawn two stories below, but were pretty well scattered. Sonny looked out into the darkness and began to sniffle. I could tell Mom already regretted what she’d done. “Well, that will teach you a lesson,” she said softly. “Tomorrow you can pick them up before you go to school.”

“There won’t be enough time,” Sonny sighed. “There’re 259 marbles spread all over.” (Actually it was 258. I’d snatched a bright green cat’s eye beauty when he wasn’t looking.) “A lot of them will be lost or stolen,” he said.

Fifteen minutes later, Sonny and I in our pajamas and bathrobes and Mom with a flashlight, were down on the lawn running our fingers through the grass. Sonny insisted on keeping count, but we ended when he reached 200. Unbeknownst to him it was really 203. I had three neato purees in my bathrobe pocket. That was my finder’s fee.