Monthly Archives: March 2012

Dishonor Roll: A (Toilet) Paper Trail

In a culture where most things are expanding (including us), quantity over quality has become the benchmark. Supersized meals, giant portions of nutritionless food, are proliferating everywhere, not just in the burger joints. And while televisions have grown in diagonal measurement, sofas and chairs that hold their viewers have increased in every dimension, especially in bulk. Houses are larger, take up more land area and hold fewer people; cars also have expanded their outer boundaries, yet diminished their interior space – a mathematical improbability. In America, bigger is always better, right? Beds have, in my lifetime, gone from single to double to queen to king. Bathrooms, too, have become larger and have gone from one to, sometimes, five in a household.

But there is one thing, a more important thing, that has noticeably shrunk: toilet paper. How do I know this? It is not that I measure the rolls. I don’t need to, because I have the tell: very old, institutional toilet paper dispensers made by the Scott Paper Company. The original patent for the Rolled Paper Holder was issued in 1931, an Art Deco-designed promotional product that most likely functioned the same way that the Gillette Company razor did: give away the razor, make a fortune on the blades.

Fifty years later, I found them in thrift shops and attached them to the walls of my bathrooms because I liked them for their institutional simplicity and sturdiness. But the gimmicky best part was their operation. There was no roller, per se; but in its place, two stationary arms with short, round receptacles to hold the roll. A small button behind the paper roll, when depressed, released the one hinged side to allow removal and replacement of the roll, and then, with a click, locked it back into place. Clever, almost Machine Age. I remember that, well into the 1990s, there were variations of how well the toilet paper rolls fit on the device, depending on brands. (Sorry, Scott, but we didn’t stay loyal all the time.) Mostly, the rolls would fit perfectly within the 4.5” space allotted; however, very occasionally, there were rolls that were ever so slightly wider, probably by microns. Those rolls would shred at the edges, rubbing the holder-arms as the paper would unfurl, dropping papery dustings like snowflakes from both sides of the holder. Toilet paper as visual entertainment.

That diversion stopped some time ago, and now it is an impossibility since most current paper rolls, when mounted on the device, barely stay on the holder. The width of the roll and its paper have diminished so much that it is possible to change rolls without pushing the release button to do so. There must be a good quarter- to half-inch gap between roll and roll holder. This shrinkage happened gradually, of course. And at first it was imperceptible; just the telltale snow-dusting no longer occurring. But the gap soon became apparent, and now it is almost laughable how small and child-like the rolls of paper look in comparison to the hefty, industrial-sized Scott Paper holder. The undersized rolls wobble and tumble from their perch, ill-fitted as they are.

Oh, I understand the significance and approve of fewer forests being destroyed for the sake of us wiping our asses. And it is not about size mattering, because, as stated above, au contraire. But here is an instance where quantity and quality (thickness in every measurement) have diminished simultaneously, as it has become familiar to expect just the quantity to expand, as price tends to increase – I have discovered a new theorem in something as ubiquitous as toilet paper.

And, too, whenever you put something old and decently made up against something new, you are bound to experience disappointment. Which I did, since I have a very old roll of paper in one of those goofy doll-covers situated “decoratively” on the toilet tank, for guests only. Just so you know, I inherited it. Check it out for yourself.

There used to be a sense of pride about the product a company attached its name to. But, of course, now it is not the product that builds the name, it is the name that builds name-recognition; the product is inconsequential. So here I sit (don’t ask where) fixated on the handsome, built-to-last toilet paper dispenser that can no longer serve its purpose because of shrunken paper rolls. It doesn’t seem right that this cast metal, patented design – and its delightfully inventive “on-off” switch – should be rendered disposable because of diminishing returns on rolls of tissue. There once was a placeness to the pairing of the paper and its support, made for each other, so to speak, but now, sadly, drifting apart in a shrinking economy.

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Becoming a Word

At family events, when there was too much swirling activity and raised voices, too many bodies bumping up against each other in the kitchen, way too many kids spinning out of control, my grandmother would say, in her thick accent, that the roiling, rambunctious scene was a “kesselgarten.” Growing up, I always thought that this was either a Yiddish term of misty and indefinite origin, or another of those Yiddish/Russian/Ukraine/shtetl hybrid things that she often uttered, to the confusion of even her husband, who had been raised in the same part of the world but in the city, not the countryside. Then, sometime later, I learned that this word, “kesselgarten,” actually was derived from Castle Garden, the place in New York where immigrants disembarked in the United States before Ellis Island became that intake destination. So, the turmoil, emotions and energy of Castle Garden were boiled down to an essence and converted from a specific place to a generalized generic term, which in turn bestowed a newly applied placeness to whichever location it was now used to describe. Castle Garden, long forgotten, had become “kesselgarten,” a sort of portmanteau word with a life of its own. (In fact, “kesselgarten” must have already attained that separate status even by the time my grandmother emigrated here, because she never set foot in Castle Garden, having landed somewhere else. And, interestingly, there never was a word or phrase like this generated by the experience of being in Ellis Island.)

There are locations so full of placeness that they have become, over time, terms of specific meaning that are long divorced from connection with their geographical origin but which have retained, have even heightened, the inherent characteristic that made those locations memorable.

Consider: How often is the word “bedlam” used to describe a mass, unorganized, unruly gathering or celebration? How many know that the origin of this handy, weighted word  (perhaps overused by sportscasters to describe fan hysteria) comes from a place, Bedlam, once a notorious institution for the insane in London. The awful, palpable placeness of Bedlam not only overcame any link to its own origin – it is itself a corruption of Bethlehem, a much more benign association – but became a much-used, standalone noun and adjective.

Frankly, not too many other real places that have become lower-case descriptors come to mind – not in all the centuries that we humans have been giving names to locations and talking and writing about them. There’s Waterloo – Napoleon’s place of failure – that now is used to denote anyone’s downfall, but it’s hard to think of other such place-based incidents that have taken the same path. Watergate has not become a noun, verb or adjective, but the latter part of it – “gate” – is now attached by eager-to-pigeonhole media as a convenient suffix to instantly denote a scandal: Irangate, Bonusgate, Travelgate and so on. 

More often, but not all that more often, mythology is the source, but in the strangest of ways: People create a fictional place needed to exist to satisfy the needs of their belief system – Heaven and Hell and Eden, in the Judeo-Christian canon, for example, or Paradise – then, over time, that fabricated reality becomes a generalized noun or adjective, so that “heavenly” has little to do with Heaven, but rather with something very nice, and “hellish” can mean simply horrific, not directly related to the place that Satan is said to rule. Scylla and Charybdis, of Greek mythology, are the original “between a rock and a hard place,” but, again, there are not many other such places-become-words. Indeed, often it is an object in a place that takes on new lexicon life, not the place itself. Troy has no meaning beyond itself; Trojan horse does, though.

Why do some places become immortalized as dictionary entries and others not? Often, perhaps usually, the ones that do make it are places with extreme pleasurable or painful placeness – but Hiroshima has not, nor has Ground Zero, Gettysburg or Chernobyl. Killing Fields has, to some extent, but what others? This transmigration also seems to need a personalized aspect – the victims of Bedlam, the individual lost in Castle Garden – but, there, too, it is not widely applied. The most personalized place of universal and symbolic grief and myth, Calvary, has no application beyond its geographical existence. Obviously, there is no forcing of this sort of thing, no merchandising or packaging it, to make it so. It either happens or it doesn’t. Frankly, the why this/not that defies explanation, possibly even analysis.

What does seem clear, though, is that our current world is home to almost no places with undeniable placeness sufficient to become that part of our collective mythology or cultural ethos that demands inclusion into our language to explain what it is we are and do. We seem to live in places that do not reflect us, or us them; they are not places that tap into our souls or dreams, so that by their mere mention, in a kind of shorthand, we understand the world and each other more and better. It’s a paucity of language, it’s a bankruptcy of placeness, it’s a continuing sign of the decay of our ability to frame and tell stories and create meaningful conventions. When everything and everywhere is so accessible and commonplace and similar, nothing is colorful, nowhere signifies and metaphor dies.

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Come On and Take a Free Ride

Sometimes when our transit system gets bogged down and people are made to wait for an unreasonable length of time, the vehicle that shows up next has a no-charge policy. This courtesy, or apology, is expressed by the driver folding up a transfer ticket and shoving it halfway into the token slot. Such an act is not only a way of blocking payment but, in another sense, it is a tiny white flag displayed at the front of the bus – a sign of surrender to the angry waiting mobs, briefcases and lunch bags in hand. I think it is nice; a way of asking forgiveness and giving a free ride to the bus-weary.

Whenever this gesture occurs, as it did recently, I am reminded of the massive transit strike that embattled SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) about 14 years ago. It lasted more than 40 days (like the flood) and it stranded people, strained relationships across the entire political spectrum and stained the reputation of regional transit, which people were annoyed with from the get-go. It was a pivotal moment for everyone, mostly for SEPTA. When mediation finally ended the stand-off, SEPTA offered free rides on the entire system for a couple of days.

This was nothing to sneeze at. Let’s take a look at the possibilities: regional rail, elevated line, subway, trolleys, a high-speed rail line, trackless trolleys, buses and jitneys. SEPTA is one of just two U.S. transit companies that provide all of the five major transit conveyances, the other is Boston’s MBTA. SEPTA’s reach is within five counties in Pennsylvania and it connects to two neighbor-states.

We decided to take advantage of the opportunity but had only one day to explore and chose to go to a place we had never been before, a far-flung town to the west: West Chester, Pa. It is about thirty miles from Philadelphia and only nine miles from the Delaware state line. We wanted to ride as many different vehicles through usually rate-changing zones as we could, experiencing new territories that we would have no other reason to explore. We mapped out our route and as Peter Pan might announce, “Away we go!”

Our first leg was on a familiar bus route that took us a couple of miles to a transfer-station stop, one of several hubs where buses and sometimes trains unite. There, we boarded a number 124 bus headed for the King of Prussia Mall, a 30-minute ride on expressway, county roads and a state route which deposited us behind the behemoth mall at its transit center – basically, a parking lot turn-around – to await our next leg. This was a totally unexpected jitney-style bus, number 92, the type you get shuttled about in when you pick up/drop off a rental car at an airport. Being in the city, the only time you see buses this small is when they belong to private residential towers or retirement homes. It felt like a private coach and we had a nice conversation with the driver.

Let’s just say, at this point, that there can be a big difference between drivers of city transit and drivers of suburban transit, in terms of chattiness. I am always friendly with city transit employees, but many people are not. And, since the city drivers need full concentration to maneuver through relentless traffic, they will likely not pay much attention to the throngs on their buses. But put a driver out in the sticks with a small bus and very few passengers and, suddenly, you have a new best friend or, rather, a country store on wheels. It can be refreshing or annoying depending on your state of mind. At least it was different, and it was experience we were seeking.

The mini-bus took us to our destination in about an hour’s time, we walked and explored the foreign territory and then, when ready, we hopped back on the next shuttle bus for our return. But this time we went only as far as the town of Paoli, about midway through the bus route. This landed us at the regional rail station and we hopped a train, riding through the renowned Main Line – famous for the horsey set of bluebloods that settled as landowners, the rail lines having been built to service them and to create new housing.

We stayed on the train, passing through all the communities – Villanova, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, each with its own college or university – and continuing through into the outer rings of city neighborhoods, each successive one shrinking in terms of its open space. Although, at some point, the open space started to reappear in the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods where houses had been removed like bad teeth or had burned to the ground. After twenty-some miles and about 50 minutes, we disembarked in downtown Philadelphia and spent some time there before catching our last leg, our bus home, landing us one block from our house.

If someone else had wanted to sample all the different track-based possibilities, that would have been fun to organize. But the fact is, we have used almost all of them many times and for many purposes. This wasn’t exactly PeeWee’s Big Adventure, but it was another taste of public transportation. This self-designed day trip took us to new places and allowed us to see old places from different angles. There is, for me, excitement in finding my way without a car, using a miraculous infrastructure of systems – the placeness of public conveyance. It’s what we did the first time we all visited Europe and found the self-satisfaction of wayfinding. Either there or here, there is exhilaration in reading maps and schedules and traveling your way through them. Discovery is part of the deal.


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Going Places, Possibly Bodmin

There is a part of me – a big part, actually – that wants to spend my next vacation time in Portwenn, drawn as I am to its picturesque and tranquil cove embraced on three sides by cliffs and plumpy hills, some of which have on them a definition-of-cute British town with narrow, twisty, one-lane roads and quaint shops and stone cottages, and on others green, loamy pastures with grazing sheep and cows. From atop the high embankments, one can spy the fishing boats rocking at high tide in the blue-water bay, and beyond, the ocean off the rocky Cornwall coast.

I could, right now, get on a flight that would take me to another flight that would take me to a car that would take me to this place. I would get there and see everything just described, but I would be touching it, and smelling it, and hearing it. And I would be there. Except, I would not be in Portwenn – I would be in Port Isaac. Because there is no Portwenn, or, at least, not one I can visit, physically. Portwenn is the fictional borough where my current favorite TV show, Doc Martin, is set, but it is Port Isaac that provides the real stones and mortar for it. 

So, I could go there, and see the house where, in the show, Doctor Ellingham lives and practices, and wander down to the store that, in the show, stands in for Mrs. Tishell’s pharmacy, or over to the pub that, in the show, is called The Parrot. I could make my way to all these places, and see them in the “flesh,” and have my photo taken standing in front of them, maybe even assuming and mocking the stiff-backed and scowling stance of the good Doc (minus the blue bespoke suit, and the omnipresent adorable but unwanted dog). I could do all these things, and yet I would not be in Portwenn, because such places – and such placeness – is a state of mind. In fact, the being there, in Port Isaac, might even ruin the fondness I have for Portwenn, because it would not have the part of the place that makes it special for me, which is the part that I bring to the fictional enterprise – my imagination, as well as my past – and the part that the show brings to me – the people who populate the town.

The Portwenn of my mind, which is given its jumping-off point by the series, fills in the blanks: what’s behind those house- and storefronts that are, in the show, simply walked by; what Pauline and Auntie Joan and the others do when I am not in their presence, and how I would interact with them, and if we would be friends; what it would be like to live there, in a community that would embrace me, and suit me. 

Port Isaac is, of course, a place; but it is Portwenn where placeness resides. So, let me dwell there, for 40-some minutes at a time, and not have “reality” taint the experience. It is the same reasoning – if reason has anything to do with such delusion – that keeps me from going to Portmeirion, Wales, because I know I will not bump into No. 6 in what was the setting for The Prisoner’s Village; or Roslyn, Washington, because, despite its exact physical resemblance (there is even a place called The Brick), it is not Northern Exposure’s Cicely, Alaska; or Unionville, Ontario, because, cute as it might be, it will never be as wondrously cute as the Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow, to which it donated its terrain. 

One may go to these locations, but one will not find the places nor the element that often makes the places the things we fall in love with: the people of those places. (Although one will find oodles of tourists, looking for those people.) It is an odd thing: You will be in the real-world spot, but it will seem less real, more two-dimensional, more like a photograph than the filmed view of it does. The real and the fiction switch places; you will want to ask to see these towns’ and villages’ ID papers, because they will look like places you know, but there will be something absent behind the eyes. It will seem too big or too small, or too wide, or full of too much detail that does not lend itself to personalization and interpretation. It is what it is, not what you thought it was. To go to see these places might be almost as ruinous as meeting the actors who play the characters who live in these fictitious locales – disappointment is guaranteed.

These towns, imagined as they are, have had a strong influence on this viewer, for, because of them, I have fallen in love with (at least the idea of) small, quirky towns, where before I was a devout city-dweller. Blame Waking Ned Devine and Local Hero, too. No actual town is as wonderful as any in these shows or films, but, because I have put myself in situations in which I have had a chance to look, I have found a place that, I believe, is my Portwenn, my Cicely … and, in its way, very close to them, in style, spirit and idiosyncrasy. I have always been particularly impressionable when it comes to my addiction to screened fiction, on TV, in the movies, on the computer. In many ways, good things have come out of my couch-potato-ness. This is one. What I consider the world I need has changed. What I consider the placeness I most react to has altered. With a growing empathy to all things has come this new relationship with place as reflection of and influence on me. I did not know the name to give this new feeling, but now, having spent 31 episodes in Portwenn, I do. I have ceased to be a tosser; I have gone Bodmin. 

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