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was standing in a locker in the Purlieu Street School on an August
night, when a locker was a hot place to be. I was ten. I would
be attending the Purlieu Street School in the fall, when I started seventh
grade, if the building was finished in time.
The Purlieu Street School was supposed to get the
schoolchildren of Babbington—my home town, the clam capital of America—off
split session once and for all. Split session was a means of fitting
more students into a crowded school system than it ordinarily would hold.
Since the end of World War II, Babbington had been growing so quickly that
people couldn’t adjust their thinking to it, growing “by leaps and bounds,”
as people said then. In developments all over town, carpenters built
houses furiously. The air resounded with their hammering. Families
moved into the new houses as fast as they went up. During the sixth
grade, a new boy or girl seemed to show up in class every week. The
schools were chronically overcrowded, and about once a year the need to
build yet another one took everyone by surprise.
The point when a new school was necessary always
arrived before the point when it was built, and no one recognized the point
of necessity until it was past, although I think that if the computational
power had been available the point of necessity might have been predicted,
since each child was an atom, a mathematical point, in the social scale
of things. Each newborn, each child reaching school age, each child
reaching a certain grade level could have been plotted on a graph as a
point, and if that had been done, then there would certainly have been
a singular child on that graph whose arrival in Babbington, by birth or
immigration, could be predicted to break the back of the system, one child
for whom there would be no floor space at nap time in the Babbington kindergarten,
no slice of meat loaf in the elementary school cafeteria, no locker in
the high school gym unless another new school was built. Alas, in
those days before integrated circuits on semiconductor chips, people had
to rely on pencils, paper, mechanical adding machines, and brains, so the
arrival of the child who broke the back of the system was always a surprise,
and it always precipitated a scramble to build a new school.
In the period between the time when the need for
a new school was finally recognized and the time when that new school actually
opened, space was often so short that the sessions were split: half the
students went to school only in the morning, the other half only in the
afternoon. I spent most of the sixth grade on split session.
An advantage was that I was free to watch “Fantastic Contraptions” on television
every day at noon. This program was hosted by Fred Lucas and Florence
Hill, who had once been fairly successful in the movies, and then, as Freddie
and Flo, had been enormously popular on radio, where they had a weekly
comedy program. The Freddie and Flo Show didn’t make the transition
to television, and for a while their career seemed to be over. I
guess they were lucky to get a job as hosts of a giveaway program in the
obscurity of midday. It may have been Siberia to them, but it was
the perfect time for me, since the noon hour was the gap between school
sessions. On the shaky base of “Fantastic Contraptions” Freddie and
Flo built a new popularity as scatterbrained humorists. Later, as
their popularity peaked, they began appearing in special shows on nighttime
television, too, but they were different people there, and everything they
did at night was cautious, calculated, and aimed at adults. The Flo
and Freddie I admired were not the Flo and Freddie of their nighttime specials,
not the Flo and Freddie of strained artiness and pronounced significance
who are trotted out now and then in television biographies illustrated
with clips from those specials. I preferred the everyday variety—improvisational,
quick, uneven, occasionally silly, always fascinating.
The giveaway program, a feature of the early days
of television, was a type of show in which members of the audience were
rewarded simply for being there. They didn’t have to answer questions
or perform stunts to collect prizes; they just had to show up. That
seems unlikely today, I suppose, but the medium was very young then, and
broadcasters were still uncertain about how to find and build an audience
for it. Some genius must have realized that people would want to
watch other people being given things, and that the viewers would come
back again and again to see more people get gifts, especially if the people
seemed to have done nothing more to deserve these gifts than getting themselves
to the television studio, because it seemed to validate the ultimate in
groundless hopes: that fate might reward a person simply for being alive.
This genius must also have understood that it wouldn’t be a warm, selfless
pleasure at witnessing others’ good fortune that would keep the viewers
tuning in. It would be envy.
At first, the hosts of giveaway shows didn’t do
much more than chat with people for a minute or two before handing over
some dishware or a reclining chair, but soon there arose an informal and
undeclared competition. The people who chatted with the host began
trying to be more interesting than their fellows in the audience: to be
funnier, more foolish, or more intelligent, or even to seem more miserable
than the others. These distinctions were rewarded. A set of
silverware might be added to the dishes, or an ottoman to the lounger.
In time, of course, the format for displaying or demonstrating one’s distinctions
from one’s fellows was codified, formalized, and specified for each show,
and the competitive type of show was born. This eventually led to
the quiz show, but there was an intermediate type of show in which people
had to perform humiliating stunts for cash and prizes. I do not count
these as quiz shows since the contestants weren’t required to know anything.
This type of show enjoys a revival from time to time. Part of its
appeal is that it allows the viewer to cluck and guffaw at the ridiculous
lengths to which his revolting fellow creatures will go, the depths to
which they will stoop, the humiliation they will endure for a few dollars
or a car or a set of pots.
“Fantastic Contraptions” at first lay on the dusky
line between the fading giveaway program and the coming competitive program,
but over the course of its history it moved with the times toward out-and-out
competition. In the first part of the show, amateur inventors would
bring their creations onstage and explain and demonstrate them. This
part was a lot like show-and-tell. One after another, the inventors
presented their gadgets. Then, at the end of the show, each inventor
would return and stand before the audience to receive its applause.
The one who got the most applause won a prize of some sort. I could
watch most of the show before I went to school, but I had to dash outside
and catch the bus, so I couldn’t see the finish, when the winning inventor
was rewarded. For many viewers—not for me, but for many others, I
think—the parade of gadgets and gadget makers would have been boring without
Freddie and Flo, who made it hilarious. They had a running gag of
behaving as if they had just blundered onto this show, unprepared, and
every now and then, when something particularly outrageous occurred, they
would turn and look at each other, asking, silently, “How did we get into
this?” I would laugh at that look every time. The fact that
they could make me laugh at the same thing again and again seemed to me
a remarkable achievement. They also asked funny questions about the
gadgets and maintained a seamless line of banter, apparently improvised,
that frequently wandered far from the matter at hand, leaving the inventor
standing to one side, puzzled and speechless, wondering whether he’d been
forgotten, until, after a circuitous, hilarious, and sometimes quite personal
digression, Flo and Freddie returned, always, unerringly and brilliantly,
to the precise point in the discussion of the invention that had set them
off on their ramble, catching the inventor flat-footed and woolgathering,
to the delight of the audience.
The fantastic contraptions on Flo and Freddie’s
show were mechanical or electromechanical. In every case, a contraption’s
announced purpose was accomplished—if it was accomplished—with a great
deal of clattering and clanking and whizzing and whirring. Wheels
turned, gears spun, armatures moved, bells rang, lights flashed.
Many—it would probably be more accurate to say most—of the machines seemed
to be failures. That is, they failed to accomplish what their inventors
claimed they would. Many others seemed to have no purpose at all,
and their inventors never even claimed any for them. When asked what
the thing they held so proudly was supposed to do, they would just say
something like, “Well, now, Freddie and Flo, I’m not going to tell you
what this here gadget of mine does. I’m going to let you figure that
out for yourself. [Here Freddie and Flo would exchange that look
that got me every time.] What say we just flip this little switch
here on the side and see how she goes?” I could tell, from the moment
an inventor began talking along those lines, that the machine was going
to be one of those that accomplished nothing, one of the ones that hummed
and spun and rattled and clanked itself into a heap of scrap while the
audience roared and Flo and Freddie exchanged looks.
Every machine, whether it had a reasonable purpose
or not, included a lot of redundant or apparently useless parts.
Off to the side a pinwheel would whirl, for example, catching the light,
catching the eye, but contributing nothing at all to the declared purpose
of the machine. I used to wonder, when I watched that distracting
pinwheel spin and flash, what had gone wrong in the mind of the inventor.
What had made him include this useless bit that glittered so dazzlingly,
drawing attention to itself and its uselessness? How had the inventor
allowed himself to get so carried away? Why hadn’t he heard a reasonable
inner voice telling him that enough was enough? When his contraption
was complete and he stood back to admire it, didn’t he notice this vestige
of a lapse in his thinking, this souvenir of a stroll down a mental dead
end? Wasn’t he embarrassed by it? Apparently not. Apparently
he didn’t even notice it, though it stood out like Cyrano’s nose.
I noticed it, everyone else watching the show must have noticed it, and
Freddie and Flo exchanged quips about it, but the inventor seemed entirely
unaware of it, grinning helplessly in his ignorance, unaware of the cause
of all the hilarity. I was embarrassed for him and others like him,
even ashamed for them, standing in front of us with their mistakes showing,
but Flo and Freddie never seemed to take advantage of them. Not at
all. The oddities may have sparked their humorous remarks, but those
remarks were never made at the expense of the inventor. They never
humiliated the poor guy. Instead, they would seize upon the superfluity
in the machine—its worst, most embarrassing mistake—and from it they would
wander off into a rambling anecdote about Flo’s bumbling uncle. This
seemed to me wonderfully generous. Right in front of them they had
the source of many an easy laugh, but they barely used it, just took off
from it, and in doing so actually distracted us from it. Freddie
might arch his enormous eyebrows at the superfluous whatsit, and Flo might
flick it with a long-nailed finger and shrug when it spun uselessly, but
then they would take off, leading us elsewhere, diverting us, making the
useless appendix seem a small and forgivable error. I admired them
for this skill and for the generosity that seemed to underlie it.
|If you are about to begin
your reading of
Where Do You Stop?
here, I urge you to read
first, because they are
parts of the work.
Copyright © 1992 by Eric
Where Do You Stop? is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents,
dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the
author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance
to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted
in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without
permission in writing from the publisher.
First published by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New
York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
Now available in paperback from Picador USA, a division of St. Martin’s
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio
rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail Alec
“Nick” Rafter, the author’s earnest agent.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration
by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue
of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the
aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for
-- The New York Times Book Review
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