Amidst all the chatter over immigration, gay marriage, and caucuses, we will now provide The Corner readers with a selection from Florence King’s beloved “The Misanthrope’s Corner” column. This April 21, 1997 gem finds Miss King taking on superstore “Official Greeters” and toaster warnings. Enjoy. And, of course, know that you can get Miss King’s entire Oeuvre Misanthrope in STET, Damnit, available here.
IT all started when I went to the mall to buy a new toaster. It should have been a day off, which in my case means not writing about America, not taking notes on America, not thinking about America. But such days don’t exist. I got a column out of my day off, and here it is.
Shopping at the big discount chains is a painful experience for me because I’m scared of the Official Greeters, especially the one in the wheelchair. As soon as she sees you come in, she revs up and zooms in on you, shrieking, “How can I help you have a fun-filled shopping experience?” They had her in a TV ad once, racing through the aisles and burbling, “I love people! I love people! I just love people!” Having been stalked by irony all my life, I know an omen when I see one. If there’s the slightest chance of someone being run over by a people-loving disabled American, it’s a dead cert to be me.
My first task was getting into the store without being seen by the cadre of Official Greeters. There’s a way to do this. Lighting a cigarette, I stood outside the door smoking until I saw a covey of Fam Vals approach: distracted parents, three or four kids, everybody dropping things and talking at once. If there’s one thing OGs love even more than human beings it’s kids, so I got behind the Fam Vals and surged in with them. It worked. As soon as the OG on duty saw the munchkins she shrieked, “Hiya, fellas!” and immediately engulfed them, allowing me to sneak past on my little cat feet.
I hadn’t bought a toaster for twenty years so I was unprepared for the new four-slot models (one even had six) that had come on the market since then. Fam Vals again: the bigger the toasters, the better we feel about ourselves. Finally I found a two-slotter and bought it.
Back home, I plugged it in and was about to throw the packing away when I noticed the “Use and Care Guide.” I started reading it, and in minutes I was underlining my favorite passages and making marginal notes in typical workaday fashion.
It opens with “WARNING: A risk of fire and electrical shock exists in all electrical appliances and may cause personal injury or death.” Next comes “IMPORTANT SAFEGUARDS: When using electrical appliances, basic safety precautions should always be followed to reduce the risk of fire, electric shock, and injury to persons, including the following.”
What follows is a list of 17 Dos, Don’ts, precautions, safeguards, warnings, and dire caveats that leave nothing to the imagination, common sense, or sanity itself. Not even those unrivaled connoisseurs of peril, Jewish mothers and grandmothers of all stripes, could come up with a list like this. Things happen here that could happen only in a “Pink Panther” movie.
“Do not use appliance except as intended.”
“Do not use outdoors or while standing in a damp area.”
“Do not place on or near hot gas or electric burner, or in a heated oven.”
“Do not place any part of this toaster under water or other liquid.”
“Do not insert over-sized foods, metal foil packages, or metal utensils into the toaster.”
“Do not clean with metal scouring pads. Pieces can break off the pad and touch electrical parts creating a risk of electrical shock.”
“Use toaster in an open area with 4-6 inches air space above and on all sides for air circulation. A fire may occur if toaster is covered or touching flammable materials including curtains, draperies, towels, walls, and toaster covers.”
“Failure to clean crumb tray may result in a risk of fire.”
Is Paris burning? You bet; Inspector Clouseau has done with one toaster what von Choltitz failed to do with a whole German army.
Meanwhile, non-klutzy toast lovers are stymied by two SAFEGUARDS that never before crossed their minds: “Do not use appliance unattended” and “Unplug from outlet when not in use.” You don’t really have to go to the bathroom, it’s all in your mind; just stand there and watch the toaster toast and everything will be all right as long as you remember to unplug it before going downstairs to get the mail.
At this point the guide dissolves in repetitive babble. SAFEGUARDS is followed by a CAUTION about extension cords, which “may be used if care is exercised in their use. If an extension cord is required, special care and caution is [sic] necessary.” CAUTION is followed by another WARNING (“Unplug before cleaning. . . . Do not immerse in water”), followed by a four-point CAUTION, only two of which are new. One says: “Avoid using items with ‘runny’ frosting, fillings, icings, or cheese. This includes pre-buttered foods. When these substances melt, they cause a sticky build-up and may result in a risk of fire.” The other new CAUTION says, “Do not physically hold down the toast lever,” which, when combined with “Do not operate unattended,” raises the distinct possibility that there are people in this world who get their kicks from hanging around toasters.
The purpose of this frenzied flyer is to protect the manufacturer against lawsuits, but there’s more to it. The surface of American craziness is only the beginning; the really good stuff is found underneath. Looking at my day off as a whole, I would venture to say that there would be no litigiousness or Official Greeters if we had real Family Values, instead of the fake kind that hangs over everything from shopping malls to focus groups like a damp shroud.
I mean, for example, grandmothers who did not dye their hair and date, but lived with their married daughters and enlivened breakfast with: “If you stick a fork in that toaster you’ll be burned to a crisp. There’ll be nothing left of you except a little pile of ashes and everybody will say, ‘Do you remember that poor little girl who electrocuted herself?’”
That’s called a “loving warning,” and if you grow up hearing them you won’t have to sue people or hug strangers to get attention or prove that somebody cares.