By Susan Daitch
In the city there are trails of discarded three-dollar umbrellas. They blow into tangles when they meet one another, black nylon (though maybe it’s not nylon, but something even more synthetic, of more recent vintage than the nylon, say, of the Nixon era) and metal spokes like so many Y’s, V’s, and palsied X’s. The trails mark wind patterns down avenues, around corners, eddying in piles along curbs. Umbrellas used to be something you wouldn’t want to lose, not so very easily replaced for pocket change. A common umbrella used to be something that didn’t fold up, that might sport a handle of wood, ivory, Bakelite plastic in a variety of colors and molded finger impressions. A friend’s father, a veteran of Utah Beach, told him he should never buy an umbrella. You go to the Lost and Found of a fine department store, he was advised, and say you lost your umbrella. But what do you reply when the attendant asks you to describe it? Black, you answer. That’s all you need to say and you’ll have your pick. How else do the disposables fall short? They can’t be deployed as a weapon like the umbrella fitted out to be a pellet gun that injected ricin poison into the leg of a Bulgarian dissident in the case of the 1978 London brolly murder. But the modern ephemeral models have their uses. A boy collected a couple of those pterodactyl-like disposable umbrella skeletons, the sort of fossils whose joints suggested the gait of birds, not lizards, and the nature of dinosaurs had to be entirely reconsidered, that kind. He chose the least damaged, the most functional, cut away the remaining nylon webbing, festooned the metal rods with LED lights, and installed it above his bed. It spun asymmetrically in the breeze, like an animated miniature version of the Milky Way.
Accent training for those employed in the Customer Care divisions of many corporations based in the United States is a booming business and a reasonable career choice for an accent coach. Customer Care is located elsewhere, and those who man the phones must sound like they’re down the hall when, in fact, they’re half a world away. Getting rid of high Bollywood chirps or Russian hmms… is part of employee training. Take up smoking to lower your pitch. You must sound like Cindy or Sharon or Ted. It’s like putting on a uniform, a uniform not of clothing, but of voice. A man calling from Los Angeles must imagine he’s speaking to a technical specialist in Atlanta or Chicago. “I can help you with that. No problem, sir.” A hard-won job that pays relatively well and can support her family — if she loses it, the result will be perilous, even homelessness, so she remembers to flatten her A’s. Perhaps he imagines she is, in fact, in Bangalore, samosas bought on the street, now cooling in a corner of her cubical, if she has one, and she imagines him, as he grows angrier with her inability to solve his problems, drinking cold martinis made from Bombay Gin, Queen Victoria on the label, when in fact both are crumpling the tissue paper wrapping that came with a Dunkin’ Donut, a transparent square, a thing of delicacy hard to produce during the Mughal Empire or the Jefferson presidency, but the once potentially valuable ephemera is now crunched into a ball of frustration.
Surveillance scandals and all the data that they indicate is collected and stored mean, you might hope, that for all the industrious collectors, somewhere there are Bartlebys. If all the data suddenly took paper form, we would be buried. There is that much of it. Despite spiders programmed to send up a flare when certain words are found, who decides what constitutes a national security risk and what configurations of speech are useless? There is the possibility that some words are codes and not at all what they ordinarily signify. Code breakers look for patterns. The amount of data is infinite.
On the other end of the spectrum are mappers who look for the evolutionary dead ends, the useless and discarded words, syntax, grammar, the fade-outs which were less well adapted, like species with the wrong coloration or slower reflexes. Crunch, gobbled up, gone. N-grams, mining millions of sources, chart the architecture of usage producing mountains and valleys of data in traditional graph format. Look at the n-grams for Frankenstein, Einstein, and Sherlock Holmes. Though levels vary, the dips and accelerations of their linguistic genomes are surprisingly parallel. Frankenstein enters the language around 1818, Sherlock Holmes at 1887, Albert Einstein at 1916, and his numbers are always lower, apart from a period from approximately 1950 through 1974, at which time Nixon resigns, and Frankenstein outpaces the other two by a long shot, an advantage he maintains to this day. Frankenstein, referring both to the monster and his creator, a symbol of desire to stitch and hot-glue-gun together an adult human, to bypass the usual methods for creating a person, symbol of monstrosity, of revenge gone haywire, creation of Mary Shelley, born out of a desire to tell a ghost story to her husband and his friends. But for the busy spiders of security agencies, the mention of the name could be a code for an explosive device of equally improvisatory origins. Data piles up. How do you parse all this? Even the spiders finally throw up their legs and squeak, I prefer not to.
A subway train is hurling down the tunnel; the mass transit workers flash their lights, blow their whistles, they’re looking down the tracks, but we on the platform don’t yet see the train. They signal for the now visible train to proceed, and step into aedicules, shallow black depressions surrounded by white tile. How close are they to the train as it pulls in to discharge and accept passengers? A matter of inches, less than a finger length, no clearance to lift a hand to scratch your nose. Until the train pulls out again, they absolutely cannot move. On the train a girl looks out the window, and a hidden worker makes a face at her, tongue out, eyes crossed, a clown face, silly, but also in its own way kind of frightening. Why does he choose to make that ghoulish face instead of smiling or waving? The brake is released, the subway leaves the station, and each man in unison steps out of his aedicule, as if they’re on a stage. The man closest to where we stood, in his orange vest and hard hat tilted at a jaunty angle, steps over a runnel of drainage, flattened cans, dented plastic bottles, umbrella skeletons, and papers to join other workers, and they disappear down the tunnel, into the underground arteries that link one borough to the next.
In His Girl Friday (1940, directed by Howard Hawks), Hildy Johnson, newspaper reporter (Rosalind Russell wearing a suit that looks as if it were cut from an early Frank Stella painting), interviews the accused murderer, Earl Williams, in his jail cell. Does he want a cigarette? No, he doesn’t smoke, bald nervous Earl. She gives it to him anyway. Then she hits on the magic aphorism: production for use. That’s it, production for use! If you have a gun in your hand, the idea is, you fire it. That’s what it’s for. It’s the era of mugs having their mug shots taken wearing chapeaux, bow ties, holding cigarettes, looking at the camera as if posing for pictures meant to convey glamour and seduction, and Walter Burns, her editor, boss, and ex-husband, will say put Hitler in the funny pages when the Earl Williams story proves a front-page scoop. Her theory does nothing for Earl’s defense, he is to be hanged at seven a.m., but it’s an idea that makes sense to both of them, and explains what would appear to have been a destructive and irrational use of firearms. A messenger arrives in the last scene holding an open umbrella at the threshold of the pressroom. It doesn’t fit through the door, though he tries to keep walking, and as he treads in place, it finally dawns on the messenger that it isn’t raining inside. He can and does shut his umbrella before he crosses the threshold to deliver his message from the governor. The umbrella folds neatly, it is a happy ending, the crooked politicians probably get what’s coming to them, though there is no absolute guarantee of this outcome. The love story held at arm’s length behind the shenanigans of editor, writers, mayor, and so on, now winds up the tale. As promises of weddings and honeymoons, the stuff of ultimate happy endings, are discussed, it seems, once again, a matter of applying what you have until nothing more remains unused.
Susan Daitch is the author of three novels, L.C., The Colorist, and Paper Conspiracies, and Storytown, a collection of short fiction. She has published short stories and essays in Guernica, The Barcelona Review, Tablet, TriQuarterly, Slice magazine, The Collagist, and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowships and grants from the Vogelstein Foundation. More information about her work can be found at www.susandaitch.com.