Sunday, May 31, 2009
This is a tale of two cities, and an electric kettle. One might perhaps say with more accuracy that it is about two countries, or two cultures, rather than cities, but it is definitely about a kettle.
I preface the tale with mention of a satirical piece written by British comedian John Cleese, which like many people around the world I recently received, forwarded in an email from a friend. Britain is Repossessing the U.S.A. stated that the Queen was revoking American independence because of the abject failure of the United States to find itself half-decent presidents. Political institutions would be dissolved, and the British Prime Minister would appoint a Governor for America.
There would be other effects too, more keenly felt by average Americans. They would henceforth refrain from shooting each other to settle spats, jettison baseball and American football for cricket and soccer, drink tea (in proper cups and saucers), return the letter “u” to words such as colour, and learn how to pronounce aluminium.
It was very funny, as one would expect from John Cleese. But the notion underpinning it - perfectly serious as with much good humour - is the ongoing sideshow of a United States haplessly flailing, falling into ever deeper political and economic mush, while abnegating the very human rights and values it once purported to cherish.
Cleese’s genteel rant underlined something further too, however, which is how different two leading nations of the English-speaking world - one a colony of the other only a little over two centuries back - truly are. That called to mind a tale of mine from a number of years ago, which I now offer to readers in a refreshed, refurbished, revitalised, retitled and somewhat shorter form.
The night before I left London, my friend Tom telephoned from Los Angeles with a special request: could I bring them back an electric kettle? He explained that Americans tend to boil water on a stove, or use a coffee-making or home cappuccino machine, and so electric kettles can be very expensive, if you can find one in the first place.
I departed into a liver-spotted grey morning, and stopped off at one of those London shops with windows displaying everything from shopsoiled chamber pots to vibrators made in Taiwan. A stooped old man emanated from the shadowy recesses, and I explained I was flying to the United States that afternoon and wanted to buy a kettle. After first marvelling with respectful terror upon the miracle of powered flight, this latter-day Steptoe recommended a particular kettle, ‘retailing at 20 pahn’.
I noted it lacked a wall plug. For reasons known only to the English - could this, like the long-persisted-with afternoon closing of pubs, be some hangover from the Blitz? - British electrical appliances are sold with cables bared to the copper wiring. To my mind, this national characteristic was as odd as the American eschewal of the kettle. Of course, for a ‘small extra fee, guv’, the salesperson will wire on the plug for you, on the spot, and he did.
On the flight I sat beside a sixtysomething English couple on their way to San Diego, and retirement in a motorised home. They enthused at length upon the medicinal digestive properties of papaya seeds. Seven, the man assured me, and precisely that number only, would cure any stomach ailment. I noted it, and have since attempted to eat seven papaya seeds each day, even if my digestion remains stubbornly intermittent.
Tom and Alison picked me up at LAX and whisked me back to their West Hollywood condo, eager to try out the new kettle. But then, disappointment. It took twenty minutes for the water to boil. Their patented US adaptor did not work properly with the British plug. We all looked at each other and sighed. There was nothing for it: we would have to seek expert help.
Americans have enormous problems understanding English spoken by non-Americans. The differences go much deeper than mere accent, vocabulary and idiom, into stress, intonation, rhythm. Americans often sing-song in time-worn patterns, typically "Hello, how are you.. I'm fine, how are you?" Outsiders who do not have the hang of this sing-song may be misunderstood, even if they are speaking the very same words as the locals. Then there is the plain ignorance many Americans have of anything which lies beyond the Valley, the Hudson, the lower forty, the end of the block. This was highlighted by a telephone conversation which Tom recounted he had with a journalist working for a prestigious national magazine in New York.
'You're from... now where'd you say you're from?' she asked.
'England,' Tom replied.
'Cool. Say, do they speak English there?'
Seeking a new adaptor for the English kettle, we encountered predictable linguistic hurdles. It is axiomatic that an entire generation of Americans cannot speak a sentence without a liberal sprinkling of the word "like". The same generation has also managed to reduce English's wide palate of approbrious adjectives to "cool".
A representative of this generation sat behind a counter before us now, in blue jeans, t-shirt, blond pony tail and reversed baseball cap. His tag said his name was Caleb, and that he was an Electrical Appliances Services Consultant, a role usually referred to outside the United States as a shop assistant.
'An adaptor for my English kettle,' Tom repeated, very slowly, but too English altogether.
'Keddle?' Caleb tried.
'Kettle,' Tom articulated. 'For boiling water.'
'You mean a, like, pot?'
'Yes. Only it's electric. You don't put it on the stove.'
'Oh, I geddit. You mean, for, like, coffee or somethin'?'
His eyes emitted a blue, knowing gleam. He finally had a fix on us and our weird English ways. Tea. It was all about tea. 'So, wassa problem?' he asked, finger on his place in the newspaper.
'England has a different voltage to America,' Tom explained carefully. 'I need an adaptor for the kettle's wall-plug.' He produced the British plug, that solid, sizeable lump of government-regulated, welfare society plastic and brass, its three prongs staunchly protruding.
Caleb’s eyes widened. 'That's a plug from, like, Enga-land?' We nodded. 'Cool,’ he enthused. ‘But I ain't seen nothin' like that before. So sorry, cain't help you.' He was already back in his LA Weekly.
'Can you suggest another shop where I might be able to find such an adaptor?' Tom attempted. Caleb gave a little shrug and a "well-lemme-see-now-you-might-just-try", and dispatched us to the first of what became a succession of electrical goods places. We did find adaptors in some, but only for Americans travelling overseas, so that they could run their hair-dryers and shavers in Finland, Thailand, and, like, Enga-land. We ended the paper chase at a massive warehouse in West LA stacked floor-to-ceiling with fuses, wires, switches, circuits, gadgets and gismos. The ultimate home handyman hang. This had to be the place.
After the inevitable wait of fifteen or so minutes as the counter assistant loudly sorted out his marriage on the phone, we were granted an audience at last when another assistant rose lugubriously from his seat by the Cafe Bar, and sauntered over. This man is perhaps most easily described as a flesh and blood Homer Simpson, complete with doughnut, although his name-tag revealed his name as Bob. When we outlined our inquiry, his response was direct:
'No problem, just swap over the plug. Swap it for an American one.'
The readiness of this solution took Tom so much by surprise that he couldn’t manage to reply at all at first, while Bob wandered off to a stand displaying hundreds of different wall plugs in dusty cellophane boxes.
'Any of these will do just fine,' he said, passing one to Tom. 'Just pay on your way out and have a nice day.'
Still speechless, Tom could only stare down at the plug.
'But...' I asked quickly before Bob could get away, 'isn't it a problem that England is on a different voltage?'
'Wha?' His eyes narrowed as he sensed a hitch in getting us out of his hair and back to his seat by the Cafe Bar.
'Different voltage,' I repeated, madly over- articulating. 'America is on 110 volts. England is on 220, or 240.'
'Tha' so?' Bob said, genuinely surprised.
'Mightn't the kettle blow up with too much voltage?' I persisted.
He pushed back an imaginary baseball cap, and gave his front bald patch a scratch. 'Well now,' he sighed, 'that may just be so.'
It was a hot day, and, like his English kettle, Tom was on a slow boil. 'Just a minute, you work here - can we or can't we just change over the plug?'
Bob's eyes searched the stained white polystyrene ceiling panels. 'Guess better not,' he muttered, voice falling on the last word. He had realised that he would have to fix us. It would take time. His big round eyes flicked back yearningly to his seat by the Cafe Bar, the National Enquirer spread out before it, the coffee ready and just waiting to be poured and sipped, and another whole doughnut. Would he never get back there?
Twenty minutes later we were at the check-out with, not just an adaptor, but a full-scale transformer the size of a shoebox. It was heavy as a pair of dumb-bells, cost 25 dollars, and was made in the People's Republic of China.
'Can I return it if it's not right?' Tom asked.
'Sure,' Bob said breezily, sensing escape at last. 'You got five days bring it back.’
We stepped out into the smoggy late afternoon sun lugging the transformer, and loaded it into Tom's vintage silver Corolla, running sweetly after being serviced by a pair of overalled mechanics name-tagged Jesus at the local Chevron gas station on Sunset Boulevard.
We dropped the kettle off at an electrical goods repair place recommended by Bob, where the English plug wired on by Mr Steptoe in grimy Kentish Town for one pahn was to be re-wired with an American plug to fit the transformer, by a guy name-tagged Dwight (baseball cap front on, blond pony table pulled down through the back of it) for five dollars.
Ten minutes later we pulled up outside the condo’s basement electric security gate, with a real sense of achievement. We were on our first beer when Alison got home from work. She had spent the past eleven hours dressing a 'medium tech kinda funky' (the director's brief to her) dentist's surgery set for a TV toothpaste commercial. Tom proudly showed her the electric transformer from the People's Republic, but she cast a chilly eye over the big orange lump of metal resting in its recycled cardboard box.
'What?' he said defensively.
'I just wanted a kettle. A kettle we could use here, and take away on holiday, and I could take on assignment. I can't take that. It's too big and cumbersome. And is it safe to use?'
Tom cleared his throat. 'It should be, yes.'
'But is it?'
'I... don't know yet.'
'Well have you tried it?'
'Not yet. We were waiting for you.'
'Then I suggest we don't. Who knows what will happen? I think you should just take it back.'
‘It’s useless Tom. It’s too heavy. And it’s very ugly. And probably dangerous.’
Tom looked at the orange thing a moment longer, opened his mouth again, but said nothing.
'We should really have just paid the hundred or so dollars for a kettle after all,' Alison sighed.
'They won't take it back,' Tom said gloomily.
'Why do you say that?' she replied.
'I know them. They won't. I know they won't.'
'But Tom, the guy said...' I began.
'I know what the guy said. But they won't. They never do. They say they will but they never do.'
'Of course they will,' Alison soothed. 'If they don't honour their customers, they’ll go bankrupt. This is America.'
'This is America alright,' Tom retorted. 'And it's already bankrupt. By the trillions.'
The following day we were back at the service counter with the transformer. The only person serving was a neat little Hispanic man who conscientiously ignored us while peering down at a circuit board. We looked around for Bob, but his place by the Cafe Bar was empty, the scene somehow dismal. The Hispanic man, whose name was Xavier, continued to ignore us until Tom spoke up loudly. 'Excuse me, may I have some service please.'
He did not look up. 'What is it?'
'I'd like a refund on the transformer I bought here yesterday.' Tom took out the receipt and deposited it on the counter.
Xavier glanced up. 'No refund on that item.'
I was surprised by this, coming so quickly and so cut and dried, but Tom, who had been expecting it all along, psyching himself with muttered obscenities at the wheel on the way, did not miss a beat. 'Why not?' he snapped.
'It's the law.'
'What law? Federal law? State law?'
'Just the law,' he said, with a renewed frown of interest in his circuit board.
A sardonic smile crept across Tom's face. He stood well away from the counter now, and started moving about, loping. In that moment he reminded me of a beast I had once seen in a wretched little resort in Mexico, on the polluted Baja coast just south of Ensenada - a lion, an old gold, lop-eared, shaggy lion, somehow brought to that blighted place and kept in a barred box for the idle amusement of tourists, pacing.
'What law?' Tom repeated, hard.
'The law that says we can't take back transformers once they've been sold. No electrical goods store can. We all have to post the regulation in the store.'
He made a vague gesture behind him, to a bare wall which completely lacked such a posted regulation - indeed, in its very American way, any regulation at all.
Tom stared at the wall in bewilderment. 'But there's nothing there!' he cried out.
'Well there should be,' Xavier said, turning some tiny screw. 'It's the law.'
Too stunned to go on for the time being, Tom lapsed into an exasperated silence. At the same moment, my nose irritated by the LA smog, I happened to sneeze mightily. The man looked up over his spectacles. 'God bless you sir,' he said, in a totally unexpected instance of human compassion.
'Thank you,' I said, wiping my reddened nose with a handkerchief. 'But when we bought this thing here yesterday the man who served us said we had five days to return it.'
'No-one would have said that,' he said calmly.
'Well, this man did.'
'Who did?' His eyes did not budge from the board.
'The guy who was sitting by the Cafe Bar,' Tom said, recovering his momentum now, loping about again.
At this the Xavier shot a mischevious glance across to another counter assistant, a young white flour-sack of a man tagged Jed, who was doing his own fair share of ignoring a queue of complainants. 'The guy by the Cafe Bar, he says...' Xavier chuckled, and Jed grinned back.
'He does work here, doesn't he?' Tom pressed on, but sensing difficulty from some unexpected quarter.
'Works here, yeah, sure does,' Xavier said. 'Only all he does is sit. At that Cafe Bar.'
'All he does,' Jed agreed. 'All he can do. Don't know shit.'
'You're telling me,' Tom said slowly, 'that all this guy, Bob, that was his name, Bob... that all he does is sit over there by the Cafe Bar?'
'That's right,' said Xavier. 'Drinking coffee, reading the papers. Only today he's not.'
'Why?' Tom asked suspiciously.
'He's absent,' Xavier said, and Jed down the counter let out a little hoot of laughter.
'Always absent if you ask me,' Jed said.
'But he works here - in this store!' Tom almost shouted.
'Yeah, he does. But he's not, you know, quite right in the head. I don't know why they keep him on, but they do. It's not my business, I just work here. But he just sits over there, doesn't do nothing,' Xavier said.
'Just comes in here, drinks his coffee, dunks his doughnuts, reads his paper right there by the Cafe Bar,' Jed agreed. 'Lord, how he loves that Cafe Bar. Lives for that damn thing, he does.'
'So you can't believe anything he told you,' Xavier said. 'If you did, you'd probably end up with an electric shock. So you can't listen to him, he doesn't know anything, and if he gave you the wrong idea, that’s too bad. That's just how it is.'
'I want to see the manager,' Tom snapped, with an furious tremble.
'He ain't in today.'
'When will he then?'
'Tomorrow, maybe,' Xavier said.
'This is utterly preposterous and you know it. I'll have to report you to the consumer affairs people.'
Who? I couldn’t help but think. If such people existed. But Tom’s threat, however emptily made, did appear to have some effect. Xavier’s eyes came up for a moment from the circuit board and engaged with Tom's, the drama of the moment punctuated with another staggering sneeze from me.
'God bless you sir,' Xavier said again.
I idly wondered if he was born here, or how he'd come into America - whether he’d ever been one of those people a Texas State Trooper once searched my car boot for: 'Sorry sir, we're jes' lookin' fer wetbacks.'
Xavier stared a moment at Tom, returned his attention to the circuit. I could tell though he was weighing up the aggravation he was getting from us against the aggravation he would get from his boss if he was found to be getting soft on all the bums queuing up to get good money back for all the useless bits of junk they'd bought here. But he sensed he had to do something in our case. We were strange. Foreign. We could not be stalled any longer. The so-called "moment of shit" had come.
'Okay,' Xavier said. 'This is what we do. I'll give you a 25 dollar credit on the transformer. You can take your pick from the store.'
Tom replied with another of his sardonic smiles. 'And what about the law? That law you were talking about. The government regulation that's meant to be posted on the wall but isn't? What about that?'
He didn't even look up. 'What about it?'
Tom got 25 dollars in light bulbs and we left. Driving home we passed the repair shop where the kettle was having its plug re-wired on by Dwight - the one with the blond pony tail pushed back through his (not reversed) baseball cap. And there, on a dusty shelf out back, Tom’s English kettle no doubt ended its days, a stranger in a strange land.
The black woman behind the check-in counter for my Sydney flight seemed distracted. As she took my passport and ticket she kept glancing around as if looking out for a friend, or snooping supervisor perhaps. Her fingers leafed automatically to some old US airport tax stamps in my ticket.
'Paid your airport tax yet sir?' she said tersely, still not looking at me. Her name-tag said Loretta.
'What are all these then?'
'They're old ones,' I said, feeling somehow guilty.
'You'll have to pay some tax then.'
'Okay. How much is it?' I felt for my wallet.
Her serious eyes finally came to rest on mine. 'Well, where you bin?'
'Er... I flew from LA to London. That's when these stamps are from. And then I came back here, went down to Mexico... and now...'
'Mexico...' Loretta's purpled eyelids gave a tiny flutter, her fingers no longer dog-earing my passport. 'You like it down there?'
'Yes, a lot. I’ve visited a couple of times.'
'Mexico,' she repeated to herself, as if recalling some sultry, long lost weekend. As she looked up at me again she noticed a newly purchased cinema magazine in the crook of my elbow, with Spike Lee on the cover. 'Do you like him?'
'Some of his films,' I said. 'How about you?'
'I liked Do The Right Thing.'
'Oh yeah, now that was real good,' she agreed. 'But some of his other stuff is like, you know, just too sexist. Like that one She's Gotta Have It. Now that was sexist shit.' She paused. 'But, then Malcolm X was good. Long, but good.' She smiled, a flash of white teeth. 'I'm Loretta by the way.'
'Nice to meet you, Loretta.'
We shook hands.
'There's no tax payable sir.'
'Really? Why, thank you.'
'I like your hat,' she said, handing me my boarding pass. 'And you have a nice flight, won't you?'