I’m taking it easy this week This is a column that first ran in April, 2013.
I'm so old that … I'm so old that starting a column with "I'm so old that …" doesn't really seem out of place anymore. So I think I will: I'm so old that I remember public toilets where you had to insert a dime to get into a stall. And I'm so old that I remember a gag Jack Benny did about just such a men's room: In this one, he gets caught trying to sneak under the door of the stall — not because he's CHEAP, but because he had left his hat inside and the door had closed and he didn't have another dime on him.
But I should probably explain who Jack Benny was. Jack Benny was a comedian whose whole shtick was about how CHEAP he was. And I should probably explain (getting old means there are more and more things you should probably explain, but you're less and less likely to realize it) that in olden times it was not unusual to find these coin-op stalls in public men's rooms. But what you might at first attribute to an almost cartoonish stinginess on the part of the building's management actually reflected a relatively sophisticated grasp of human nature: the tendency we have of assuming, without even knowing we're assuming it, that free means worthless; that anything that has no price has no value. The real motive for charging the dime, I believe, was that a free restroom is much more likely to be vandalized or messed up than one that charges you even the paltry entrance fee of 10 cents.
Of course, all of us have encountered disgusting, but free, toilets from time to time, which tends to support my theory, but I'll admit that my view may have been tinted by the yellowing effect of time, because the specific respectable, dignified, dime-operated restroom that comes most clearly into focus lay just off the respectable, marble-lined lobby of the building where our family dentist had his office, way back in the 1950s. Standing right next to New Britain City Hall, it was the kind of building a respectable, dignified lady like my mother wouldn't dream of driving to in her Oldsmobile without first having accessorized herself with makeup, earrings and maybe even a hat.
And of course there was an elevator operator, whose name was Sam, and of course he was black, because all elevator operators were black then. You see, it's not that we didn't have Jim Crow here in picture-postcard New England; it's just that we never talked about it.
Anyway, once you got upstairs to Dr. Fletcher's office — way up on the seventh floor — you could see forever.
The people on the streets down below looked like ants, and the occasional NBPD black-and-white driving by (in my memory, they were all 1957 Buicks) would make me think of the cop cars that Dan Matthews (Broderick Crawford, who was not the father of supermodel Cindy Crawford) drove on TV’s "Highway Patrol.”
Of course, way up on the seventh floor there was weather to deal with, so Dr. Fletcher's receptionist or somebody would open the window only a couple of inches, and there was a slanted glass panel at the bottom to protect us from the kind of buffeting you might expect to encounter at such wild altitudes.
That’s it. The end.
Reach Glenn Richter at email@example.com.
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