Of Escalades and Steak Knives

  Jerome Shea       May 5, 2007      Weekend Wonk

If they are not worming through your phone line, they are lying in wait in your mailbox: folks who want to reward you magnificently just for coming to their solar energy seminar or tromping about their chunk of mountain or mesa. It’s the reward that tickles me, and by now it’s familiar to most of us. Not only does the redundant “free gift” await you, but it will be one of several things, to wit:

  1. matching his and hers Cadillac Escalades, or
  2. a complete home video center, or
  3. a gas patio grill, or
  4. a handsome set of eight imported steak knives.

The list is patched together from memory, but I think it approximates everyone’s experience. Sometimes it’s Mustangs instead of Caddys, and some of the chintzier outfits offer you only one. The middle stuff always bespeaks gaiety and the good life. I’m sure a free roofing job would delight some people, but they won’t find it here (unless this is a come-on for a roofing seminar). Inevitably last and inevitably least are those handsome imported steak knives. We’ll get back to those steak knives.

One sees little harm in this, and I have noticed lately that the odds for winning each goody are listed in very small print somewhere in the brochure. (A lot of disappointed people must have pestered their congressmen about it.) You have as much chance of winning the Caddys, of course, as of having quadruplets. Still, I wonder how many couples tote the brother-in-law up to Pinion Estates (“only thirty-one miles from an improved road and with a high likelihood of water”) so that they will be able to drive the three cars back. How many have sold the Steinway cheap so that they will be able to fit the video center in the den? Probably we need people with this kind of eternal hope—a mature and tested hope that has got them steak knife service for forty-eight.

Sometimes I dream that the computer has gone giggly and awry, so that Cadillacs—burgundy, sea green, arctic white, cobalt blue—come tumbling out of luck’s cornucopia. Back they all come from Pinion Estates, these happy winners, tooting gaily to each other on the interstate (“Honk If You Beat the Computer!”). And their neighbors all have new video centers, and even the guy that lost out all his life winds up with a gas patio grill. That would be rich satisfaction for us all.

Of course, they wouldn’t all be happy. Some people are cursed with good luck; fate works in strange and infuriating ways. Have you ever noticed that the guy that wins the Chevy at the VFW Carnival is, nine times out of ten, the same guy that won the Ford last month at the Queen of Heaven Summerfest? (That’s the way I remember it. And each time he bought one ticket as a favor to his nephew and almost lost it in the laundry.) So let us be generous enough to pity that poor guy—lusting after steak knives all his life and fate deals him yet another brace of Caddys. A bitter man, he tears at his steak with his teeth while cruising the streets in his Caddy, dropping gristle on the glove-leather upholstery.

Oh yes, the steak knives. The imported steak knives. Somewhere in this favored land there is a warehouse the size of the Astrodome. Men on big forklifts work there in the half-light, shifting around bulky skids of packaged steak knives. Some they load into huge, muttering semis but mostly they just shunt them around, desperately seeking more room. In Detroit and Toledo, hydraulic engineers are working late to design forklifts that will go seven, nine skids high. The civilized divisions of time melt and run in that warehouse, two in the morning indistinguishable from two in the afternoon. Every FAX from the ports of California sends tremors through the workforce: more container ships, with exotic names and holds crammed with steak knives, have eased into their berths.

And that’s just this end of it. In the smoke-plumed steak knife factories of Taipei and Manila, Singapore and Jakarta, lithe, bronzed men work round the clock, scalloping the steel and punching rivets through the teakwood handles—dreaming, perhaps, of a better life in Teak Estates. And what else do they dream or wonder about? What do they say, in their strange, musical tongues, at shift change?

“But they CAN’T eat all that steak! I don’t care HOW good the First World has it—they can’t eat all that steak!”

“Alien peoples have alien ways. Perhaps it’s bad luck to use a steak knife twice.”

“My uncle says his cousin’s son, the one who went to Stanford, told him the Americans throw EVERYTHING away. And they don’t even eat steak. They all eat sawdust patties at McBurger Queen. They sit outside in their Cadillacs while nubile maidens on roller skates bring them things to throw away.”

“Speak low! I found a leaflet today from the People’s Front. It says Americans are arming themselves. ‘How do you feel,’ it says, ‘to be working in a Yankee weapons factory?’ I guess they don’t think much of their warheads. I guess they are all standing around their patio grills pot-shotting at the dog with their steak knives.”

“Little harm in this?” Our warehouses bulge and groan while the Third World glowers, just so some clown can flaunt his Caddy in our faces? Pinion Estates, solar energy people: stop this madness!

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