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the column of lasting insignificance: April 9, 2011
by John Wilcock

{the columns that follow appeared in
the Village Voice in the 1950s}

THE WOMAN SITTING next to me at the bar had obviously just been shopping. I looked over the crazy array of items in her open basket. They seemed to be a pretty diverse assortment. “You must be a Comparison-shopper? I asked.
“Oh no,” she said. “I’m a woman who thinks for other people—I’m an Embarrassment-shopper.” I’m one of those people who buys those items that you’d be too ashamed to ask for yourself.”
I was skeptical and said so.
The E-s looked hurt. “No really,” she said, “we Embarrassment-shoppers do a very worthwhile job. Here, for example, “—she reached into her bag—“could you imagine anyone going into a store and asking for something called ‘Mr. Clean’?
“In fact,” she continued, “there’s a whole wide list of products that make people uncomfortable. Shopping isn’t easy these days and that’s where I come in. Sometimes I provide a complete service which includes deciding which of two near-by stores is your friendly neighborhood grocer and then buying all the goods there.
“Sometimes my client comes along with me but, of course, leaves it to me to do the asking for Broiler Foil, Cashmere Bouquet, Dent-u-grip, Double Danderine, Sani-flush, Johnny Mop, Silicare, Uneeda Biscuits, Royal Jelly and Nehi Orange Juice.”
I agreed that it did take a special kind of person able to ask for such items but wondered aloud how she found her clients.
The Embarrassment-shopper seemed surprised I had asked. “Why, they’re all over the place,” she replied. “I was on the second floor of Bloomingdale’s one day when I observed this shy girl who appeared to be having trouble. She wanted to ask for an Exquisite Form bra but was too modest to ask for an item with such an implication. “I helped her out, but she was so shaken that we had to stop for a drink on the way home. She wanted a Grasshopper, or maybe it was a Pink Lady, and I had to ask for that, too.
” I had to concede that the Embarrassment-shopper had made out a good case. As a matter of fact, I said, there was something that I myself had never been able to bring myself to ask for—Fig Newtons. Maybe the Embarrassment-shopper could help? “Oh good Lord, no,” she said. “Even I would be too embarrassed to ask for those.”

THE INDIFFERENT PHOTOGRAPHER, who doesn’t care what people’s opinions are, was sent out on assignment last week to interview the Floating Voter, who doesn’t have any. It was a superb piece of casting.
“I understand,” asked the Indifferent Photographer, in a bored sort of way, “I understand that you’re one of the forty-nine per cent of people polled who always answer: ‘I don’t know’?”
“Well, that’s not exactly true”, the Floating Voter hedged. “I’m always lumped into that category, admittedly, but quite often I’ve been misquoted. My reply on many occasions has actually been: ‘So what?”
“But surely,” the I-P persisted, in spite of his apathy, “surely you must have some opinions? There are so many controversial issues—bribery in government, the road through Washington Square...”
“If God had meant us to have a road through Washington Square,: the F-V interrupted piously. “He would have built one through Washington Square.”
“Well, how about international issues? There’s the question of sending arms to Cuba, of sharing atomic secrets, of continuing aid to dictatorships....”
The F-V shifted uneasily on the fence. “Aw, what’s it to me?” he snapped. “Why can’t all those foreigners learn English?”
The Indifferent Photographer folded his notebook and prepared to leave. “I suppose you’re married?” he asked. “Does your wife share your indecisions?”
“Hell, no,” his companion answered. “My wife’s not bad for a woman, but you know what they always say—‘You can lead a girl to Vassar but you can’t make her drink.’”

WHAT LOOKS LIKE the world’s biggest underground bar is all set to open up on Bleecker Street, just south of Washington Square, sometime this month. It won’t, however, be merely a bar, because it’s to be owned and operated by Art D’Lugoff, a 34-year-old Villager who’s built his reputation in the past chiefly by staging concerts of calypso groups, steel bands, Spanish dancers, and folk singers.
    The most itinerant of these, says Art, are folk singers, and so the new bar, as yet untitled, is projected as something of an unofficial headquarters for all such strolling players. It is planned that somebody casually strumming a guitar or musing aloud about the pervasive aspects of the foggy, foggy dew will always be on tap, even though the beer won’t. (Bottled only, it will include brands from almost every country in the world.)
    Location of the new bar is beneath the sixty-year-old Greenwich Hotel, though the entrance is via an elaborate stairway on Thompson Street; and if you think that potential customers are likely to meet up with panhandlers in that area, you’re probably right.
    When I looked over the cavernous catacomb last week it was undergoing transformation from what had been a long-disused basement, and we picked our way midst a welter of paint pots, tables, chairs, barrels, and posters advertising D’Lugoff’s various other enterprises. The cellar is tall enough and wide enough to accommodate at least a dozen of the old-type double-decker buses, assuming they could be negotiated down the narrow stairway, and will seat almost five hundred people.      
    There’ll be food available—barbecued beef, chicken, and hamburger—but no minimum charge except at weekends, on which evenings formal folk-music concerts will supplement the casual entertainment provided by the customers.

[This was written in 1958. Art’s place was so successful, unhappily, that it now (1962) has a minimum and “strolling players” can no longer afford the tariff.]

TRADE-MAGAZINE EDITOR Larry Maxwell, of West 12th Street, paid $24, just over a year ago, for one share of stock in the Lorillard Tobacco Company. Since then he’s had half a dozen 30-cent dividend checks, a couple of stock holders’ luncheons, several cartons of Old Gold cigarettes, and an 8-cent ashtray—easily amortizing his original investment.
    Recently Larry branched out and bought one (1) share of American Safety Razor stock for $7.50. He gets free blades and says he hasn’t found out whether or not they give shareholders free lunches—but if they do, he’ll be there.
    Larry was the subject of my second column in this newspaper, and as this is my 50th column I thought it might be interesting to look back over some of the subjects I’ve covered.
    Started and later dropped for lack of interest were such ideas as a chess game, a telepathy stunt, an apartment exchange, and a public proposal of marriage. More successful were a tie exchange (to be resumed this Christmas), the dropping of addressed but unstamped letters in the street to see if anybody would mail them (some did), the sampling of an Arabian meal, and listing the time “Bert and Harry” commercials.
    I reviewed a book telling how to be a parking-meter collector, attended an exhibition of garbage can lids, was threatened with a law suit by Dr. Kinsey (for quoting somebody who called him “a Freudian”), met a man who manufactured campaign buttons, interviewed a talking poodle, a letter ghost, a 74 year judo expert, and a man who’s had thirty-one roommates, and reported on talks with Rock Hudson, Claire Bloom, and Marilyn Monroe.
    Panning the Washington Square Outdoor Art Show brought me the most mail (all in agreement), but I’ve had telephone calls from people who responded to items about my new neighbor and the mysterious phrase Pas Op Vir Olifante Langs Die Pad (it’s a highway sign in Afrikaans and means: “Watch out for elephants on the road”).
    I have introduced you to Damer’s All Green drink, artist Art Helfant (“a Helfant never forgets”), Jean Shepherd, and Ray Johnson, the inventor of moticos.
    All of these columns, written from such places as Carmel, Hollywood, Las Vegas, Provincetown, and Canada, in addition to the Village, are still in the office files, and if there’s one that particularly interests you, I’ll be happy to mail out a copy.

{John Wilcock is currently out of the country}

4/2/11

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