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the column of lasting insignificance: November 23, 2013
by John Wilcock

[ JW columns from the 1950s & ‘60s]

A MAN WHO SITS behind the desk of a real estate office in the Village is apt to meet some pretty funny people. There’ll be the wife who’s planning to leave her husband but wants to get a new home fixed up before she tells him. .... The Wall Street broker who wants to recapture his youth by renting a studio loft to give cocktail parties... the wide-eyed girls who are spending their first months in New York and haven’t quite got over the excitement.
    About the last-mentioned, realtor George Arnold is prepared to go out on a limb. “Most of them are college girls who still like to live dormitory style,” he says. “If four of them take an apartment, I can almost guarantee that within a year two will be married, on either engaged or enceinte, and one still trying.”
    Arnold, in his late thirties, has been running the Greenvil Realty Service on Waverly Place for about ten years and is apt to describe himself, lightly, as “a frustrated social-service worker.”
    “Residentially the Village is becoming less and less a center for the arts and crafts and more and more infiltrated with upper-middle-class elements, but in some respects I think the landlords are cutting their own throats. It’s true that the area’s been oversold almost to the point that home hunters expect to find every apartment with a timbered ceiling, fireplace, and garden, but many landlords are destroying what atmosphere there is by remodeling, bricking up fireplaces, and covering wide-plank floors.
    “Oversold or not, people are still searching for apartments here. They come in everyday, the ladies turning on all their charm, the men trying to be the tough Hollywood he-men types. No matter how many apartments we rent, there are always more people looking. They holler in through the window on their way to work; they sit here sadly and say their fiancées won’t marry them unless they can find a place. You’ve no idea how many sociological and philosophical discussions we’ve had going in this office.
    “As often as not, somebody will invite me to a party in the apartment I’ve found for them—and then their fellow guests will corner me over the drinks and ask if I can find them an apartment, too.”
    To anybody who’s still looking, there’s not much advice Arnold can offer.
    “Apartments do become vacant, of course,” he says, “and if you’re lucky you’ll be around at just the right time. The only possible method is to keep trying.
    “Most people are very nice about it, but there are a few crackpots who think we’re peddling to the highest bidder. Sometimes they offer me bribes, and I guess they’re rather surprised when I throw them out.”
[Village Voice, November 7, 1963, Vol. IX]

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 nearby 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.’”

THE NATIONAL NONENTITY SERVICE. If you’ve ever been at Idlewild Airport when swarms of photographers were busily banging away at some schnook whose name means nothing to you, what you have probably witnessed is one of the imaginative operations of the National Nonentity Service.
    NNS exists solely to inject a little color and prestige into the humdrum lives of people who have nothing but money; the client needs only pay a handsome fee for the ego-building process to begin. After two or three expensive—but tax-deductible—years’ fees he’s still a nonentity, of course, but people KNOW him.
    The president and founder of NNS, a former nonentity himself, says: “There is almost no limit to the things we can do to make a nonentity feel important, just so long as he can afford to pay. Photographers meeting him at the airport... flowers delivered to his hotel room, with ambiguously written cards he can show to his friends... starlets posing with him for publicity pictures.
    “We recently negotiated a tie-in with a vanity press whereby subsidy authors can dedicate their books to our fine roster of nonentities, and, although nobody buys the books, we let the client have a few dozen at trade prices.”
    Some of the operations of NNS are particularly ingenious. The vast quantities of liquor that have to be bought to get the nonentity’s pictures into the whiskey-endorsement ads, for example, are not wasted; they are saved until NNS manages to bribe enough thirsty reporters to attend a press conference (at which the nonentity announces the latest award he has been given by some non-existent association).
   “In addition to such routine duties as getting our clients interviewed on daytime radio shows and having garden clubs name new hybrids after him,” says NNS president, “we are also able to offer a special service to clients who are troubled by feelings of sexual inadequacy.
    “This aspect of our work in handled by our ‘Romantic-Linking’ department, which devotes its time to getting nonentities linked romantically with the names of celebrated female charmers. In the earlier stages we find that our nonentity is quite content with the brief notation, in one of the syndicated columns, that he has been seen with a certain bosomy star. Later, however, it becomes necessary for an affidavit to appear in print stating categorically that his name has been ‘linked romantically’ with that of the female personality.
    “And, as a further progression, we can sometimes bribe the star to state publicly—and accurately—that there is no truth to the rumors. That almost always gets both of their pictures in the newspapers.”
    NNS fees are high, but the people who have only money pay willingly.


[JW is currently recuperating
from a hospital stay.]

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