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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: July 3, 2010

John Wilcock

The Village Voice has been reprinting, on its blog, some of the more than five hundred columns I wrote for the paper in the 1950s.
A handful of them follow

Met a talented young art student, Robert Pincus, at a party in Queens and he told me that his summer job had been at the Museum of Modern Art as a designer. When I asked him what the job had entailed he fidgeted, then said: “Oh there were lots of things. I designed the layout of some tables and I worked on and helped to install that fabric show that’s currently running.”

It didn’t sound like twelve weeks’ work to me. I asked him if he’d managed to get any of his own work into the show considering he’s regarded as both prolific and promising.

“Well, yes,” he replied, “I suppose I should mention the signs.”  He paused, reached for two cocktail glasses or ruby-colored punch from a passing tray, and handed me one. “Looks like Jell-O,” he remarked. “Better drink it before it sets.”  Then sipping from his glass he added:  “Yes, the signs.  There were two of them and the first one said ‘Men’.

“It has a limited audience but don’t think it was an easy job.  Signs at the MOMO can’t just be tossed off.  To start with they have to be done in a special kind of type — the Museum used to use Futura for its signs but now it uses Sandberg.  The type has to be traced and then checked.  Then it’s sent off for states, enlarged to the rights size, and checked again.  The whole process takes a long time and costs a lot of money.”

What about the second sign, I prompted.  What did that say?
“The second sign?” echoed Bob, wrinkling his brow.  “What was that?  Oh, I remember.  It said:  NOBODY ADMITTED TO FILM SHOW WITHOUT A RESERVATION.  RESERVATIONS MUST BE OBTAINED AT THE FIRST-FLOOR DESK.  How many words is that?”
I told him seventeen.

“Seventeen”, he repeated, “and a freelance would get ten bucks per word.  That’s the usual rate.  Seventeen.  Gee, that’s $170!”
Yes, I agreed, there certainly is a lot of money in art.

The Village Square, Oct 3, 1956

At Ashley Clinton, New Zealand, where sheep are more plentiful than people, the local schoolteacher set up a microphone on a fence post and recorded the “baas” from a mob of sheep that were passing by.  Then, because time at Ashley Clinton is more plentiful than things to do, the teacher painstakingly split, spliced, and separated the sounds on tape ad produced an LP record of popular national songs performed by the “Ashley Clinton Sheep’s Choir.”

A copy of the record is still en route to me from my informant, Brian Bell, editor of Broadcast, a New Zealand literary monthly.  Meanwhile, I can only guess at its contents.  Undoubtedly the selections include:  “While Shepherds Watched Us by Night,” “Baa Baa Black Me,” “Mary Had a Little One of Us,” “We’re Poor and We’ve Gone Astray,” “A Wolf in Our Clothing,” and “May We Safely Graze?”

There’s hardly anyone who doesn’t look incredulous when I remark that I have recently acquired a folding bicycle. It’s made in Japan, imported by C. Itoh and Co., 425 Park Avenue, and retails for $65. (I’m getting mine at a trade price because of the supposed publicity value of this column.)

The bike weighs about thirty-five pounds — about the same as one of those uncomfortable metal office chairs — and can be carried for short distances with one hand.

Although it folds down to the size of one wheel, it can be unfolded and locked into a standard-sized bicycle within one minute.  It is, I believe, the only make of folding bicycle: during the war, paratroopers dropped carrying collapsible bikes, but they had to be reassembled with tools before they could be ridden.

The negotiations, which led to my purchase of this novel item, were conducted by a charming guy named Ernest Scher who brought my cycle downtown in the back seat of his small foreign car.  I told Ernest that I had a rather obvious question to ask him.

“I’ll give you the answer before you ask the question,” he said.  “No, it doesn’t fold up when you’re riding it. It can’t.”

Once I’d learned how to operate all the locking screws, I leaped on the bike and rode uptown. It seemed fine. A little wobbly, maybe, but safe enough. When the weather gets warmer, maybe I’ll ride it uptown to work in the morning. Once at the Times, I can fold it up, carry it upstairs in the elevator, and fling it under my desk for the day.  Or maybe I’ll check it in a parcel locker.

The golden years of a bitter drink known as Moxie were around the 1920s.  Then nearly everybody drank it. The firm is two years older than Coca-Cola (which will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 1961) and for a long time was just as well known. Today Moxie survives mainly as an adjective implying “pep” or “spirit,” and also as a gag advertisement in the background of Mad magazine’s strip cartoons.

By 1920 the Moxie Company, which had been founded by a Salem, Mass., doctor named Augustin Thompson, had grown so large that it built a new plant in Roxbury, expanded its operations nationally, and through the years fought and won dozens of court cases against imitators with such as Proxie, Hoxie, Noxie, Noxall, Non-tox, Modox, Rixie, and Toxie.

A letter written to the company as early as August 13, 1917, from a Sarah Shaw, complained that three bottles of imitation Moxie bought at a store in Maine made two members of her party “extremely ill for six hours.”

Added Miss Shaw: “We have been drinking Moxie all our lives and it has never before made us ill…I do hope you will follow this up, for the vile stuff was bottled in one of your bottles.”

The company did follow up and later declared: “Moxie is inimitable, for its formula is secret…19 separate ingredients and materials are derived from plants in one form or another, namely roots, berries, and leaves. The principal ingredient is the gentian root which is imported from southwestern Europe…”

What caused Moxie’s decline?  Partly a changing public taste toward sweeter drinks, but mainly the fact that the new national firm ran into the depression in the late ’20s, and the high royalty charges demanded by the original company kept Moxie’s price up to ten cents a bottle outside New England.

“The results, as you might imagine, were disastrous,” says Orville S. Purdy, vice-president of the Moxie Company, which still exists in Needham Heights, MA., According to Mr. Purdy, Moxie is on the verge of revival.  “We expect 1960 to be our greatest year.  We do not say in New England ‘Moxie is coming back,’ we say ‘Moxie is back!’”

The major factor operating against the firm at present is that distribution is spread over a comparatively small area of the country — New England, upstate New York, part of Pennsylvania, and southern California.  New territories will be signed up later.

There was an arresting ad in one of the Sunday papers a couple of weeks ago.  “Why Twin Beds?” it asked in extravagantly large type. “Save $150.00. Enjoy Undisturbed Sleep.”

The copy proceeded as follows:

“Retain complete double-bed companionship, yet enjoy twin-bed freedom without crowding your bedroom.  This modern BUNDLING BOARD gently keeps sleep rollers to their own side.  Used under the mattress, it’s invisible.  Acts so gently our spouse may never know that it’s there. Save yourself the extra cost, double work, and laundry of two beds. Cures bed sag. To preserve marriage harmony, order one today…”

      For heaven’s sakes. Who knows how long this has been going on?  Have you been wondering why you’ve been finding it so difficult lately to struggle over to the other side of the connubial couch to join your mate?  It’s because of that goddamn secret weapon, the modern bundling board, that’s why. A thing like this could cripple the single bed — not to mention the single man — business.

Are your parties listless, the conversations lifeless, because all your guests hold the same liberal opinions?
      Here’s the solution: rent a human catalyst. All our agent-provocateurs are skilled dialecticians, well-versed in the language and literature of unpopular opinions. Can be relied upon to present convincing arguments on behalf of a variety of seldom-heard viewpoints. Available immediately: a white supremacist, a Nixon campaigner, an international playboy, a Time editor, an annual vacationer in the Dominican Republic, a bomb shelter designer, an Edsel driver, a tenant of Washington Square Village, an honest quiz-show winner, a Book of the Month Club subscriber.  (Some agents are interchangeable.) Reasonable rates. Mandatory but expensive insurance against assault.

     Several people took this spoof seriously.
Maybe it’s not so far from the truth.