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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: March 15, 2008


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Wednesday, October 3, 1956

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 MOMA 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 stats, enlarged to the right 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 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 percent 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.’”

THERE’S A BRIGHTLY LIT, gleaming machine in the Times Square subway station that offers printed slips giving directions on how to reach just about anywhere. Even Mars. For curious people who press the “Free Trip to Mars” button, Number 120, the machine dispenses the following advice:  “If you can prove you’re a real Martian, we’ll send you home to your native planet.  Write Martian Ambassador, Earth Colony, c/o Directomat, Hotel Roosevelt.”

Intrigued by this bizarre development, I looked up the Martian ambassador at the Roosevelt. He turned out to be Max M. Tamir, inventor of the machine (called a Directomat) which he plans to install in every major subway station in the city.  The transit Authority supplies free space, and inventor Tamir, who holds a city-planning directorate from the Paris Sorbonne, recoups his expenses by selling ads on the direction slips.

About one million customers have used the machine since its installation two years ago, and not surprisingly, the Mars button has been pressed a great deal.  It has brought Dr. Tamir a fascinating harvest of letters — some in code from imaginative children, but others neatly typed and eloquently worded.  Almost all offer cogent reasons for being returned “home.”

A trio from Staten Island related that, since being stranded there, they had found earth food inedible and were subsisting on phonograph records which, besides lacking the necessary solar energy, were expensive. One man, who said he’d been here one hundred years already, added:  “I miss my kid and seven wives;” another Martian said he’d left his driver’s license “in my other space suit, so I lack identification.”

Although most of the writers claim Martian nationality — including one who says his space ship sank in Lake Champlain and he’s hiding out — a Manhattan doctor said he was mentally and ethically up to Martian standards, and offered his services “especially for the improvement of badly neglected relations between our two planets.”

All respondents get a reply from the imaginative Dr. Tamir, a sympathetic letter noting they have been put on the waiting list for transport, except in cases where they list no address.  One such example was the Martian who wrote in to deplore the whole business and demanded removal of the machine.  “I wish to state emphatically that we will not allow Earthlings on our planet,” he warned.  As for Martians, he added, he’s the only genuine one here.

(from The Village Square  by John Wilcock, Lyle Stuart, 1961)

John Wilcock is currently in Europe