Friday, September 17, 2010

"Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick; Dick, Dick, Dick." - Part 5: Pocket Furniture

Tom Lennon as Officer Dangle; anonymous photo of an organ grinder and his monkey (1892)
(Return to Part 4) While still in high school the comic actor Tom Lennon wrote a short earnest play about looking through his girlfriend's shoes. He believed that all you need to know about a person you can learn from the shoes they own. That idea, that the objects we are most intimate with explain us better than we can explain ourselves, impressed me. Twenty years later I think about Tom's play surprisingly often, usually when I am looking at my own small (but well loved) collection of shoes, but also when I am loading and unloading my pockets, which is something I enjoy doing. I like sorting through the miscellany that finds its way into my pockets over the length of a day; the expected coins, bits of receipts, small tools and orphaned machine screws - as well as the occasional surprise - a bar napkin with a phone number (sweet), a sea shell (doesn't seem like me even to me), even an old subway token not to long ago (I have no idea). But I also enjoy the handling the small collection things I have intentionally assembled over the years. The three things that I carry with me every day: a slotted steel slung key ring I found at the MoMA design store, a folded stainless money clip with a sleeve just big enough to hold a couple credit cards and an ID, and my cell phone.

I love these things. It took me years to find them. Each is a simple, even bare bones in it's design, but all three are beautiful to look at and pleasant to hold. But most crucially all are the absolute smallest design I could find. This final parameter is because I hate with a passion the necessity of carrying things in my pockets. I sometimes fantasize about owning a trained monkey to carry my keys and such for me, but my imagination always turns against me. The imaginary monkey always ends up cadging cigarettes, making long distance calls without permission, and stranding me without cash because it has snuck off in the middle of the day to drink tequila with a bunch of college kids. In the absence of a well behaved simian assistant I have become honed down the things I carry on my person. If I have to carry something around I want it to be perfect. Because I have ended up thinking so much about these things over the years and have never heard them called anything as a group, I came up with a term for them. I corrupted an urban design term I like - street furniture (for the bricabrac on sidewalks) - my collective term the bricabrac I end up carting around all day is"pocket furniture."
Two representative examples of New York call boxes.

Every cities has its own personality that it expresses architecturally. Some cities are attractive and stylishly dressed, others homely and ill proportioned. The first time I visited Brussels I had expected a petite Paris, peopled by Parisian-like citizens. I could not have been more wrong. Where Paris is a truly beautiful city full of graceful public spaces and elegant people, I found Brussels to be a strangely squat and stubby. The Bauhauslers (thank you Stellavista) passing me on the street were, as a group, kinda badly dress. Luckily I stayed long enough that I got inside Brussel's pocket. Just as some people throw us off by the way they dress ("Who would have guessed the guy wearing the dicky would turn out to be so awesome?") cities broad look can mislead as well. I got a chance to see the city's intimate spaces and enjoy the Bouhauslers on their own, totally awesome terms (I got a private tour of the palace by the queen's personal assistant, which has to be one of the coolest things I have ever gotten to do anywhere).

In a talk about Barbara Kruger for the Whitney Museum's retrospective, Mark Wigley defined architecture (as opposed to great majority of structures that do not enjoy the benefit of an architect in their design) as a building that has been spoken into existence, buildings we speak about. The reason I call the small things I carry with me pocket furniture because the obvious corollary to the architecture of a city is an individual's wardrobe - the style we speak about. Just as the cloths someone wears help us quickly sort the Parisians from the Bouhauslers (Have I got the plural form right?), the hipsters from the jocks and the bankers from the architects, a city's architecture tells what a city wants us to know about itself: its wealthy now or was it in the past can be easily sussed out by when it experienced growth spurts Seattle is very 1980s LA has a baseline 1920s feel. The kinds of business done there are on display - Times Square would be preposterous in Chicago, and it is impossible to imagine the Merchandise Mart in Boston. The value put on street life vs commuting, or safety vs tradition (Boston's Big Dig has been unfairly maligned, Boston is the future).

A cities street furniture - the traffic lights, bus shelters, newspaper vending machines, benches, water fountains, rails, subway entrances, and even curb design - is a private language not intended to communicate values, and are much more difficult to read, but are less calculated indicators of a municipality's true loves, most enduring history, and actual civic values. These more modest accoutrement of city life are what I look forward to most when I travel to a new place. In some cases, like the art nouveau subway entrances in Paris they are like jewelery. Others, like Chicago's elevated Loop is like a sturdy vintage watch. I don't wear jewelry and have never worn a watch. To this New Yorker, seeing how Parisians collect the trash was a compelling part of visiting the city for the first time - it was like noticing an exotic shaped key on a friend's ring. My pocket furniture is more akin to garbage trucks newspaper vending machines, or New York's vestigial call boxes. Which its to say they are love worn utilitarian things that might confuse an out of towner, but as a native they help make life worth living.

Venus of Willendorf (22000 BCE); Samsung Juke (2007)

I do not own an iPhone. I sometimes feel like the last hold out in the greater New York area, but there's a very good reason for me to avoid what is obviously a beautifully designed object. For years I went through phones at a rate of two or even three a year (bad year). I was constantly replacing phones that had been dropped, drowned, snapped in half, or thrown (that was the bad year). I am generally hard on the things I own, but as it turns out I am especially hard on cell phones. This cell phone apocalypse ended not because of a change in my nature but because I finally found a phone that I couldn't kill.

Three years ago I was replacing a phone that had been crushed flat inside my back pocket as I violently (not) crouched down. My sales person at the Verizon store was a gorgeous tall black woman with figure like Jessica Rabbit and a shaved head. She could have sold me any phone in the store, I was completely at her mercy. We discussed my habit of breaking phones and I explained my dislike for having things in my pockets. I wanted the Dixy Cup of phones: small and cheap enough to be considered disposable. She sold me a Samsung Juke. With the mail in rebate and $5 an exasperated friend offered me if I would please buy myself a decent phone I made $2 on the upgrade. It is one of my favorite things in the whole world, and as it turns out it is completely indestructible. Three years later I am still carrying the same Juke, despite the fact that it is my niece's favorite thing to slobber on and drop (not always in that order).
Quest for Fire (1981); Zoolander (2001)

The news that a study had found that iPhone owners enjoy greater success finding sex partners was not at all surprising to me, because I had made the link between cell phones within hours of buying my Juke - not because it ever got me laid, but because it immediately through my manhood into doubt. The very first friend I showed it to held it between the tips of his thumb and forefinger (like you might hold a cat turd) and asked "Does it hold tampons?" When my then 8 year old nephew saw me pull it out to make a call for the first time he smiled at me with cat eyes and asked if I was "freshening my lipstick." (It was the first occasion in which he was able to pull off breaking my balls. I was proud of him.) For the past three years I been relentlessly teased by all my closest guy friends, the occasional acquaintance, and even a couple of total strangers. My buddy Will asks in his highest falsetto "God is that you?" every time he calls me. Hilarious.

I didn't buy the phone with any sense of irony. I really thought it was a great looking design and loved that it was half as small as any other phone I had ever seen. That it turned out to be sturdy sealed the deal. That it turned out to be a "girl phone" in the opinion of all my guy friends (to their great glee) was a revelation (its not pink). I understood that expensive phones were a status symbols, but it had never occurred to me they were gendered. What I at first believed was a mostly utilitarian object (with status fringe benefits) turned out to be an have far more nuanced meaning to the people around me than I would have ever would have guessed. but the line between the utilitarian and the symbolic has been blurred from the beginning.
Acheulean hand axe (1.5 million BCE); Apple G4 iPhone (2010)

The first great human technological breakthrough made by our pre-human ancestors was "death at a distance." Millions of years later we are still the only species that can wound and even kill without making physical contact with our prey. In the millions (two?) of years since the first little ape genius threw the first stone we have built on that technology to until today we can vaporize whole cities with atomic bombs and assassinate lone individuals in Afghanistan using remote control drones controlled by operators in the suburbs of Tempe. It's not terribly surprising that anthropologists focused on that lineage as an unbroken progress of Man the Hunter. But the story is far less straightforward than it at first appeared. The theory of homo sapien sapiens uniquely violent nature was developed at a time when it was not known that other apes commit murder and even go to war - and before anthropologist had had a chance to systematically test the tools they were discovering for actual usefulness.

The Acheulean stone tools that so flummoxed the anthropologist Ian Tatersall litter whole regions of Africa. Bill Bryson writes that there are places where you can't take a step without kicking one:
Various replications have shown the axes were tricky and labour-intensive objects to make - even with practice, an axe would take hours to fashion - and yet, curiously, they were not particularly good for cutting or chopping or scrapping or any other tasks to which they were presumably put. So we are left with the position that for a million years - far, far longer than our own species has even been in existence, much less engaged in continuous co-operative efforts - early people came in considerable numbers to this particular site to make extravagantly large number of tools that appear to have been rather curiously pointless.
The hominds that caved the axes were no bigger than your average American fourth grader with a brain the size of an infant. In a million years, distant decedents of ours would likely find the iPhone equally mysterious. They would be left to wonder why so many of us carry around an over sized phone that is not particularly good for making phone calls. They will have as much a chance of understanding the full importance of the thing as we have in grasping the full significance of the teardrop shaped hand axes. (To be continued)
Lucy and 16 Candles (1984)

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