I wish I could take credit for the title, but I first heard it spoken by the actor, Bryan Cranston on the “Malcom in the Middle” series. There are some days, some weeks, when the phrase seems to capture the spirit of our age.
Last week was one of those weeks. “I’ll be there by 11,” said the men who wanted to pick up my old refrigerator (at no cost) and restore it. A 1960 Coldspot, still running, had been left over from our estate sale. Quality vintage items are treasures, and I abhor waste, so I didn’t want to see it hauled away to the landfill.
A Sears repair technician, days away from leaving the company to deploy to Afghanistan, told me that appliances today, the “good” ones, are designed to last 8 years. I had heard the same thing from a retiring technician with 30 years experience, so I believe what the young man said is true. The number of appliances that have crossed my own threshold, having lived past their ability to be repaired in a few short years, also gives credence to his words.
The opinion of two “insiders” plus my own experience gives lie to the claim of “quality” that is postured by appliance manufacturers, but in our time we must examine that claim with relativity and corporate cultural context, where “quality” depends on what your definition of the word “is” is, to paraphrase former president Bill Clinton. Indeed, modern refrigerators work so much harder and are so much better at keeping our food cold that they give out in 8 years instead of 58, and it’s not a lie if what you said would be true if the facts were different.
Eleven o’clock came and went and the old refrigerator still sat in the backyard by the basement door looking quite forlorn. I didn’t bother calling the two gentlemen who failed to show up, remembering the distinct odor of poorly metabolized whiskey that surrounded them. Jack Daniels may function at times as a temporary truth serum. It may inspire on occasion the deepest sincerity. But it is not a reliable catalyst for making and keeping commitments.
It was a long trip up the hill on a hand truck for our noble machine, and both the refrigerator and I were relieved when it was finally settled at the top of the driveway. The metal to plastic ratio of a 1960 refrigerator is considerably higher than that of a modern appliance. My wife put a sign on it that said “Free- working 1960 vintage refrigerator,” and we hoped that someone would take advantage of the opportunity.
I thought that moment had arrived when, later that day, the pizza delivery guy mentioned that he had a side business hauling scrap metal, and that he would like to restore the refrigerator himself, as well as pick the scrap metal out of the construction dumpster we were using to empty the house. “I’ll be there at 7:30 sharp tomorrow morning,” he said.
Seven thirty came and went and Scrap Metal Pizza Man did not. I knew that the next day the city would remove the refrigerator from the street and it would end up as scrap metal despite my best efforts, so about 4 PM I called SMPM at work. “Oh, I’m sorry. I had a family emergency this morning and didn’t have any way to contact you” he said. The pizza restaurant is two blocks away from our house, and it’s not a lie if what you said would be true if the facts were different.
Where do we find honesty and integrity these days? I realize that this is just anecdotal evidence, but I’m pretty sure that the first place I would look would not be among the ranks of the whiskey soaked, or 40 year old guys who deliver pizzas and haul scrap metal and have family emergencies.
We all know that repeated applications of alcohol and drugs will etch a person’s honor like acid etches metal. I also believe that hardship and privation, and the ongoing necessity of cutting corners and making ends meet, can in some cases destroy a person’s integrity. Only a psychopath robs a liquor store for the fun of it.
The lack of integrity can cut across all the boundaries of all the myriad identities we have for labels these days. Some of the most humble can be the most honest. Some of the most successful can be the most deceptive. I’m thinking of a former supervisor, young and intelligent, prosperous, church going. He would, as the old expression goes, “lie as quickly as a cat would lick its hind end.” When caught in a lie he would say, “I didn’t say that. I would never say that. You must have misunderstood what I said.”
Of course, dishonesty was not invented in our time. The old expression about the cat was my great grandfather’s, and from the Bible to Shakespeare and in the great literature of the world, the story of lying and its consequences is told and retold.
But lying today is empowered by technology if not actually embraced by elements of our culture. Truth is considered to be relative; good and bad are functions of cultural context, and reality itself is considered to be malleable.
The tale of the noble refrigerator ends well, however. On the morning before the city came to collect our recyclables, I saw a man in a pickup truck carefully, almost reverently, loading up our old friend to haul it away. I don’t know if he was an honest man or not, but I am convinced that he was, at least, able to recognize quality.