The woman in the waiting room

NOT all profound ideas came from Einstein. At least one profound idea came from Epstein, and I may have the name wrong at that.

Sitting in one of those garage waiting rooms, hoping for the resurrection of my car to be announced, I found myself watching a soap opera on the television at one end of the room. The set was kept on continuously for the mollification of any rebellious customer who happened to arrive in a steaming snit. (I myself had arrived in an ailing Buick.) There were about 10 in the room, all watching the screen in stony-eyed mollification.

A nicely groomed, middle-aged woman sat next to me, nipping on peanut butter crackers which she had acquired from a nearby machine only after hitting it for refusing a Canadian quarter.

She offered me a cracker by way of seducing me into conversation.

''My late husband wouldn't watch television,'' she said.

''I'm sorry,'' I said, hoping the reply was adequate.

''What's wrong with television?'' she demanded.

The question suggested a conversation so vast, so erudite, and so unpleasant that it seemed out of place in the anteroom of a garage. So I just shrugged it off.

''Nothing,'' she said by way of an answer. ''I am one of those people who happen to like television.''

This is probably where I should have said, ''I'm sorry.''

She paused, delicately removing a crumb from the corner of her mouth with a middle finger. On the TV screen a bearded doctor had just enticed the young nurse into an empty room and was covering her with whiskered kisses, unaware that the nurse's brother, an escaped con, was hiding in the closet with a revolver.

''It's strange,'' she continued, ''that nobody likes television but everybody watches it. I can't understand that. It's educational. It stabilizes America.''

Stabilizes America?

I hadn't heard a statement so filled with sweeping assurance since we bought a vacuum cleaner from a salesman friend of my wife's.

''America needs something to stabilize it, don't you think?''

At this propitious moment the garage announcer, in well-modulated voice - which no doubt added $8 to my bill - activated the loudspeaker and said, ''Mr. Le Pelley's car is ready.'' Then he added, ''Will Mrs. Epstein please contact the parts department about her missing spring.'' A fitting comment, if I ever heard one.

That was that. We both rose and went our separate ways. I heard a shot on television as I departed, which no doubt had a stabilizing effect on somebody.

But my world had been upset. Was it possible, I wondered, that television, this nearly imbecilic portrayer of frayed modern ethics, could be a force for stabilization in America?

Before television, how many of us had any idea of the grisly things going on in business offices, hospitals, and hotels all over the world? Now we know, and we know how to deal with them.

For instance, if one's daughter happens to fall in love with some commie-biochemist who is endangering humanity's normal genetic patterns, or one's wife is being blackmailed because she engaged in illegal Bingo games 25 years ago, television gives us the answer.

The correct procedure is to meet with a darkly attractive woman in a dimly lit restaurant, where you won't be recognized, and talk it over. However, it is almost certain you will be overheard by a dissolute private eye who recognizes you as one who shared a cab with a wet blonde on a rainy night in Hackensack.

But there is no unacceptable violence. The clever way television has eliminated violence is worthy of some notice.

It is done by the destruction of automobiles. Americans love their automobiles. They are like members of the family. So cars are murdered instead of people.

At least five cars are smashed in every episode. They are blown up, driven over cliffs, and banged into other cars in such a way that they tumble, slide, and dance all the way to destruction in slow motion.

But no people get hurt. They are always pulled free five seconds before the car explodes.

So I've been thinking about it. Maybe America is becoming stabilized by television.

I hope so. Because, if it isn't, a lot of good automobiles are being smashed up for nothing.

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