IT is a typical shopping day before Christmas. The department store has been transformed into a seasonal fantasy filled with poinsettias, wreaths, trees, and garlands of greenery, all designed to put shoppers in a festive mood. But in the men's department, amid the twinkling lights and tinkling holiday Muzak, a scratchy male voice suddenly breaks the seasonal spell. ``You're an idiot!'' the voice blurts out. After a pause, a second insult punctuates the air: ``Drop dead!''
I beg your pardon?
The raspy voice continues, barking out ``You're a dope!'' Another pause, then another splutter: ``Stupid jerk!''
Several male customers huddled around the counter burst into laughter. Only then do other shoppers discover the source of these verbal assaults - a small black device resembling a Walkman, this one called The Final Word. Just push a button and presto! - instant insults, yours for only (only?) $16.50.
``I'll take it!'' one of the young men at the counter says gleefully, reaching for his wallet.
The manufacturer describes The Final Word as a ``pre-programmed state-of-the-art electronic voice synthesizer that, at the push of a button, says all those things you'd rather not say yourself.'' The company suggests it is ``the hilarious way to be dead serious with all those obnoxious people in your life!'' What kind of obnoxious people, you ask? Possible candidates include ``nagging in-laws, pushy sales people, IRS agents, nosey neighbors, lousy drivers, ex-spouses, know-it-all bosses.''
As the carton suggests to prospective users, ``Don't keep your frustrations buried inside.''
So much for a 'tis-the-season-to-be-jolly approach to the holidays.
Who buys a gimmick like this? ``Oh, lots of people,'' a clerk says authoritatively after completing the sale to the young man. ``It's big-time. Ladies buy it for their bosses, they say.'' Then, warming to the subject, he adds, ``It's one of those things you hate but you're tempted to buy - you know?''
Not really. At a time when violence and hostility continue to cast a long shadow over the country, this little insult machine serves as a disconcerting symbol of a national mood of confrontation, of rancor abroad in the land.
From disgruntled drivers flashing obscene gestures at one another during rush hour to angry youths firing bullets on urban streets, the Hostility Index grows. Politics has become a rude and angry arena. The Daily News strike in New York has been described as one of the most violent and hostile in many years. A sign on the Washington Beltway warns commuters to prepare for the possibility of ``sudden aggravation.'' And evidence mounts of a growing collective anger among the Haves toward the homeless Have-nots as they camp in doorways and plead for change on sidewalks.
Still, anger is a high-visibility emotion that can seem more prevalent than it is. Here and there, early signs hint that even the angry are shocked at their own emotions. This was the year of angry candidates, and it was supposed to be the year of angry voters. But the temper tantrum at the polls that was expected to ``throw the rascals out'' never quite took place. And it was John Silber's own anger and unbridled tongue that contributed to his defeat in the race for governor of Massachusetts.
Even at the department store counter, another clerk a few days later offers a different perspective on the rudeness of the voice synthesizer. ``I've only been here two weeks,'' he says, ``but I've sold only one. It's hard to imagine people wanting to buy something like this, especially at the holidays, isn't it?''
The salesman is right. This is not the month to hark to the voices of the bashers. By custom, December is off-season for war - a time-out for truce, the annual low point on the Hostility Index. Could there be less suitable gifts for Christmas than toy guns for children and insult boxes for adults?
Every year, Christmas fights for its life against being exploited in ways beyond number by the greedy and the cynical. Here is one small issue where a line can be drawn. Instead of a babble of synthesized put-downs, let the final, unsynthesized word be: ``Peace on Earth, goodwill to men.'' No batteries required.