The band plays on

It is a pleasure to report that the good old rubber band seems to be stretching resiliently into the '80s. Nobody has invented a plastic substitute yet. The rubber band is still the simplest and cheapest way to roll a newsboy's paper, keep a lobster's claws closed, color- code different grades of scallions, rig an orthodontist's braces, or maybe hold onto your party hat when you hear astounding statistics like these, relayed by the New York Times from Akron, Ohio , the Rubber Band Capital of the World:

Some 25 million pounds of rubber bands are sold each year in the United States, at a going price of around $1 a pound. Since there are about 4,000 rubber bands of the newsboy's size in each pound, we're talking about 100 billion rubber bands.

Why is the rubber band so popular, you ask. We suggest that, like chicken wire, friction tape, and the bobby pin, the rubber band stands in the honorable American tradition of make-do. Seldom does a rubber band represent the ideal bit of equipment for the job. A rubber band is the get-me-home-on-a-dark-night device that holds a wiring harness in place -- just barely -- on a 12-year-old car. Wound and rewound, a rubber band can stabilize a record player arm that has lost one of those tiny but irreplaceable screws.

The rubber band is a plucky defensive effort, designed to keep the center from falling apart and chaos taking over.

You cannot imagine a rubber band staying in place forever, like a paper clip. The paper clip is a rigid gadget -- the tool of the orderly mind at its most inflexible. A paper clip even has its position prescribed: upper left-hand corner. A paper clip is the army.

Stretch a rubber band and it comes alive. Stretch a paper clip and you get a broken metal pretzel.

A rubber band doesn't have the confidence to clamp or shackle. It just sort of tentatively gathers in.

A rubber band is a reluctant leash that allows things to wander but not quite get lost.

A rubber band is not sure neatness is worth the price. On the other hand, it believes that real messes should be controlled, or at least disguised.

A rubber band is less a command than a question: Shape up?m

There are rather pleasant rituals associated with the rubber band. Some people like to smooth out any twists -- make the band lie flat. For others, the game is to choose the right size of band, or even the wrong size. Nothing in the line of desk work is more thrilling than taking a small band and carefully expanding it to a larger diameter than it was ever intended for. One knows the delicious terror of a bomb squad.

Children like to chew rubber bands. Most adults, if not being observed, enjoy sniffing rubber bands now and then. Rubber bands and gum erasers are the last organic smells in an office desk. For the rest, it's chemicals -- type cleaner and white-out fluids.

One manufacturer claims the rubber band has 2,000 uses. We don't want to hear anybody say: "Isn't that stretching it?" On the other hand, we don't want to hear about probably 1,978 of those uses.

Maybe the important news is that the durable rubber band connects -- loosely, of course -- our present to our past.

The Proustian scent of a rubber band is enough to bring back second grade.

In a certain attic a rubber band holds together a stack of family letters over 30 years old. The band is red and thick. One knows what the letters say. One can almost hear the voices. The band is red and cracked, like drying clay. Some hot, dry summer day it will break from its own tension. Or perhaps, some fresh spring morning, while taking winter clothes up and summer clothes down, one will risk all and tenderly stretch the band, releasing the letters and everything that's in them. In the meantime, the rubber band makes the perfect retainer -- as casual as an arm around a shoulder.

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