BRIEFCASES, once designed to carry a burden, now appear to have become one. Advisers, at least, have been assuring me a businessman can no longer expect to grapple successfully with the rough-and-tumble world of modern commerce unless he arms himself with a case capable of ``making a silent statement about just who he is.'' As one imaginative gentleman put it, coming straight (I think) to the point: ``Can you imagine Don Quixote setting foot outside La Mancha without a lance?'' It is true, I do have problems coping with life's rough tumbles -- finding the mate to a sock on my left foot, opening a can of clam chowder without giving the kitchen cabinets a taste, backing down my driveway of an early morning while dodging both the neighbor's cat and my curbside mailbox. The prospect of something so simple as an attach'e case not only bringing order to my life but embodying my identity for the world to behold is inspiring.
Unfortunately, every case displayed for my inspection has been sleek and slim, and they all contain -- tidily arranged -- one pocket calculator, one passport, three file folders, a pen and pencil set, a spiral address book, and a pair of wire glasses, if not a bow tie. If I could organize myself to travel that lightly, a tote would be superfluous. The paraphernalia I grab before dashing to work on any given day may consist of Saturday's crossword puzzle (half worked), a mysterious shopping list (probably the object of a frantic search last Dec. 22), a checkbook (sometimes with checks in it), a packet of tomato seeds, five newspapers, eight magazines, two books, one and a half granola bars, and the last three catalogs from L. L. Bean. My requirements do challenge advisers.
``Ma'am,'' I inquired of one of these clerks, ``doesn't anyone, anymore, sell an ordinary, plain, rather fat briefcase?'' Her bewildered stare suggested I had spilled oatmeal on my tie at breakfast.
``If you mean attach'e case,'' she intoned, ``I am confident you will find our monogrammed samples to your liking.'' Confidence waned somewhere between case A and model ZZ. Her restraint snapped entirely when I left the store empty-handed. ``Sir,'' she called, ``if you want an honest opinion, I doubt you will ever make the grade as a Yuppie!''
``Think of an attach'e case as your coat of arms,'' instructed the gentleman of quixotic analogy, desperately shifting imagery when he realized lances had not pinned a sale. ``Consider this item with the combination lock, won't you?'' I would. ``Can you imagine its subtle elegance confiding to the world: `There goes a man of exquisite taste, a man of distinction'?'' I could. But I regained sense enough to ask, ``Suppose, confidentially, the world doesn't give a hoot; is there a rebate?''
Until corrected by these sober revelations, I had somehow skipped through life assuming my identity depended on something less tangible than, and not quite so expensive as, an attach'e case. Suddenly, I sensed people regarding me as they would a lemming en route to the nearest cliff.
A kind saleslady promised to rescue me with an offering ``simply indispensable for an important person always on the go yet . . . yet -- this is so essential nowadays, don't you think -- ready to reach out anytime, anywhere, and touch someone.'' Considering our brief acquaintance, her assessment of my sensitivity surprised me. I was mistaken, of course. Inside the case, in a hidden compartment, lurked a cordless telephone. Owning this marvelous innovation, she concluded, was guaranteed to mark me as a man of decisive action.
She was half right. Discreetly turning over the case to glimpse a price tag, I decisively withheld a scream. To spare us the embarrassment of pursuing the matter further, however, I succumbed to a cheaper, wooden model.
Wooden cases, I suppose, are fine if you lunch in upscale bistros. It was, perhaps, my unique misfortune to dine in a noisy fast-food caf'e near a small boy whose stuffed Care Bear wore around its neck a curious medallion; this later revealed itself to be a metal shoehorn. After lunch I slid the case from beneath my chair and discovered boy and bear had spent a fruitful half hour venting a suppressed ambition to horn Mt. Rushmore out of rosewood.
Shortly after dispensing with advisers, I happened upon the case I now enjoy. This one resists scratches, exudes an air of slightly disheveled comfort, bulges without complaint, and once performed meritorious duty as an umbrella (at the time, it was transporting a dozen cans of clam chowder, too). Best of all, it allows me to dine in peace, for it is a simple matter to request, on any subsequent trip to the supermarket, that my groceries be packed in another of those dandy plastic sacks with handles.
Others may speculate, as they wish, on what this tote divulges about my persona. I suspect we might spare ourselves a bit of agony if, before presuming to make ourselves over into who others think we'd like to be, we determined who we are. That tumble is rough enough and, even nowadays, I maintain, worthy of a good grapple.