Whimsy in an Unwhimsical World

'THERE," she said, checking her shopping list, "I guess I'm done - no, one more thing. Go pick out an anniversary card for the Armstrongs." We were in the extra-multiple, grand-slam, ultimate, Super-Shopper where the signs on the wall say, "We're Here For You!" and you can buy anything - if it's not on a shelf there's a customer-service counter to handle the unforeseen. And, it turns out, the ludicrous."Why should I pick out a card for the Armstrongs?" I uttered. "Let 'em go pick out their own card!" In our family, a crack like that means, "Sure, of course!" But a mischievous something had butted in, and I had a sudden bright idea. Instead of going to the greeting card display, I went to the special counter. This is where they develop film, sell lottery tickets, rent videos, collect for telephone bills, issue money orders, lease condos in Florida, make passport pictures, ship UPS parcels, sell tickets for the Eastern Star chicken pie supper, make photocopies, complete tax returns, and in general render all other services. There is no reason in the how-to book on corporate planning for the young lady to be unready for me. "Good morning," she said. "May I help you?" She smiled. "Please tell me," I said, "how much I would spend for a greeting card to send to our dear friends on their anniversary?" "They come different prices," she said, which I found later to be so. "Mention one," I said, smiling. I added, "Please." "Well - one-fifty, maybe one-fifty-five." This was not in her contract, I could now see, but she wasn't about to ask why I didn't go to the greeting card rack and look. "One fifty-five," I repeated. "That's fine! Will you make me out a gift certificate, please, in the amount of one-fifty-five, and it's for Mr. and Mrs. W. Armstrong Jr." Yes, she did. She inquired as to why I just didn't go and pick one out, and pay for it at the register. So I explained what whimsy is, and soon her abused and confused appearance broke into another smile. I made out my check for $1.55, and found my check-cashing card in my wallet. It has code bars on it and has to be passed over the scanner. It is number 5030180050. Oh, this is really a biggie of a store. We have mailed the gift certificate to Bob and Sue Armstrong, with the suggestion they pick out thei r own card this time. I don't know as I know why, either. But it has become more and more difficult in our great new unwhimsical world. I have a distant cousin, and sometimes not distant enough, who sent all his friends gift certificates from Nieman-Marcus for Christmas. Each certificate was good for $1. Last year he sent everybody coupons for $5 redeemable at W. T. Grant. My distant cousin is considered odd by many people, but he continues in a happy mood. Then I thought of my college-mate friend, Walter Whittier, who founded this very super-store where I was bandying at the counter. The first business in Maine to go over $1 billion a year. But Walter wasn't proudest of his business acumen and corporate success. He had a lot of fun making believe he was Joshua Hathaway, corresponding secretary of the fictitious Merchants Wharf Organ, Chowder & Marching Society. Once a year this organization held its annual centennial observance - always with two erudite lecturers from Harvard and Yale who, to save time, spoke simultaneously. The Society was dedicated to the cultural uplift of the Portland waterfront. Having prepared his elaborate program for this dignified event, Walter would then send invitations to prominent p eople requesting their attendance in a co-sponsoring capacity. Once in a while one of these honored guests would come. But Walter took his amusement from the letters of regret, which were tacked to the wall in Vinnie Cavenaugh's boat shop. Just a week or so ago, some men who gather for a morning doughnut at a local lunch counter wrote to President Bush at Kennebunkport, suggesting he drop in some morning to relax and meet the boys. The official reply, just received from the White House, explains that pressure of public duties will prevent Mr. Bush from accepting thi s kind invitation.

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