An Umbrella's Ups and Downs

I saw a television commercial the other day in which a woman with a remarkable umbrella that went up and down with a one-handed press of a button defeated a man with an old-fashioned nonautomatic job that was ... well ... persistently "up."

In a race in the rain up the steps to their adjacent brownstones, the woman deftly deconstructed her umbrella with one hand while holding a package with the other, and popped into her building. The hapless man, meanwhile, struggled with a bag of groceries, tried clumsily to put his bumbershoot down by hand, and ended up spilling his oranges all over the stoop.

It was impossible not to admire the woman's suave skill, but my heart was with the man. I immediately remembered the time I was in something of the same pickle, not in competition on a benign brownstone doorstep, nor encumbered with oranges, but alone at a bus stop on the busy corner of 33rd and St. Paul in the fair city of Baltimore.

Rush hour, of course. And there I stood in the rain, waiting for the bus and sheltering myself under what was then the latest: a newfangled umbrella that would go up - Bzzzzt! - with the push of a button. (Bringing it down with a touch would have to await pretty near the end of the century.)

Presently the bus arrived, loaded with standees. "Room for one more, Mac!" called the driver as he swung the doors open. "Thanks," I said and stepped onto the bottom step. I turned curb-ward to close my umbrella.

Nothing happened. I pushed, I pulled, I tapped, I twisted, I cajoled. Nothing. There I stood, now wet from trying to deal with a wayward umbrella.

"Just a sec," I said to the driver. "I'll get 'er." But all I got was wetter because the umbrella defied me. There was no way I could board a bus - let alone a standing-room-only specimen - with an open umbrella.

Now your ordinary rush-hour commuters - to say nothing of bus drivers with schedules to meet - are not likely to have much patience with the kind of late-afternoon low comedy I was furnishing with my umbrella. I quickly developed a case of the jitters.

Then I realized that, far from being impatient, the driver was laughing. His belly-shaking mirth was catching, and the standees at the front of the crowded bus quickly joined in.

"Come on, buddy," one called out, as if at an athletic event.

"Sic 'em!" said another.

"Down, boy!" said a third, taking his cue from the previous exhortation.

Before long, the front of the bus was in a risible roar. Well, an educated man should know when he's licked. I stepped down with my umbrella still up, waved off the laughing bus, and walked home in the rain a wetter and wiser man.

From then on, I've worn raincoats and had kind thoughts about Baltimore. What other city ever had a busload of laughers at the evening rush hour?

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