Sunday, August 23, 2009

Stuff that Works

The older I get, the more I appreciate stuff that doesn't break or wear out. Maybe because, as I get older, I'm increasingly faced with the fear that I may break down or wear out (it's called fear of dying), and I don't want to believe it.
Back in the'60's and '70's, there was a lot of talk about planned obsolescence, the idea that products were deliberately designed to wear out quickly, since, if a product lasted forever, there would be no need to buy another one, and corporate America would suffer. I suspect the reason the concept is no longer a hot topic is that it has become so ingrained in our psyches. We take it for granted that stuff is going to have to be replaced every couple of years, or that (as in the case of my Apple computer and every cel phone on the planet) that's what the manufacturer has planned.
I would like to pinpoint three (actually four, since the oldest product I'm going to mention is a pair) products that have, in my opinion lasted well past the point when I would have expected them to give up the ghost.

The first is my Bianchi Cafe Racer, a handsome, beautifully designed riding-around bike I bought on the recommendation of my brother-in-law, Colin Powers, a one-time bike builder and an expert on all things outdoorsy. I bought the bike in 2000. Now that doesn't seem that long ago, but I have treated it so badly that in my opinion it's at least 20 years old in bike years.
I bought the bike when I lived in los Angeles (I should mention that my wife bought the same bike in green at the same time), and kept it tuned and protected, until I moved back to New York in 2002. At that point I brought the bike to my father-in-law's house in the country, since there was no way to store it in our tiny Brooklyn Heights apartment, and deposited it in his doorless, geodisic dome-shaped shed where it has lived ever since.
Every spring I bring it out, pump up the tires, oil the chain, and wipe the dust off the seat and handlebars. I ride it three or four times to the beach over the course of the summer, and then I put it back in the shed, where it sits all winter, collecting dust and suffering through the snow and rain.
What makes me appreciate this bike is the fact that, for all my lack of care, it still works as well as it did when I picked it up from the bike shop 20 (bike) years ago. The salt and sun and dust have caused the beautiful black and red paint job to fade a bit, but the machinery still functions perfectly. The gears shift as effortlessly as ever, the brakes still allow me to stop on a dime, the ride is still as smooth as that of a 1965 Cadillac.

In 1997, I purchased a Braun coffee grinder from a department store in one of the malls that surrounds central Austin. It was a no-frills grinder, cost under $30. It did nothing except grind the coffee. No clock or timer, no measuring tool, just a couple of blades inside a plastic cylinder.
12 years later, I still use that grinder every morning. I have tried to find an excuse to get rid of it, to get something fancier, but I cannot. This grinder does what it's supposed to, faithfully, efficiently, reliably. There is, much to my chagrin, absolutely no reason to replace it.
I'm sure that there was a time when people expected their utensils to last this long. I know my mother had pots and pans and kitchen utensils that belonged to her mother. But I continue to be amazed that an electrical appliance, something that plugs in, and that I have used almost every day for over 12 years, continues to work as well as it did the day I brought it home.

Finally, there are these socks. What can you say about socks? Nothing. You put them on in the morning, you take them off and throw them in the laundry at night. Who notices them? Especially when they're black or navy blue. They're just socks. But these socks... I bought these socks at Brooks Brother in 1984 or 1985. That's 25 years ago! And they still work! They still fit! No holes, no dead elastic. Whatever happens to socks to make them wear out hasn't happened to them. God bless these socks, God bless Brooks Brothers.
And God bless me.

Stuff That Works - Guy Clark