Civilization was all very well in the Fifth Egyptian Dynasty but it has gone too far and nobody can cope with it now.
Things that seem to be great at the time they are invented and introduced into our society are invariably more trouble than they're worth, and I do not mean just telephones.
I mean stop lights. One of the distinctions of the capital is that half the stop lights do not work. Whether they need new light bulbs back of the pretty colored glass or whether they need new wires or whether somebody in city hall just forgets to turn them on, nobody knows.
When this first came to my attention some months ago on Albemarle Street it hardly bothered me. Anything with moving parts or alternating current is going to malfunction sooner or later. Within a few days or weeks the Albemarle lights began to work again, but others did not. For a time I kept a list of locations but of course lost it. If anybody at City Hall is interested, no doubt there are other citizens who can inform them. My own belief is that this is one of those things that you accept, in exchange for living in this gorgeous place, like dead bushes and weeds down the middle of Connecticut Avenue (this was corrected in only a year or a year and a half) and people double-parked on M Street.
The city government is not responsible. Oh, technically it is. But the city, like the citizen, simply has too much piled on it. Things are too complicated. Invention is the mother of snafu.
We all know superhuman efficient persons, usually secretaries, but even they hit snags. I know one who tried to run down a book about Australian aboriginals ("aborigines" is a BW, bad word) published by Collins. After a few hours discovering that nobody in town seemed to have it (though some book stores had heard of Collins, she believes) she phoned Manhattan for Collins Publishing, thinking they probably had an office there.
"Look, lady, I keep telling you we haven't got any books. But we have the best draught in town. Come in and you'll find out."
Collins Pub, in other words, is not the same as Collins Publishers, as directory assistance had hoped.
Another thing that is not what you think it is is the Arrivals Screen at Union Station. This week I got down there 25 minutes before the Amtrak from New Haven was due and was pleased to see it efficiently listed as 291 arriving at 11:49 on G-14. As Amtrak groupies know, the G gate is off to one side, and if you wander about the main waiting lobby you will miss arrivals through G, but like a well-mazed rat, I knew this from experience and stationed myself smack in front of G with a luggage cart. Civilization means you race about and find a luggage cart when you meet people.
After a bit the screen changed, and said 291 would arrive "at noon" on G-14. Okay. No big deal. But after a while, noticing no attendant anywhere, I asked a policeman if he knew what happened to 291, and he sent me to a nice little office elsewhere in the station.
"Came in at 11:55," a polite interested-looking (what's he doing in a train station?) man reported.
"Don't see how that's possible. I've been gazing at G-14 for an hour and I guarantee you nobody came through that door."
"Well, let's see. Ah. It arrived on K-18," he said, with the air of one who has guessed Jefferson's birthday correctly on a quiz show.
"Since you changed the arrival time on the screen, why not change the gate to the right one?"
"Oh, we do, if we are notified," he said.
"Well it's 12:20 now and your screen still says G-14. But you, at least, know it came in at K-18."
"Maybe I can page your friends," he said, wishing to be helpful (like the directory assistance lady with Collins Pub).
"They've had 25 minutes to get through the lobby," I said affably, "and probably have had time to find a cab." (A mad guess, of course, but a correct one.)
In the old days, before video screens and unattended INFORMATION desks displaying timetables which you probably rely on if you have recently bought the Brooklyn Bridge, you just went down to the platform and waited for the approaching steam and the friendly bellow of Great-Lunged One who roared that Pottstown was in.
One of the worst aspects of civilization is the education of tots. I do not refer here to the tedious complaint that kids are dumb. On the contrary, they are all prodigies until the age of 6, and are grossly encouraged to explore the world and to ask questions.
One such marvel, who had just discovered navels, approached his grandmother, a woman one did not trifle with, with the demand to see her "tummy button."
"Tom, dear," she said, "I do not have one."
Actually, in the interest of accuracy in media, this incident occurred several decades ago, and the biologically inclined tot, thank the Lord, was not utterly disheartened from research and is now one of the distinguished men of science in this capital. He does not, however, (for early chill wilts many a bud) specialize in bellybuttons any more. He might have been the greatest.
The toll of civilization has depressed the spontaneous animal in all of us. By the time one has checked the warranty cards for the wheel locks, updated the list of credit cards, rechecked the number you call when you lose them, rehearsed what to do when the bank machine eats up your money card, studied the 46 warning signs for traffic as you drive two blocks to the hardware store, tried once more to tell Saks' computer you really did pay for the wool socks you bought your wife for Christmas, etc., etc., the day is shot.
And yet one should never be cowed by all this. Cheer is the word. Life is too short to grumble. For my part I look for bright linings and good news.
Did you know, for example, that the island of Grenada is the only sovereign state that ever issued a commemorative stamp in honor of Elvis Presley? I have a first-day cover (it was issued in August 1978) that has not only this pretty picture of the rock 'n' roll artist but also an inscription:
"With great dignity Grenada commemorates Elvis Presley 1935-1977."
Dignity, reverence for music--these are the good things of civilization and don't you forget it.