When I was a kid -- maybe 10 or 11 -- I was invited to a costume party for Halloween. To add some spice to my outfit, I pilfered my mother's makeup chest and did a job on my face. I was a warrior of some kind, but within an hour or so, I was definitely sick. The smell of makeup, at least some makeup, makes me nauseated.
I tell you this because today has begun with an attempt to read New York magazine. There is an article in it by Joe Klein, a talented writer I admire, on Sen. Paul Simon's presidential campaign. Simon is also someone I admire, but his campaign has left me a bit puzzled. Can he reconcile his promise to balance the budget with his promise to fund a huge jobs program? Is Simon yet another Ronald Reagan, a comforting presence whose message, in effect, is "Don't worry." Maybe Klein can tell me.
So I start reading the article. I make it through eight paragraphs before I have to give up. The scent of perfume is wafting up at me. It seems to be coming from Simon, whose smiling picture is on the facing page. As usual, Simon is wearing his horn-rimmed glasses, a red bow tie and, this time, a raincoat. He seems the epitome of the no-nonsense midwesterner, yet -- unmistakably -- from Simon or from somewhere around Simon comes the scent of perfume. I gag. This must be the stuff my mother wore.
I flip back through the magazine. There, a mere 13 pages before, is an insert from Tiffany & Co., the famous Fifth Avenue jewelry store. But Tiffany is not selling jewelry in its insert. It's selling perfume -- or, as the store prefers to call it, "parfum and eau de parfum." The "parfum" in question is called Rhapsody in Blue, and next to a picture of the bottle are instructions: "Open here to release the scent of Tiffany."
Too late. The scent, the overpowering smell of the stuff, has permeated the magazine. The "eau" has washed onto Paul Simon. By proximity to the Tiffany insert, Simon has gone from presidential candidate to "walker" for some rich lady with a poodle -- a kind of political Jerry Zipkin. No president can smell like that and do business with the Russians.
I am a man of a zillion causes, and I do not discriminate between the cosmic and the inconsequential. My life is consumed with petty indignations. I pose questions for which there seem to be no answers. Why, for instance, do the garbagemen come so early in the morning? Why can't they work normal hours and pick up the garbage while you and I are at work? Why must they come -- why are they permitted to come -- at 6 or 6:30 in the morning? The Washington area has restrictions on everything -- flights into National Airport, the height of buildings -- but garbagemen are permitted to bang cans, yell "Yo!" and back up their trucks, producing a shrill beep-beep, at an hour when most everyone is asleep. Why? You tell me.
Or another indignation: sidewalks. Once they were made only of concrete. It is good, sturdy stuff and, better than that, you can actually walk on it. But now sidewalks have been gussied up. They are made of what seems to be granite or marble, or of bricks that have been waxed and buffed to a slippery glaze. A little rain, a little snow and these sidewalks are like glass. If I am wearing leather-soled shoes, I have to thread my way around them, like a man walking through a mine field of banana peels. I have to go in and out of lobbies, sometimes dart into the street. Why are these sidewalks legal? Why?
I have another question for you: Where's the call that's waiting if you have a telephone with the call-waiting function? My sister has a business phone that allows her to keep more than one call waiting. Sometimes she has two or three. She works in Providence, R.I., and imagines her calls stacked up over Boston, like airplanes waiting to land. I imagine planes and calls circling, the pilots having to keep an eye out for the calls: "A collect call at 12 o'clock high. A conference call off the right wing." Where are the telephone calls? Where?
But lately, my obsession is magazines that reek of perfume. (This obsession has even taken the place of my obsession with those subscription cards that fall out of magazines when you open them.) Perfume inserts started in women's magazines, where they belong, if they belong anywhere. But now they have crossed over to general-interest magazines. People magazine just had one for Xia Xiang, "the fragrance of the imagination." The imagination, my foot. It all makes me want to dash into some advertising director's office and dump a pail of perfume over him: "There! How do you like having to smell something that makes you sick?"
We can only be grateful that these inserts did not exist years ago, when Ernest Hemingway was writing for Esquire. I cannot imagine reading "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" in the '30s while inhaling the scent of Rhapsody in Blue or reading, in The New Yorker in the '60s, an Isaac Bashevis Singer tale of life in the shtetl with Xia Xiang going up my nose. Better a scented insert that reeks of gangrene (the disease killing the chronicler of Hemingway's tale) than some frilly whiff from Tiffany's.
So, adieu, Paul Simon and au revoir, Joe Klein. What may be the best reporting of the presidential campaign will go unread by me. I sat down with a cup of coffee and a magazine to, in a way, have breakfast with Simon. Instead, I had breakfast at Tiffany's and -- take it from me -- it stinks. ::