Third-Class Citizen

Whose lifestyle is it anyway?

The page fell open to Item No. 7000J: Oralgiene Electric Tongue Cleaner. This device "vibrates to effectively eliminate the plaque coating from your tongue without causing a gag reflex," the text explained. "Use it after brushing and flossing for optimum oral hygiene."

It is the time of year for casting a last, wistful look at the moldering piles of seasonal catalogues, and for marveling once more at the ingenious outlets that human expression has found. I found myself taking notes. Item No. NS922OJ: The Revolutionary Guillotine Cigar Cutter. "A working model, with a real stainless steel blade, mounted on gold plated framework. Detailed down to the bucket that fortunately now receives only cigar tips." Tony Soprano probably has one—and yet so must thousands of ordinary people, given that NS922OJ keeps appearing in catalogue after catalogue. Item No. V8050J: Shiitake Mushroom Log. "Just add water, place the log in a cool, dark place ... and it will produce a first crop in 10 days." Item No. 50700J: The "Keep Your Distance" Insect Vacuum. "Flies, bees, spiders, and other insects are suctioned by the 14,000 rpm fan and drawn into a sealed disposable cartridge." Item No. M235: Life Hammer. "What happens if your seat belts won't release, or the door locks jam? The Germans, no strangers to high-speed fatals, have developed a Life Hammer." Item No. M697: Autobahn Non-Skid Desk. "Strap Autobahn Desk into your front passenger seat with the existing seatbelt, and establish a spacious, flexible work space right next to you ... Non-skid material keeps your briefcase or computer from sliding when you hit the brakes!" No wonder they needed a Life Hammer.

Every year the miracle of recombinant mail-order DNA brings new biota into the house. I have only the typical layman's grasp of where these things come from, but I welcome them all. This winter saw the unbidden arrival of the largest and most exotic specimen ever—The Extreme Covert Catalog, a thick compendium of espionage equipment and supplies. It is safe to say that The Extreme Covert Catalog would satisfy almost anyone's routine surveillance and countersurveillance needs. It sells video cameras hidden in eyeglasses, video cameras mounted on tiny helicopters, video cameras embedded in what look like chunks of roadway asphalt heaved up by frost. It sells wiretap-detection systems, computer-keystroke recorders, cell-phone interceptors, vehicle-tracking devices, and armored bodywear. At $480, the Japanese-made Hyper30 Wave Wall jamming unit is hard to resist; it shuts down all cell-phone communications within thirty meters. Item No. 135620: Reverse Peephole Scope. "No more guessing at who or what you will be greeted by when they answer the door." Item No. NT-D210: Flying Spider. "Fires a large spider-like net over a fleeing suspect, or ... anyone else one would wish to net."

The Extreme Covert Catalog provides contact information for a wide array of services and retailers. Spousewatcher.com offers "the top seven ways to spy on your significant other." Disappearing.com sells a system that "lets individuals write their messages in the digital equivalent of disappearing ink." Tanksforsale.co.uk lives up to its name, with armored vehicles from Eastern Europe (or from World War II) and even some secondhand artillery. The catalogue is careful to note that the use of certain technologies by private parties in the United States may constitute a federal Title III felony, and that some products cannot legally be imported. It adds helpfully, "There are at least three worldwide mail drop directories on the market as we speak, who will, for a small payment, collect and forward your mail to you sans incriminating return address."

I'm still not sure how I got on Extreme Covert's list—probably not through Orvis or Lands' End. The cover letter that came with the catalogue stated simply, "The Extreme Covert Catalog has your number."

When the Sears mail-order catalogue ceased publication, in 1993, after nearly a century, newspapers around the country lamented "the passing of a way of life." Scholars noted the catalogue's important role in uniting a far-flung nation, and observed that its value as a tool of historical inquiry remained immense. The commodious seasonal volumes hold an intimate record of social aspirations and commercial realities, of economic activity and leisure time, of changes in technology and fashion and taste. Historians use them to help reconstruct ordinary American domestic life of the 1890s or 1930s in astonishing detail.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In