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.