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D E C E M B E R 1 9 9 9
by Alex Beam
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From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: "Buddy Can You Spare Some Time?" (September 1, 1999)
"Let Streamline lend an expert hand," I read. "Let us do your grocery shopping. Make the bottle returns. Drop off the dry cleaning. Rent the videos. Lug the bags of pet food. And much more." They'll also pick up packages, get my film processed, and even buy firewood. The flyer includes a fill-in-the-blanks calculator to demonstrate that I waste about five hours a week performing the chores that Streamline will do for just $30 a month.
"At stake is your time," the company warns. Streamline suggests that I can use my recovered five hours "to make a home-cooked meal, bake cupcakes, or get some exercise." But it is more likely that I would use the time to watch sports on television, evade garden work, or explore new arenas of conflict with my spouse of many years.
My generation's frenetic busyness is the great market opportunity of our time. Intelligent men and women don't read newspapers -- they won't even sit still for thirty minutes of television news -- because they are so busy. Leave the house for a nice meal? Who can spare the time? Social theorists observe in hectoring tones that we parents are too harried, and that our children are mortally overscheduled. Right around the time that Streamline approached me, President Bill Clinton complained in a speech that today's parents spend twenty-two fewer hours a week with their families than their mothers and fathers did. A service like Streamline must be the answer. If only we could contract out the drudgery. If only we had more time ...
Part of me bows to the accumulated expertise of the social engineers who have targeted my ZIP code with their $30 cure for social anomie. But -- could they possibly have it backwards? I like shopping for groceries. I'm a flinty trader in the supermarket aisles and am notorious for bringing home "deals": ten boxes of what Calvin & Hobbes used to call Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs at $1.10 per (which of course no one will eat). Where I live, many families hire a minivan service to drive their children to school. But I enjoy driving my boys to school (although we all agree that they would be better advised to walk, preferably through sheet rain or blinding snowstorms); I can talk with them in the car. I don't even mind going to the video store. Would the Streamline drone have spotted the 1966 surfing classic The Endless Summer on the documentary shelf? I don't think so.
Why don't these people offer me a service I need? Maybe they would be interested in attending my employer's periodic pep rallies ("quarterly updates"), where the managers urge us to work harder for the same pay. Streamline could come to my house and listen to my mother-in-law's one-of-a-kind travel stories: "The plane was three hours late, and then the gate agent had no idea how to rebook us. Ginny didn't have her driver's license ..." Sounds like a job for Streamline!
There are plenty of other tasks they could perform. They could assume my protracted battles with American Express and Visa, the former over late payments, and the latter over mysterious "finance charges" that have been erupting on my billing statements like staph infections. I could perhaps throw a Streamline recruit into the trenches against the gas company, which disapproves of my innovative partial-payment plan.
What about a cultural briefing function? Aside from being long and loud, Mahler's Eighth Symphony has a grandeur that I find elusive. A Streamliner could doubtless straighten me out here. It's so fashionable to reread (hah!) Emerson or Proust; perhaps Streamline could do this for me. How about an Eisenhower-style one-page digest of all those magazines stacking up next to the armchair? I have time for Yankee and Runner's World. After that I'm pooped.
Streamline's youthful staffers could keep me apprised of the most recent migrants from black hip-hop patois into common usage. Like most of the subourgeoisie, I pepper my speech with gritty urbanisms, such as "down," "chill," and "hang." But now that I no longer live in California, I have no idea what's approaching on the word front. I know I should be using -- in fact, I have used -- the hip salutation "word up," but I'm not sure what it means. Streamline could be of assistance here.
So, yes, streamline, by all means, but don't trespass on my furtive pleasures. Let Streamline listen to "hold" music on the software help line, field charity solicitations at dinnertime, or read those tedious e-mailed jokes that circle the Internet like orbiting space garbage. That would free up all the time I need to hunt down specials in the cereal aisles, or to gab with my sons' soccer coach while waiting for a molasses-paced postal clerk.
Illustration by J. D. King.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.