For a long time now I’ve been looking around for something to expose. My motivation is simple, honest, and inevitable — I want to become famous like Jessica Mitford, Ralph Nader, and the Chicago Daily News.
But wanting to tell the truth about something dastardly in our society and finding the appropriate subject to tell the truth about are two different matters, especially when you consider that the undertakers, auto manufacturers, and unwed mothers are already spoken for.
I’ve let my imagination roam among the possible targets. I toyed with the idea of exposing the articulated doll people (Barbie, Ken, and that pretty new creation G.I. Joe). The difficulty here is that, literally, there is nothing to expose. I’ve thought of exposing that fact itself, pointing out certain rather basic differences between, say, the twelve-inch model of G.I. Joe and his real-life counterpart, but my children begged me to hold off. They do not consider it fitting for their mother to discuss publicly sex, or the lack of it.
I’ve thought of exposing insurance investigators or the nation’s few holdouts against the hot-lunch program or the packaging genius who invented that tragic phrase “Open at the Other End.” Don’t think the possibility of exposing the AMA hasn’t entered my fertile little mind, too.
Somehow, though, none of these possibilities seemed to hit the bull’seye. What was wrong? I then analyzed what makes an exposer great. My research took me to the masthead of one of my town’s newspapers, one of the three not billed as “the world’s greatest.” This independent newspaper, too modest for superlatives, announces in boldface type directly under the list of its guiding hands (both dead and alive) that it has received three Pulitzer gold medals.
I’d like that.
So I asked myself, what did it get the medals for?
For “disinterested and meritorious public service.”
There, now, I was getting somewhere. The reason I couldn’t find a suitable target to expose in the public interest was that I was too interested. I could be meritorious from dawn to dusk, but unless I attained that critical attitude of devil-may-care unconcern, the gold medals would continue to elude me and my name would never make the best-seller lists or even, I suspected, a boldface masthead.
It was then that I set about not caring. What did Western Union matter to me? What cared I for its Candygrams, its Dollygrams, its Santagrams, or even its “suggested sentiments for many occasions”? I could take them or leave them. With Western Union I was not emotionally involved.
So I dialed Western Union, and in my coldest, most blasé voice, proceeded to dictate a wire of congratulations to friends who were about to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary come Sunday. Exposure was the furthest thought from my mind. All I wanted was to wish my friends well because, by cracky, I couldn’t stop myself from caring about them.
Western Union and I had a little argument about why their offices at crossroads, hamlets, and even respectable villages closed on weekends.
Old W.U. told me that while they would probably be able to phone a Sunday wire, they couldn’t guarantee me anything in the way of delivery. After all, they said, their business file (business to business, business to individual, but never individual to individual) kept them busy all week, but they had only the social file to occupy them on weekends, and it simply didn’t amount to much.
What did the social file include? I inquired.
Oh, all the old personal stuff — happy birthday, happy anniversary, instant money, arrivals and departures. Even departures for the Great Unknown? Yes, said W.U. in a businesslike voice. If I really wanted to get the word around quickly, I’d telephone.
See what happens when an investigator becomes truly disinterested? I was making progress. I was closing in on Western Union. In the interests of public service, I then inquired of W.U. why it wouldn’t permit me to send a valentine in any month but February.
“We put the valentine blanks back in storage,” it snapped back. “We just don’t have room, what with Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, and the big run on holiday greetings.”
“You mean to tell me,” I said crisply, “that Western Union won’t let me ask anyone to be my valentine out of season? What if I want to drum up a sweetheart in October?”
“You’ll have to use the regular blank. Or send a Candygram, the world’s sweetest gift message.”
“Bah,” I said, tonelessly. My exposé was coming right along. I felt so meritorious! I couldn’t care less. I began to dictate the anniversary wire: “Congratulations to Dorothy and Francis,” I said, enunciating slowly and carefully and taking pains to get that “i” in “Francis.” “Sorry we can’t be with you for thirty dash,” I continued, “but we’ll be with you for fifty for sure exclamation point.”
“No exclamation points,” said Western Union.
Bingo! My exposé was taking shape right under my disinterested nose.
“Does Western Union let me ask questions followed by question marks?” I asked.
“Does it permit me to quote and parenthesize, to throw commas and periods and even semicolons and whole colons about with abandon?”
“Does Western Union allow me a paragraph mark, a number sign, a dollar sign, and even an ampersand?”
“Then why won’t it let me exclaim?”
Western Union cleared its throat. Bells rang, and the line-feed and carriage-return keys on its teleprinters hummed in the background.
“It’s a matter of space, lady,” W.U. finally said. “It is just impossible on our present keyboard to allow our customers to enthuse by points — unless, of course, they want to spell it out and pay for the two additional words ‘exclamation point.’ ”
“The policy is nationwide then? It is not specifically designed to curb lady writers who have a tendency to use too many exclamation marks whenever their emotions get stirred up?” I asked. (I was never calmer.)
“Applies to everyone, lady.”
I could tell then that the material for my exposé was virtually complete, but I am a thorough researcher and there was one more question I had to ask.
“How come,” I said coolly, “since you stock the apostrophe and use it generously at the first hint of contraction, you can’t simply combine it with a period to form a first-class exclamation point even as I do in the privacy of my own home?”
Western Union, its back to the wall, finally told me all. Whether old-fashioned Simplex Printer 2-B or newfangled 15 or 32 Teleprinter, its keyboard cannot allow me the luxury of exclaiming for a simple, honest, and inevitable reason: it is not capable of backing up or holding still to print two punctuation points in the same space.
Well, there you have it; my exposé is now a fait accompli. And when they notify me of my selection to receive the Pulitzer gold medal, I’d appreciate it if they announced the award by singing telegram. Between Western Union and me, disinterested as we are one in the other, there can be no such thing as hard feelings, period, paragraph, dollar sign, the end.