Notes: A Grateful Nation

OUR NEW PRESIDENT, George Bush, will deliver his inaugural address in a few weeks, and we all know what is going to happen. The President will recite the major problems the country faces, propose his remedies, and then go on to mention certain other improvements he’d like to see. Everything he suggests will cost money that we don’t have, and by January of next year virtually nothing that he wants to do will have been done.

That is why I would urge the President not to overlook the smaller problems we all face—the ones he might actually solve. Let’s be frank. Whether or not the federal deficit or the number of nuclear weapons is really being reduced has little effect on one’s mood at any given moment. But an incident as insignificant as having the Sunday newspaper delivered a couple of hours late can ruin the whole morning and may, indeed, herald an entire day of mood-altering misfortune. If the new President is wise, he will pay attention to the quotidian tyrannies that take so high a toll.

I would applaud, for example, a bill that might be called the Paper-EncasedWire-Twist Closure Act of 1989. So many consumer goods come wrapped in plastic sealed by a wire, which is twisted in no consistent direction. Does anyone in America successfully untwist these wires on the first try? No, we all twist the wire, believing that we are untwisting, until we realize that we aren’t. All wires should be twisted in a single direction—probably to the right, to conform with our experience of light bulbs and screws.

The President should propose an Omnibus Coins Before Bills bill. Cashiers these days almost never give you your change properly. Let’s say you give the cashier a five-dollar bill for something that costs $1.45. You put out your hand. The cashier lays out three dollar bills on your palm and puts fifty-five cents on top of them. The coins slide down the bills and onto the floor. The reason cashiers give change this way probably has to do with the new kind of cash register that calculates the correct amount of change. Instead of having to work backward, in the old way, picking out coins until an even dollar is reached and then picking out the bills, the cashier now sees $3.55 and picks out the bills first. These cash registers should be made illegal.

America would welcome a standardized line-alleviation system. Waiting in line is never fun, but some smart person several years ago invented a new kind of waiting in line that makes a great deal of sense. Instead of waiting in a half dozen different lines that lead up to, say, a half dozen bank tellers, everyone waits in a single snake of a line and steps forward as tellers become available. No more standing behind the guy from the liquor store or the 7-Eleven as the teller counts his day’s receipts, while all the other lines turn over five or six times and you weigh the benefits of staying where you are versus moving to another line. The new system should be universal, and Washington can take the lead by making its use a prerequisite for the receipt of federal funds.

I’d like to see a Seasonal Synchrony Act signed into law. Why can’t you go into a store in August and be treated to a full line of summer shirts and bathing suits? Why can’t you go into a store in February and sec a full line of sweaters and coats? There is no one in America who has not been denied some desired or even essential article because merchants have decided that the seasons end two months earlier than they actually do. This sort of thing has to stop. Spot checks by U.S. marshals and stiff fines for violators ought to do the trick.

Those marshals should be deployed on escalators, too. Escalators have been around for almost ninety years, and yet the etiquette of escalator travel remains widely unknown. Here is the rule: If you intend to stand motionless, you stand on the right of the stairs; the left side of the stairs is the passing lane. Those who stand still on the left, blocking people behind them, should be subject to something equivalent to a parking ticket. A fine of $50 for a first offense would likely be sufficient.

Some of the other minor, picky reforms I would advocate, such as withdrawing agricultural subsidies for fruits that look better than they taste, abolishing the “Love” stamp, and making time zones horizontal, could perhaps be left for a second term. But the modest ones outlined above would suffice to earn for the new Chief Executive a coveted place in the history books.

—Cullen Murphy