Retrotopia - A Change of Habit

SUBHEAD: He rang up the sale on some kind of mechanical cash register and wrote out a bill of sale by hand.

By John Michael Greer on 30 September 2015 for the Archdruid Report -
(http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2015/09/retrotopia-change-of-habit.html)


Image above: Working early brass National Cash Register for sale online for $1,950. From (http://www.andythornton.com/en-UK/products/architectural-antiques/vintage-props/atvmbra3730/early-20th-century-brass-cash-register).

I went back to the hotel for lunch. The wind had picked up further and was tossing stray randrops at anything in its path; my clothing was waterproof but not particularly warm, and I frankly envied the passersby their hats.

For that matter, I wasn’t happy about the way that my bioplastic clothes made everyone give me startled looks. Still, it was only a block and a half, and then I ducked back inside the lobby, went to the glass doors to the restaurant, stepped inside.

Maybe a minute later I was settling into a chair in a comfortable corner, and the greeter was on his way back to the door, having promised the imminent arrival of a waitress.

Stray notes of piano music rippled through the air, resolved themselves into an unobtrusive jazz number. It took me a moment to notice that the piano was actually there in the restaurant, tucked over in a nook to one side.

The player was a skinny kid in his twenties, Italian-American by the look of him, and he was really pretty good. Some musicians play jazz laid-back because the fire’s gone out or they never had any in the first place, but now and again you hear one who’s got the fire and keeps it under perfect control while playing soft and low, and it’s like watching somebody take a leisurely stroll on a tightrope strung between skyscrapers.

This kid was one of those. I wondered what he’d sound like with a bunch of other musicians and a room full of people who wanted to dance.

As it was, I leaned back in the chair, read the menu and enjoyed the music and the absence of the wind. The waitress showed up as prophesied, and I ordered my usual, soup and sandwich and a cup of chicory coffee—you can get that anywhere in the post-US republics, just one more legacy of the debt crisis and the hard years that followed. I know plenty of people in Philadelphia who won’t touch the stuff any more, but I got to like it and it still goes down easier than straight coffee.

Lunch was good, the music was good, and I’d missed the lunch rush so the service was better than good; I charged the meal to my room but left a tip well on the upside of enough. Then it was back outside into the wind as the kid at the piano launched into a take on “Ruby, My Dear” that wouldn’t have embarrassed a young Thelonious Monk.

I had plenty of questions about the Lakeland Republic, some things that I’d been asked to look into and some that were more or less a matter of my own curiosity, and sitting in a hotel restaurant wasn’t going to get me any closer to the answers.

Outside there were still plenty of people on the sidewalks, but not so many as earlier; I gathered that lunch hour was over and everyone who worked ordinary hours, whatever those were here, was back on the job.

I went around the block the hotel was on, noting landmarks, and then started wandering, lookng for shops, restaurants, and other places that might be useful during my stay: something I like to do in any unfamiliar city when I have the chance.

There were plenty of retail businesses—the ground floor of every building I passed had as many as would fit—but none of them were big, and none of them had the sort of generic logo-look that tells you you’re looking at a chain outlet.

Everything I knew about business said that little mom-and-pop stores like that were hopelessly inefficient, but I could imagine what the banker I’d talked with would say in response to that, and I didn’t want to go there.

The other thing that startled me as I wandered the streets was how little advertising there was. Don’t get me wrong, most of the stores had signage in the windows advertising this or that product or doing the 10% OFF THIS DAY ONLY routine; what was missing was the sort of corporate display advertising you see on every available surface in most cities.

I’d figured already that there wouldn’t be digital billboards, but there weren’t any billboards at all; the shelters at the streetcar stops didn’t have display ads all over them, and neither did the streetcars; I thought back to the morning’s trip, and realized that I basically hadn’t seen any ads at all since the train crossed the border.

I shook my head, wondered how the Lakeland Republic managed that, and then remembered the notebook in my pocket and put my first note into it: Why no ads? Ask.

I was maybe six blocks from the hotel, by then, looping back after I’d checked out the streets on the west side of the capitol district, and that’s when I tore my shoe. It was my own fault, really.

There was a cluster of moms with kids in strollers heading down the sidewalk, going the same direction I was but not as fast. I veered over to the curb to get around them, misjudged my step, and a sharp bit of curbing caught the side of my shoe as I stumbled and ripped the bioplastic wide open.

Fortunately it didn’t rip me, but I hadn’t brought a spare pair—these were good shoes, the sort that usually last for a couple of months before you have to throw them out. So there I was, looking at the shredded side of the shoe, and then I looked up and the first store I saw was a shoe store, I kid you not.

I managed to keep the ripped shoe on my foot long enough to get in the door. The clerk, a middle-aged guy whose hair was that pink color you get when a flaming redhead starts to go gray, spotted me and started into the “Hi, how can I help you?” routine right as what was left of the shoe flopped right off my foot.

He started laughing, and so did I; I picked the thing up, and he said, “Well, I don’t need to ask that, do I? Let’s get you measured and put something a little less flimsy on your feet.”

“I take a men’s medium-large,” I said.

He nodded, and gave me the kind of look you give to someone who really doesn’t get it. “We like to be a little more precise here. Go ahead and have a seat.”

So I sat down; he took the remains of the shoe and threw it away, and then proceeded to use this odd metal device with sliding bits on it to measure both my feet. “9D,” he said, “with a high arch. I bet your feet ache right in the middle when you’re on ‘em too long.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I take pills for that.”

“A good pair of shoes will do a better job. Let’s see, now—that’s business wear, isn’t it? You expect to do a lot of walking? Any formal or semi-formal events coming up?” I nodded yes to each, and he said, “Okay, I got just the thing for you.”

He went away, came back with a box, and extracted a pair of dark brown leather shoes from it. “This brown’ll match the putty color of those clothes of yours pretty well, and these won’t take any breaking in. Let’s give it a try.” The shoes went on. “There you go. Walk around a bit, see how they feel on you.”

I got up and walked around the store. My feet felt remarkably odd. It took me a moment to realize that this was because the shoes actually fit them. “These are pretty good,” I told him.

“Beat the pants off the things you were wearing, don’t they?”

“True enough,” I admitted. He rang up the sale on some kind of old-fashioned mechanical cash register and wrote out a bill of sale by hand; I paid up and headed out the door.

Half a block down the same street was a store selling men’s clothes. I went in, and came out something like an hour later dressed like one of the locals—wool jacket, slacks and vest, button-up cotton shirt, and tie, with a long raincoat over the top, and my ordinary clothes in a shopping bag.

I’d already more than half decided to pick up something less conspicuous to wear before my shoe got torn, and money wasn’t a problem, so

I bought enough to keep me for the duration of my stay, and had everything else sent back to the hotel; the bill was large enough that the clerk checked my ID and then called the bank to make sure I had enough in my account to cover it. Still, that was the only hitch, and quickly past.

From the clothes store I headed back the way I’d come, turned a corner and went three blocks into a neighborhood of narrow little shops with hand-written signs in the windows. The sign I was looking for, on the recommendation of the clothes store clerk, was barely visible on the glass of a door: S. EHRENSTEIN HABERDASHER.

I went in; the space inside was only about twice as wide as the door, with shelves packed with boxes on both walls and a little counter and cash register at the far end.

S. Ehrenstein turned out to be a short wiry man with hair the color of steel wool and a nose like a hawk’s beak. “Good afternoon,” he said, and then considered me for a moment. “You’re from outside—Atlantic Republic, or maybe Upper Canada. Not Qu├ębec or New England. Am I right?”

“Atlantic,” I said. “How’d you know?”

“Your clothes and your shoes are brand new—I’d be surprised if you told me you’ve been in ‘em for as much as an hour. That says you just came from outside—that and no hat, and five o’clock shadow this early in the day; I don’t know why it is, but nobody outside seems to know how to get a proper shave. The rest, well, I pay attention to lots of little things. How’d you hear about my shop?”

I told him the name of the clothing store, and he nodded, pleased. “Well, there you are. That’s Fred Hayakawa’s store; his family’s been in the business since half an hour before Eve bit the apple, and his clerks know a good hat, which is more than I could say for some. So are you in business, or—”

“Politics,” I said.

“Then I have just the hat for you. Let’s get your head measured.” A measuring tape came out of his pocket and looped around my head. “Okay, good. Seven and a quarter, I should have in stock.” He ducked past me, clambered onto a stepladder, pulled down a box. “Try it on. The mirror’s there.”

With the hat on, my resemblance to a minor character from a Bogart vid was complete. “Absolutely classic,” the haberdasher said from behind me. “Fedoras, homburgs, sure, they’re fine, but a porkpie like this, you can wear it anywhere and look real classy.”

“I like it,” I agreed.

“Well, there you are. Let me show you something.” He took the hat, slipped a cord out from under the ribbon. “In windy weather you put this loop over your coat button, so you don’t lose it if it blows off. If I were you I’d do that before I set one foot outside that door.”

I paid up, accepted the business card he pressed on me, and got the loop in place before I went back outside. The wind had died down, so the hat stayed comfortably in place—and the adverb’s deliberate; it kept my head warm, and the rest of the clothes were pleasant in a way that bioplastic just isn’t.

You know what it’s like when some annoying noise is so much part of the background that you don’t notice it at all, until it stops, and then all of a sudden you realize just how much it irritated you? Getting out of bioplastic was the same sort of thing.

In most countries these days, everything from clothes to sheets to curtains is bioplastic, because it’s so cheap to make and turn into products that the big corporations that sell it drove everything else off the market years ago. It’s waterproof, it’s easy to clean—there’s quite a litany, and of course it was all over the metanet and the other media back when you could still buy anything else.

Of course the ads didn’t mention that it’s flimsy and slippery, and feels clammy pretty much all the time, but that’s the way it goes; what’s in the stores depends on what makes the biggest profit for the big dogs in industry, and the rest of us just have to learn to live with it.

The Lakeland Republic apparently didn’t play by the same rules, though. The embargo had something to do with it, I guessed, but apparently they weren’t letting the multinationals compete with local producers.

The clothes I’d bought were a lot more expensive than bioplastic equivalents would have been, and I figured it would take trade barriers to keep them on the market.

I kept walking. Two blocks later, about the time I caught sight of the capitol dome again, I passed a barbershop and happened to notice a sign in the window advertising a shave and trim. I thought about what S. Ehrenstein had said about a proper shave, laughed, and decided to give it a try.

The barber was a big balding guy with a ready grin. “What can I do for you?”

“Shave and trim, please.”

“Your timing’s good. Another half hour and you’d have to wait a bit, but as it is—” He waved me to the coatrack and the empty chair. “Get yourself comfy and have a seat.”

I shed my coat, hat, and jacket, and sat down. He covered me up with the same loose poncho thing that barbers use everywhere, tied something snug around my neck, and went to work. “New in town?”

“Just visiting, from Philadelphia.”

“No kidding. Welcome to Toledo. Here on business?” Instead of the buzz of an electric trimmer, the clicking of scissors sounded back behind my right ear.

“More or less. I’ll try to talk to some people up at the Capitol, make some contacts, ask some questions about the way you do things here.”

“Might have to wait a day or two, according to the papers. Did you hear about this latest thing?”

“Just that there’s some kind of crisis.”

The scissor-sound moved around the back of my head from right to left. “Well, sort of. Tempest in a teapot is more like it. Something in the budget bill for next year set off the all-out Restos, and so one of the parties that’s had Meeker’s back says they’ll bolt unless whatever it is gets taken out.”

“Restos?”

“You don’t have those out your way, do you? Here the two political blocs are Conservatives and Restorationists; Conservatives want to keep things pretty much the way they are, Restos want to take things back to the way they used to be. Okay, lay your head back.”

I did, and he draped a hot damp towel over the lower half of my face, then went back to trimming. “Used to be about half and half, but these days the Restos have the bigger half—all the rural counties going to lower tiers, and so on.”

“Hmm?” I managed to say.

“Oh, that’s right. You probably don’t know about the tiers.”

“Mm-mh.”

“It works like this. There are five tiers, and counties vote on what tier they want to be in. The lower the tier, the lower your taxes, but the less you get in terms of infrastructure and stuff. Toledo’s tier five—we got electricity, we got phones in every house, good paving on the streets so you can drive a car if you can afford one, but we pay for it through the nose when it comes to tax time.”

“Mm-hmm.”

He took off the towel, started brushing hot lather onto my face. “So tier five has a base date of 1950—that means we got about the same sort of services they had here that year. The other tiers go down from there—tier four’s base date is 1920, for tier three it’s 1890, tier two’s 1860, and tier one’s 1830. You live in a tier one county, you got police, you got dirt roads, not a lot else. Of course your taxes are way, way down, too.”

He put away the brush, snapped open an old-fashioned straight razor, and went to work on my stubble. “That’s the thing. Nobody’s technology gets a subsidy—that’s in the constitution. You want it, you pay all the costs, cradle to grave.

You don’t get to dump ‘em on anybody else. That’s what the Restos are all up in arms about. They think something in the budget is a hidden subsidy for I forget what high-tier technology, and that’s a red line for them.”

“Mm-hmm,” I said again.

“They’ll get it worked out. Go like this.” He drew his lips to one side, and I imitated the movement. “Meeker’s handled that sort of thing more’n a dozen times already—he’s good. If we let our presidents have second terms he’d get one. Now go like this.” I moved my lips the other way.

“So they’ll drop whatever it is out of the budget, or put in a user fee, or come up with some other gimmick so that everybody’s happy. It’s not a big deal. Nothing like the fight over the treaty, or the time ten years ago when Mary Chenkin was president, when the Restos wanted to get rid of tier five, just like that. That was a real donnybrook. This close to the Capitol, you better believe I got to hear all sides of it.”

He finished shaving, washed the last bits of soap off my face with another hot wet towel, then splashed on sone kind of bay-scented aftershave that stung a bit. A brush darted around my shoulders, and then he took off the neckcloth and the poncho thing. “There you go.”

I got up, checked the trim in the big mirror on the wall, ran my fingers across my cheek; it was astonishingly smooth. “Very nice,” I said. While I got out my wallet, I asked the barber, “Do you think Toledo’s ever going to go to a lower tier?”

“People are talking about it,” he said. “I mean, it’s nice to have some of the services, but then tax time comes around and everyone says ‘Ouch.’ Me, I could live with tier four easy, and my business—”

He gestured at the shop. “Other than the lights, might as well be tier one. A lot of businesses run things that way—it just makes more sense.” He handed me my change with a grin. “And more money.”

See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia Part 1 - Dawn Train from Pittsburgh 8/27/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia Part 2 - View from a Moving Window 9/2/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia Part 3 - A Cab Ride in Toledo 9/9/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia Part 4 - Public Utilities, Private Good 9/23/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia Part 6 - The Scent of Ink on Paper 10/14/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia Part 7 - A Question of Subsidies 10/21/15

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