Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, Jan. 14, 1960
January 14, 2010 | 2:00 pm
Ahead of My Time
The thing about me you really ought to know is that I am ahead of my time.
I read "Lady Chatterley's Lover" even before Postmaster Gen. Summerfield discovered that it was dirty.
I wore Italian-cut suits when the rest of you were walking around with a belt in the back.
And, I was broiling hot dogs on an outdoor barbecue back in the days when the only people who thought it was fashionable to cook over an open fire were Romany gypsies.
It sort of runs in the family.
One of my uncles was using pomade on his hair before anyone ever heard of Rudolph Valentino. I have a maiden aunt who, 30 years before the advent of Bridey Murphy, was smugly convinced that in another life she had been the mistress of Lord Nelson.
And my father was getting Ithaca, N.Y., on the earphone of his wireless radio when the rest of the neighbors were still content to get Gallagher and Shean on the gramophone.
But this hereditary passion to run ahead of the mob is not all clear sailing. Some of it is just skating on thin ice. (And, if I don't make the New Yorker with that one, I quit.)
For example, a couple of years ago I was the first kid on our block to get a telephone speaker box installed in my office.
This is an ingenious device developed after countless hours of scientific research for the benefit of affected people who like to pretend that they're just too damn busy to hold a phone to their ear.
It was perfected on the theory that the businessman, charged as he is with nervous energy, can pace the length and breadth of his office while conducting a phone conversation. If he just speaks normally, the box will pick it up.
And it works -- except that to the party at the other end of the line, you apparently sound like a voice from the grave. This causes confusion and delay at the start of every conversation.
"Where you calling from?" I am frequently asked.
"From my office. Why?"
"I don't know," the other voice says. "You sound kind of like, funny."
"How do you mean, funny?" I insist.
"Like you're talking from behind the pinballs in a bowling alley."
I will explain that I'm talking through a speaker box, and then make some feeble attempt at describing it. Usually, however, the party I called hangs up still feeling that for some weird reason, best known to myself, I really must have been talking from behind the pinballs in a bowling alley.
The Pickle Barrel Question
People's private secretaries are invariably the worst to deal with. All of their business school training in fastidious, telephone etiquette collapses at the sound of my hollow voice. "Where are you?" they will shriek, "in a tunnel at the Coliseum?" Or, "You sound like you're lying underneath your desk."
The other morning, I tried the approach that a good offense is the best defense. I was putting through a call to a prominent theatrical executive in town. His secretary answered, and when she heard me speak, she giggled:
"Your voice sounds like you're talking from a pickle barrel."
"It does?" I said politely. "How do you know?"
"How do you know," I repeated relentlessly. "Have you ever spoken to anyone who was in a pickle barrel?"
My cold logic must have shattered her completely. At any rate, she quietly hung up on me. Of course, I never completed my call. But I don't care, it was a moral victory.