[ The Peace of Breda was the 1667 conclusion of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, and produced the legal settlement by which the English crown secured (Western) ownership of Delaware while the Dutch government obtained security in its claims on the nutmeg-producing island of Run, in the Banda Isles. S J Perelman is noted for writing a couple of pretty funny movies. This all appeared in The Best Of S J Perelman. ]
The other night a forty-five-year-old friend of mine, after ingesting equal portions of Greek fire and artillery punch, set out to prove that he could walk across a parquet flooring on his hands while balancing a vase on his head. As a consequence, about eleven o’clock the following morning he was being trepanned at the Harkness Pavilion and I was purchasing a bottle of Major’s Cement. I had reassembled the shards and was about to uncork the cement bottle when the bold yellow leaflet in which it was wrapped caught my eye. To predict that this small
circular will eventually outrank Magna Carta and the Peace of Breda in historical significance may seem audacious. Yet even the most frivolous cannot escape its implications, for in a single decisive stroke it alters the entire status of the consumer.
From its opening sentence, the document was marked by a note of brooding, reminiscent of a manifesto:
If we could make the cement in liquid form and transparent, and at the same time as strong and as proof against moisture as it is now, we would be glad to do so. But this cannot be done.
A dozen lines further on, the manufacturer was fretting again over the possible imputation that he was holding back on his product:
If we could make a cement transparent and in liquid form as strong as the way we make our cement, we would do it. There is no material that you could use that would make cement that way.
Obviously an idée fixe, I thought to myself, but aloud, I merely said quietly, “All right now, I can hear you. I use Leonard’s Ear Oil as well as Major’s Cement.” My witty reprimand fell among thorns; a moment later the circular was behaving like a regular ogre:
If you do not succeed the first time in mending an article, do not throw up your hands and go pulling your hair and yell out “I have been swindled once more”; but have patience, for the Cement is all right.
By now I was thoroughly nettled. Patience, eh? Look who’s telling me to have patience. Why, I’ve got more patience in my little fing— but my words were blotted out in a last echoing apoplectic bellow:
If, before doing as suggested, you tell others that the
Cement is no good, you are saying an untruth and injuring the
reputation of Major’s Cement. Remember the Golden Rule,
“Do unto others as you would be done by.”
Since I long ago gave instructions to strew my ashes to the four winds when the hour sounds, this precept left me with only one course open, and I took it.
It is obvious that such a volte-face in sales technique is fraught with the most far-reaching implications. There is every chance that Major’s plaintive exasperation with the customer may yet be adopted and distorted by other firms. I take the liberty of presenting a few glamorous possibilities in a curtain-raiser, with the hope that it may inspire some fellow-dramatist to attempt a more sustained flight:
(Scene: The men’s furnishing section of a large department store. As the curtain rises, a salesman, Axel Munthe, is waiting on a patron. Munthe is not related to the physician who wrote The Story of San Michele; it is simply an interesting coincidence. Enter Leonard DeVilbiss, a typical customer— in fact, a luggage tag reading “Mr. Average Consumer 79” depends from the skirt of his topcoat He looks timidly at Munthe.)
DEVILBISS— Do you sell Mackinaws here?
MUNTHE— No, we give ’em away. That’s how we stay in business —- giving away free Mackinaws.
DEVILBISS— I don’t see any around here.
MUNTHE— What the devil do you think those are hanging on the rack — flounders?
(DeVilbiss meekly takes a seat and, picking up copies of Click, Pic, and Look begins to hold the pages against the light to discover possible salacious effects.)
PATRON (uncertainly)— I don’t know about these shorts. I had in mind something with a banjo seat.
MUNTHE— Banjo seat! Banjo seat! Why don’t you wear a banjo and be done with it?
PATRON— These won’t shrink, will they?
MUNTHE— Look— Boulder Dam shrank six inches last year. You want me to underwrite a pair of lousy ninety-eight-cent shorts against it?
PATRON— Hmm. Well, I think I’ll look around.
MUNTHE— Not in here, you won’t. If you want to browse, go to a bookstore. (Patron exits; Munthe approaches DeVilbiss) All right, Buster, break it up. You’re not in your club.
DEVILBISS— I’d like to try on some Mackinaws.
MUNTHE (suspiciously)— Got any money?
DEVILBISS— Yes, sir. (He shows Munthe some money.
Latter reluctantly pulls out rack.)
MUNTHE— Now, let me see. You want something in imported camel’s hair, fleece-lined, with a life-time guarantee, for only five dollars?
DEVILBISS ( dazzled ) —Sure.
MUNTHE— That’s what I thought. They all do. Well, cookie, you’re in the wrong pew.
DEVILBISS (humbly)— Haven’t you any shoddy old blue plaid ones with leatheroid buttons for about fifty dollars?
MUNTHE— To fit a little shrimp like you?
DEVILBISS (submissively)— It don’t have to fit me.
MUNTHE (bridling)— Oh, you’re not going to wear it, hey? Just one of those sneaking comparison shoppers, who—
DEVILBISS— No, no— I thought for carrying out the ashes— you know, around the cellar.
MUNTHE (loftily)— You must be a pretty small-time
lug to carry out your own ashes.
DEVILBISS— I am.
MUNTHE (grudgingly)— Well, all right. Slip this on
DEVILBISS (after a struggle) —It binds me a little under the arms.
MUNTHE— -You’re damn right it does. If we knew how to lick that, we’d all be in clover.
DEVILBISS— Could you— I mean, maybe if a seam was let out— that is, the sleeve—
MUNTHE (infuriated)— See here, chump, if you think I’m going to rebuild a measly fifty-dollar Mackinaw for every stumblebum who mooches in off the street—
DEVILBISS— Oh, no. I wouldn’t dream of asking you! I— I was just wondering whether Alberta— that’s Mrs. DeVilbiss; she’s a regular whiz at things like that— and time, say, she’s got all the time in the world—
MUNTHE— O.K., come on. Do you want it or don’t you?
DEVILBISS— You bet your life I do! Does— er— does this model come with pockets?
MUNTHE— Yes, and we throw in two tickets to a musical and dinner at Voisin’s. (Shouting) What the hell do you think we’re running here, a raffle?
DEVILBISS— Gee, you got me wrong. I wouldn’t want anything I wasn’t entitled to, honest!
MUNTHE— Next thing I know you’ll be chiseling me out of paper and string to carry it home.
DEVILBISS— My goodness, no! I’ll put it right over my arm— it’s no trouble, really!
MUNTHE (taking money from DeVilbiss)— Say, if I’d known you had nothing but twenties—
DEVILBISS— Gosh, never mind the change— that’s quite all right. Thank you very much.
MUNTHE— Now, listen, chum, watch your step. If I hear any squawk out of you about our merchandise, I’ll cool you off fast enough.
(DeVilbiss exits hurriedly. A moment later Lin Yutang, the floorwalker— also no relation to the author of The Story of San Michele— enters.)
YUTANG (glowering)— Look here, Munthe, was that a customer I just saw coming out of this section?
Munthe (quickly)— Of course not, sir. It was only a shoplifter.
YUTANG— All right, then, but don’t let me catch you selling anything around here. You know the policy of this store. Carry on!
(Munthe returns his salute and, picking up a bottle of acid, begins to dump it over the goods as Yutang, arms folded, watches him approvingly.)