For better or worse, we live in a mercurial, manic, hyper-consumerist society. Things come and things go. Take, for instance, paper napkins. As recently as 20 years back, 60 percent of American households regularly purchased napkins. No more. Napkins have largely been replaced by paper towels. Mainly, it’s thought, because they’re more versatile. They can wipe your chin, then just as effectively wipe clean the litter box. (Always in that sequence, I recommend.) So, in the year 2022, the napkin finds itself in an existential crisis. Not yet gone, but fading fast.
Do not be sad for the huge napkin-making companies. As Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan famously wrote, “the times they are a-changin’.” Nowadays it sometimes seems they are a-changin’ at the speed of a lurid celebrity rumor. Because (of course) of broadband and social media. But we adapt.
For me, this raises a question: Isn’t it the constant bombardment of cultural artifacts that most truly defines the distinctive personality, if not the soul, of a nation? I’d venture that America is as much Super Bowl, Ford Mustang, Bruce Springsteen, and Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Frapps as it is an agglomeration of individuals guided by a four-page Constitution and a Bill of Rights (which, let’s be real, few people actually read). Is it not the accumulation of cultural ephemera that affords us the most accurate picture of the weird, peculiar heart of our nation at any point in time?
When those things vanish (the last of our public phone booths are being junked as you read this; Howard Johnson’s just shuttered its last restaurant), it merely signals nature taking its course. That’s our pilgrims progressing. Basic economics, technology, fashion, and, recently, the pandemic all play a role.
To be clear, I’m not talking about dying brands. Not talking about sweeping global trends either, which, by definition, are fleeting. I’m referring to wall-to-wall salad bars, which have been an American staple for many years. And now, not. And large sedans, which have totally given way to SUVs. And, dammit, Dunkin’s signature “dunking donut”— the one with the tiny handle baked on. Gone. Why?
I come to you today not to recite a list of grievances, although I know it may seem as if I am bellyaching. No aching. Just observing with, let us say, a hint of lamentation. The things we have lost, be it quickly or over some years, are vitally important pieces of us. A few more examples:
Lawns: Front lawns especially have in the last few years become smaller and less lawny. In the place of grass, we find gravel and tough little shrubs that require minimal maintenance.
Keyboards: People like talking to their various devices. It’s easier than typing.
Elvis-themed weddings: The company that owns rights to the King’s legacy is threatening to shut down any Vegas chapels that rely on Elvis impersonators. Your hunka, hunka burning love may need to go elsewhere.
Magazines: Like newspapers, they are scarcer by the month, and few are being launched. Economically speaking, print is a too-expensive proposition.
Neon lights: Once ubiquitous, especially in cities, their popularity has dimmed.
Granted, the world is increasingly homogenized, culturally speaking. But some things remain uniquely linked to America, such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus — which, after a six-year hiatus and some rejiggering, will begin touring again next fall. Amazing. Perhaps love — or fond memories — means never having to say goodbye forever.
In the last issue, Cable Neuhaus wrote about current trends in beauty pageants.
This article is featured in the September/October 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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