Why tall = small, and other conundrums
Sometimes, dear friends, we are plunged into modern-day situations that are so absurd, so illogical, so incomprehensible, so inexplicable, that all we can do is throw up our hands.
So it went with me one recent morning at my neighborhood Starbucks.
I had agreed to meet a friend there to give her some career advice. I was early. She wasn’t there yet. So I decided to buy a cup of coffee while I waited.
“I’d like a small cup of black coffee, please,” I told the young woman behind the counter.
“The smallest cup of coffee we have is a tall,” she said.
“I don’t want a tall cup,” I said. “I want a small cup.”
“A tall IS a small cup, sir,” she said.
“Then why is it called tall?,” I asked.
“It’s called tall because that’s our smallest cup of coffee,” she said.
Goodbye logic. Goodbye language that means what it has always meant. Up went my hands and out came my wallet.
“OK, whatever you call it, I want the smallest cup of coffee you’ve got,” I said. In a jiffy, I had both a cup of coffee that looked pretty small — and a major dose of feeling like a fish out of water.
The older I get — and yes, I seem to be succeeding at getting older — the more out of step with commerce I get.
It happens in Starbucks. It happens at the drug store, when the clerk tells me to slide my credit card through the slot and I can’t figure out how to do it. It happens when I try to turn on our television set — which requires clicking three different devices, in the proper order, which I can never remember.
And it happens whenever I try to make sense of the machine on which I’m typing this.
I would love to open a hyperlink that my pal sends me, but I can’t figure out how.
I would adore the chance to use the cyber-clipboard, but I once tried, and I crashed and burned.
I have absolutely no idea how to activate the virus-cleansing software that’s baked into my machine, because the instructions were written for some cyborg, not for me.
I like Google, but I can’t figure out how to design a search that isn’t a zillion miles wide.
For example, I wanted to search for an obituary for a person named Billy Miller. There must be a million Billy Millers. But “my” Billy Miller lived (and might have died) in Philadelphia.
So, into the search box I typed, “Billy Miller Philadelphia.”
What I got was a whole lot of stuff about the Liberty Bell, the Phillies and Italian food. Plus a whole lot of information about a Billy Miller who lived and died in California.
I only hope that “my” Billy Miller has gone peacefully to his eternal rest. I can’t find out if he has.
And please don’t get me started about WiFi.
I have no idea what it is. I have no idea where it is. I have no idea how to obtain it or avoid it.
WiFi has turned me into a slick, smooth liar.
Whenever I check into a hotel, the desk clerk will slip me a little piece of paper. “That’s your WiFi code,” he or she will say.
I will nod, trying to appear casual and knowledgeable. I am actually neither. I am actually wishing for typewriters, rotary-dial phones and hotel wake-up calls — the kind where you ask a person to arrange one, rather than punching in a series of codes (and then wondering half the night whether you’ve done it correctly).
As for cars, they have long since passed my comprehension threshold.
Once upon a time, to turn on the defroster, you looked at the control panel, found something that said DEFROST, then found something that said ON, and bingo.
Now you have to activate the fan. Then you push a button that also activates the air conditioner. Then you rotate a dial to some universal symbol that means defrost, but looks like a frazzled, curvy piece of wire.
If you can explain to me why you need to turn on the air conditioner to make the windshield hot, rather than cold, I’m all ears.
I’m also all hands. Which I use to wipe down the windshield. The way I used to do it 50 years ago, before defrosters were either reliable or got so fancy that they became inscrutable.
Windshield wipers are no more sensible. Yes, I’ve gotten used to the lever that has four locations. Up one means intermittent. Up two means slow and steady. Up three means faster. Up four means that we must be in some biblical rain event.
But how do you squirt fluid on the windshield? One dusty day, I tried to do it. Total failure, after three minutes of fumbling and fiddling.
So I pulled into my friendly neighborhood gas station and asked the mechanic to fix what was obviously a faulty system.
He pulled the lever back toward himself. A gusher of fluid resulted. A gusher of embarrassment soon followed. At least he said no when I offered to pay him for my own stupidity.
I know I can’t turn back the clock. I know I could cope with machines if I really tried — and if I spent time reading all the directions.
But I miss the days of yesteryear, when words meant what they meant, and dials did what you expected them to do.
Oh, yes. Starbucks has just introduced a 31-ounce cup of coffee. They haven’t yet decided what to call it.
I’m betting on “microscopic.” Just to make me miserable.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.