A Nice Piece of Furniture


-- Richard Katz


The kid and I drove down to Oakland to a seedy neighborhood restaurant where the Oakland Scrabble Club holds its meetings and tournaments. A meeting consists of a dozen or so people who pair off and play a game of Scrabble, with timers and turntables. This crew doesn't fuck around. Like serious Scrabble players everywhere, they know all the words that have a Q and no u; and quite a few words that have but two letters total; and depending on how long they've been playing the game seriously, they know any number of seven and eight letter English words that expend all the tiles in your rack to generate a fifty point plus Bingo!


Most all of us play a little Scrabble now and then, but the name of this game is Anagrams.


I abandoned the kid to the Scrabblers and went off to find something else to do. Anything. I hate anagrams. Really despise them. As my friend Guy Platt once put it, "What is a cat backwards anyway?" That was a very zen thing to say; hidden within that pithy pronouncement is a whole exegesis about how words are everything, but mere words -- just collections of letters for words' sake, mere wordplay -- is just about the last thing the human mind was ever evolved (and later adapted) by the Creator to concern itself with. Anagrams are widely used by psychology researchers and by their hipper brethren the cognitive scientists, aka cognitive neuroscientists. "Solving" an anagram is the lingua franca of experimental psychological research. They've got other stuff they get their subjects to do in the conscious state, like mentally rotating "meaningless" objects (yeah, really, the journal articles really say that, with a straight face.) But their all time favorite stock in trade are anagrams.


These Scrabblers are the ones who have anagrams down to a science.


You know what a blanagram is? It's a seven or eight letter arrangement of letters that makes a word, using the Blank.


Let me just point out that several equally learned folks have questioned whether "solving" anagrams is cognitive activity at all, i.e. whether it is thinking*. Let's not get involved in the whole debate. What the hell, just the Concept of Bingo! as being an occurrence of statistically significant frequency is enough to liberate you from the ranks of underperformers who slog through endless piddly little lowscoring turns and wouldn't know a double-double if it rose up off the board and bit them in the ass.**


So without even a perfunctory cup of weak coffee at the rundown restaurant, I bade the kid goodbye (he waved; more like he waved me off), went back to the car, strapped on my trusty rollerskates (never travel without your trusty rollerskates) and hit the road.


I hadn't travelled but three blocks up Park Boulevard when I saw a piece of furniture sitting on the sidewalk. A handwritten sign on it said "Free." I rolled right up next to it. Nice piece. A dressing table. Couldn't quite decide if this dressing table was out of a cheap hotel, recently, or a rich person's home, some time ago. Maybe it wasn't a dressing table at all. I don't know a whole lot about dressing tables. Hell, I don't know a whole lot about furniture. I just stood there on my rollerskates and stared at it for a while. Data gathering, or woolgathering perhaps.


It was indeed an interesting piece of furniture. It had four square drawers, two on each side, and they didn't fit. Really made it look trashy, like a person with really bad teeth. I'd seen that sort of thing before. Just because the drawers in, say, a file cabinet all look the same, doesn't mean they are the same. The very topmost one and the bottom one might be different somehow. I tried swapping out the top and the bottom, and the little dresser really shaped up quick. The top one had a lip on it, it turned out, and the bottom one didn't. That lip was what hung down and came within a couple hairs and a coat of paint of the top edge of the face of the bottom drawer. Same scheme, both sides; in fact, you could put the left ones in the right and vice versa, and that was an okay permutation.


This little cutie had curves right out of the fifies. Naaaah, the Fifties were square, man. This was out of the forties. Thirties, maybe. Upon inspection, there was just a little bit of plywood, early type plywood, and even some Masonite here and there. Definitely the Forties. The Masonite looked like original equipment, the backplane of the dresser, cut to match the outline of a big mirror. Masonite definitely hadn't been invented yet back in the Thirties.


So I swapped out the drawers, which caught the attention of two young bucks who had some business or other with the window, mirror, and glass shop that had parked the little dresser on its sidewalk, and had put the "Free" sign on it. The young men discussed the dresser's pros and cons and, as the drawers were removed and replaced, they reached in and inspected the coins that had somehow lodged in the space under each drawer just above the corresponding horizontal partition.


"All pennies," one of them said, and began inspecting the pennies to see what date was on them. These gents were from Southeast Asia. Maybe they'd know a 1909 SVDB when they saw one, maybe not; didn't matter, if it were a 1909 it would be in his pocket by now. I pocketed a 1961 coin from the Philippines, about the size of a penny but with a deckled edge, like a cruller or a really worn out gear. 1961 was a good year. Mad Magazine noticed in that year that it would be the last upside down year (the same right side up as up side down) until 6009 rolled around. In fact, that was Mad Magazine's January cover story. Newsworthy, to be sure.


These two guys tried to egg me on to take the dresser. Hauling it, for example, was no problem. "Rent a UHaul, nineteen ninety five," said the talkative one. "Where you live?"


"Richmond," I replied.


"How far is that?" he asked.


"Twenty miles," I estimated.


"Oh," said the Vietnamese dude, "can return it anywhere, you know."


Other than the pennies the only thing hiding under the drawers was a piece of paper, folded over and very flat. It was from Southwest Airlines, something about lost baggage, and was addressed to a woman whose abode was, or had been, a couple blocks away on Park Boulevard near 23rd.


"Nice to know the provenance, " I thought. I guess she was moving, and the little dresser wasn't going along this time.


The backplane of the dresser, where you put the big mirror, was truly enormous, albeit ethereally thin. The dresser itself was maybe four feet wide, maybe even a little less; a couple feet deep, and table height (though interestingly and intimately sunken a few inches amidships. I guess that's what made it a dressing table; that, and not having anyplace to put your legs.) But the backplane was table height again, rising to an installed apolune of at least six feet. Reminded me of a peacock, a peacock in black and white; the ghost of a peacock, because the mirror was long gone, and didn't look like it would be replaced anytime soon. Replacing that mirror would cost a small fortune, even if you owned a glass and windowcoverings shop, like this one.


They sure had some dumb ideas back then; like having a big mirror, a big round mirror that sat a good two feet away from the woman's face, but that she was supposed to use for applying the finishing touches to her makeup. Having a bigger mirror doesn't accomplish much; a small slightly convex shaving mirror is a much better deal. Back when the dresser was new, maybe, the big mirror was a mark of glamor and luxury. Slightly convex, heated, backlit plastic shaving mirrors hadn't been invented yet.


I tried to skate away, but I couldn't take my eyes off the dresser. It had inlays, and curves, and complex little shapes at all four front corners. But what really kept me going on it and coming back for more was the drawer pulls. They would have been right at home at the Paramount Theater. Hell, they could have been installed at the Fox, they were that fancy. It's not that easy, being gaudy without being cheap. I finally skated on down the road, and did just a little serious 'blading around Lake Merritt.


Lake Merritt's a lousy place for recreational rollerskating. The asphalt's all evaporated, and all the cars breathe exhaust all over you. I went from Eighteenth Street and Lakeshore Boulevard north to the 600 block of Grand Avenue, close to the water and away from the cars.


Some extrasensory perception informed me to leave the path around the Lake, skate across Grand Avenue, and go into a certain shop, somewhere near the 600 block. I followed my nose into a store called Art Deco Collection, or maybe Art Deco Collection.com You never know whether to pronounce the dot com or not nowadays; it might be they just haven't gotten around to fixing the sign yet. I took off one skate, I half walked in, I looked around, I read the blurbs, I checked it out: This was Ground Zero for upper-five-figures used furniture. Remember those overstuffed chairs and "modern" kind of wooden furniture people used to have? Well, enough time has gone by that those are antiques, with a genre of their own. Art Deco. Schlepped in from Europe, mostly. Seven grand for a pair of overstuffed chairs. Restored.


It was just too obvious, standing in the middle of a roomful of this stuff, not four blocks away from Henry Kaiser's Deco penthouse atop the Bellevue-Staten on the Lake, that my dresser was calling to me. I skated the mile or two the rest of the way around Lake Merritt, and went back to the glass shop.


The storeowner drove up just about then and double parked his big white pickup. He had a big pile of old wooden window sash that he unloaded unceremoniously by his front door. He also was from Southeast Asia, Vietnamese or Cambodian. I was inspecting the dresser some more.


"Lady moved," he said. "This furniture too big. Moved to Las Vegas." I crumpled up the Southwest claim notice and tossed it into the trash.


The storeowner and I chatted for a bit, and I ended up giving him a twenty to hold the dresser til Monday. He ended up moving the dresser inside.


"Mirror broken, " he explained as he stepped it down from his dolly. "I can make you new one. Round one, not very expensive." He handed the "Free" signs to his wife, and said a few words in what sounded to me a lot like Minh. I gave her a business card, bowed a bit, and left. She nodded to me whilst affixing a handlettered "Hold" sign to the backplane of the dresser, where the mirror used to go.


I ended up paying UHaul about fifty bucks Monday afternoon for the $19.95 truck rental. They charge about sixty cents a mile, way above and way beyond the nineteen ninety five; it's only $19.95 if you don't go anywhere. For me it was still cheap. I had gotten the goods for free.


The next day my neighbors, Bessie and Ed Squires, walked by on their way to the park, the first time in a long time I'd seen them out for what used to be their daily walk. I showed them the dresser in my garage. Bessie wanted me to know that most people back then didn't wear any makeup; in fact, she said that most women didn't wear lipstick. Ed chimed in that the only reason people think that they did -- wore lipstick, walked up circular staircases, and hung chandeliers even -- was that they showed stuff like that in the movies all the time.



Richard Katz © 2003 Richard Katz and Getskilz Inc. All Rights Reserved




1 Short unadorned digital video sequences constitute an exogenous substrate that can be used by the brain's internal media processing systems^. The kinetics of learning would be affected by the provision of such sequences to the brain.


2 The brain's internal media processing systems are at any instant modelling some activity in real time; it may be acted upon or it may not, or it may not even be associated with any action.


3. The brain's internal media processing systems are doing the second by second normal activity of the brain; this is what the brain "does". The heart pumps blood; the brain makes movies.^^ The heart takes in information of several kinds, and of course takes in blood; the brain takes in information of the same kinds and a few more kinds besides, and outputs movies.


4. Finally, before 1627, nobody other than William Harvey had a clue what the heart was actually doing; all sorts of highminded functions were ascribed to the heart, none of which were as pedestrian as being a pump. Today in 2003, nobody has a clue what the brain is actually doing (except one or two people, who have already told us that whatever else it's doing, it's disoxygenating hemoglobin); all sorts of highminded functions are ascribed to the brain. Our working hypothesis is that the brain is making multimedia movies and showing them for mundane purposes; for great purposes; and sometimes to no purpose at all except amusement.


On this same note, it should be noted that a hundred fifty years after Dr Harvey published his Disquisition on the circulation of the blood, physicians were still applying leeches.^^^ Let's do better.




^ Delivery of externally supplied motion picture sequences needs to have cohesion over time; pick one graphical user interface and stick to it.


^^ Not forgetting, of course, that "the brain" is a collection of cranial components, and several of them have remarkable capabilities unrelated to moviemaking. The pituitary comes to mind here, and the vagus nerve is having a good laugh at my expense.


^^^ Bloodletting was, and is, a totally ridiculous activity, if one accepts that the blood circulates; thus it was that most physicians stuck with Tradition and rejected Harvey as a quack.



** And by the way, on one of the two occasions when I did play a game of Scrabble online, at Playsite.com, and against a pretty worthy opponent, I racked up 450+ points. Admittedly, I'd been watching the kid a little, picking up pointers here and there. I chose to quit the field of play while I was ahead, and well before becoming an addict.