Giddy For Gizmos

December 01, 1991|By PATRICK A. MCGUIRE

A colleague and I went into a gizmo store not long ago and looked at one of those ocean sound machines, the kind that lull you to sleep with a continuous rolling surf noise. Only $99. We stood in slack-eyed, jaw-drooping awe. We wanted one real bad. We were actually lusting after it, wondering desperately how we could justify buying it on the spot when we knew darn well that $99 could go toward something useful like an orthodontist's bill. We started jabbering about how the ocean machine would be perfect for taking naps on Saturdays when the next-door neighbor has his Bi-Amp Boombox cranked to 11. They also sell the Bi-Amp in this gizmo store for $349. Right next to the Acu-Node Massager which, for only $149, promises to melt away tension.

We talked eagerly then of the ultimate gizmo experience. You buy the Acu-Node and melt away the tension. Then you turn on the ocean and settle into a great Saturday nap. You wake up refreshed and go out for beers dressed in your genuine leather bombardier jacket. Though it's not really a gizmo, it's what the well-dressed gizmoist always wears. And besides, it can be had at better gizmo stores for $350. When you come home you use your $59 phone tap detector to foil all of those out-of-work KGB guys who have nothing better to do than tap the phones of guys in bombardier jackets.

Then you plop into your $1,795 Get-A-Way chair with the "glove-soft, full grain synthetic upholstery" (cue Ricardo Montalban), and you chill, playing with your $129 computer backgammon game. We were talking like kids, of course, noses pressed to the glass of the jellybean case, impossible dreams clouding the reality of the five sweaty pennies clutched in our hands.

Wally and the Beave.

I'd passed by that gizmo store many times along with other stores just like it in a dozen different malls around the country. When we were kids the closest you came to a gizmo store was the appliance department at Sears; real excitement was trying out a new Hoover. But suddenly, all is gizmo, anywhere you go. And the gizmos get odder and odder. It isn't enough to have smaller and more efficient radios, for example. Now they have to be molded to fit on certain parts of your body and they have to have controls that make them look like Indy 500 cars. And if it can hang around your neck, even if it weighs 58 pounds, you're talking instant sale.

Other gizmos have to be impossibly New Age or space-age or both, like those goosh-filled insoles you see advertised in the catalogs put out by these stores. Slip them into your shoes and you get an instant massage. In fact, it seems like almost every item in a gizmo store has something to do with massage. Even the Electronic Horse Race Analyzer, a $79 item that massages the stats on the past performance charts of your favorite nags and claims to be 90 percent accurate in picking the top four horses in a race. Doesn't that sound a little bit like saying you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time? And can you really picture going to a racetrack, where serious, frowning horse players sit for hours with pencil and Daily Racing Form carefully working out the odds, and here you are, casually punching a few buttons on your battery-powered gizmo and whistling off to cash your winning tickets?

Do you really think you'd ever stop seeing in your nightmares the sneers and snickers and looks of cruel disbelief on those bettors' faces? Someday far in the future, when some archaeologist is probing an ancient landfill, looking for clues as to what went wrong with modern civilization, he will come across an old Horse Race Analyzer and he will slap his forehead and sit down with a thump.

At any rate, all of those gizmo stores seem the same. In the window you find impossibly bizarre doodads shined brighter than a Lionel on Christmas morning. And in the doorway there is always a security guard wearing a tasteful blazer and a look-but-if-you-touch-you're-meatloaf scowl.

The guys who take naps on Saturday would never dream of touching anything in one of these stores. They are the ones who go in and look at the ocean machine with their hands clasped safely behind their backs. Nevertheless they are the ones who draw the suspicious squints from the guards, who cause them to raise their walkie-talkie to their lips, alerting the other unseen guard, the one with the Bi-Amp, air-cooled, 50-caliber machine gun mounted discreetly behind the cash register.

"Two guys loitering at the ocean machine," the guard whispers. "They look just tired enough to swipe that bad boy. Better get off a warning burst."

Meanwhile, every hyperactive kid within 20 miles is in the store, bouncing on the Get-A-Way chair, crawling all over the $1,995 Acu-Massage table, trying on the $149 IQ-Tutor Brain Wave Synchronizer, or looking at the guard through the $159 Zoom Binoculars, but the wrong way so that he is only 1 inch tall.

Still, none of them comes within 10 feet of the ocean machine.

And when the guard isn't looking, you flip the on switch and out comes the soothing, relaxing, massaging roll of the surf. You are getting sleepy, very sleepy.

It never fails. Every time I've been in one of these stores I've tended to write off all of gizmodom as quintessentially silly, just more evidence that the Roman Empire is again in decline. Until, that is, I find the gizmo I want.

Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. Or in this case, the ear.

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