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You Gotta Have a Toaster, Right?

Searching for a simple, affordable bit of Americana. The adventure begins.

12:00 AM, Oct 21, 2002 • By LARRY MILLER
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WE JUST GOT a new toaster. And it wasn't easy.

We had our last toaster for six years, I think. I don't remember exactly, for two reasons. First, who can recall precise appliance purchase dates, anyway? And second, since we started having kids, I don't remember much of anything past about two weeks ago. Parents know what I mean. Our friends Jimmy and Maggie, newlyweds and childless, (Why is it necessary to add "childless" to "newlyweds" these days?) invited us out to dinner the other night, and Jimmy suggested a restaurant by saying, "Hey, Larry, why don't we go to that place you and I took Don last year?" And I said, "Are you kidding?" And he said, "Oh, didn't you like it?" And I said, "No, I meant, are you kidding about asking me to remember something from a year ago."

I do remember one thing about our old toaster: I hated it every single day. This is not hyperbole. I despised it. My wife was the one who purchased it, and it cost something like seventy dollars, and that's not a bad start for disliking something. At the time I averred that we would have been better off with a Proctor-Silex, or some basic American model, a simple, chrome two-slotter that I felt certain would have only been about fourteen bucks. She responded the way any good wife would, by staring daggers at me and walking away.

But price, alone, should never be enough for clean, unalloyed hatred. The reason this appliance made my blood boil was that it was a fancy model with a switch on the side that allowed (rather, forced) the owner to choose between using one slot or both. If you wanted just one slice, you flicked the tiny toggle, and only the coils on one side would heat up; if you wanted two slices, you flicked it the other way to electrify both sides. Let me be clear: I'm not talking about the mysterious placebo-print on the top of every toaster throughout history, the pointless message of "One Slice" (with the arrow next to it), the words that, I swear, have as much truth in them as CNN calling the last Iraqi election an election. This was a separate, working switch that turned one coil on and off.

Now, some of you out there will say, "Well, bonehead, that's actually a great idea, because it saves electricity." Okay, if you say so, and I'm all for that. Like my father, God bless him, I march around the house at night turning out every light that's not being used and I've lately taken to hollering the time-honored dad's anthem, "You know, I don't work for the Electric Company." But even if every American bought one of these particular toasters, I don't think this is the crucial bit of conservation that would decrease our reliance on Prince Bandar and his cheerful relatives.

Anyway, every day, I make breakfast for the kids, and, every day, I would forget which side the switch was on, and, every day, I would wind up making one successfully toasted piece of bread, and one piece toasted on one side and soggy-white on the other. And that was what I hated so much.

When you're getting children ready for school, no matter how early you get up, every minute counts. And so, every day for the last six years, my wife was jolted from sleep by the hallway sounds of a toaster popping up and me shouting the same anguished phrase. (For the record, I never curse in front of the kids, but my wife insists that our little one's first words were, "Oh, for crying out loud.")

Even on the rare occasions when I remembered to check, the switch and its markings were so small I had to hold the toaster up off the counter and into the light to discern the setting. This caused all the crumbs in the bottom to sift onto the floor like a tickertape parade for the ants, which, of course, pleased them greatly, but only caused me to shout, again, "Oh, for crying out loud." (Doubtless it was these additional repetitions that successfully drilled them into the baby's head.)

Ah, but the ants, bless them, were the reason we got rid of it. We had a rising of them a few weeks ago, and although we squelched the rebellion, my wife discovered that their command-and-control center was, that's right, the toaster. It looked like a bad fifties science-fiction movie, or even a good one, so we tossed it immediately. Oh joy, oh rapture. As they say, revenge is a dish best served toasted.

So now we needed a new one. And this turned out to be the hard part. We first went to one of those giant kitchen-and-bedroom stores, but all the models they had were unacceptable, at least to one of us. Okay, to me. They were all seventy and eighty dollars, and, as the patriarch, I lovingly, but firmly, put my foot down. There was, I vowed once again, an old-fashioned Proctor-Silex out there somewhere for fourteen dollars. The Divine Mrs. M., a good, traditional wife, humbly acquiesced. She didn't even roll her eyes. Then she turned around and bought three sets of towels and sheets we didn't need, which cost far more. I guess I showed her. And off we went to the mall.

There we went to a retro-design-nostalgia place whose stock-in-trade is things that are fashioned to look like anything in the background of a Norman Rockwell painting. But the only toaster they had was the darndest-looking thing. It was large and round and had, no kidding, a bunch of levers sticking out of it, whose purpose was God-knows-what. Never mind retro, this hunk of buffed steel looked like the toaster Captain Nemo would've had on the Nautilus. More to the point, it was three hundred and fifty dollars. We stared mutely at it for a few minutes, while the kids tried to remove some German cleavers from a butcher block, and then a funny thing happened. We actually considered buying it.

You know how it is, you get tired and punchy, and you start to think, "Ah, hell, let's just get this thing and be done with it." Mercifully, we snapped out if when the kids started to roll an electric barbecue (in brushed chrome) toward a stack of martini glasses, and that shook us out of the ether. By way of apology, we picked up a set of useless, knitted placemats and went home. And nowhere else. Who needs a damn toaster. Kids eat too much bread, anyway.

And so it stood, until a week later when I stopped off at Sav-on to pick up some shaving soap. (Yeah, yeah, I use a brush and cup, and they're the only store I've found that has Burma Shave cakes. When they run out, I'm going to have to move to those new-fangled cans.) On a whim, I walked down their appliance aisle, and there they sat, a whole shelf of simple, beautiful, chrome Proctor-Silex toasters. And get this: Fourteen dollars? No, sir! Ready? Twelve ninety-nine!

I blinked in disbelief for a few seconds, ejaculated yet another "Oh, for crying out loud!" and, with shaking hands and tears in my eyes, slid one off and clutched it to my heaving breast. Victory! I love you, Sav-on! I love you, America!

My wife took it all very well, which is to say she muttered something about two slots instead of four, and walked away again. And the next morning, after boring the kids with a few reflections on the industrial revolution and American manufacturing (sort of like the sermon before the free meal at a soup-kitchen), I held the unopened box out in my arms like the Ark of the Covenant and told them to get ready for some nifty, frozen waffles. It was a great breakfast. My wife scooped them off to school and kissed me, and I felt like Donna Reed waving goodbye to everyone (which is fine with me), and as I began to clean up, I took the empty toaster-box off to the recycling bin, gave it a last, loving look . . .

And there it was, under the photo, and the slogan, and the "features," and the price: "Made in Mexico." Well, I guess that explains the $12.99, huh? What an idiot I am. In the words of Bud Abbott, "How dumb can one get?"

I give up. I can't go looking again. Who has that kind of time? (I suppose we could just take our next vacation here at home and spend eight hours a day for two weeks looking at toasters . . .) Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing bad about things made in other places, you understand, but . . . Can't we make toasters in Indianapolis anymore? I guess not. Maybe for seventy dollars. I don't know. The thing works just fine, and it heats up faster than the old one, and bagels fit in it, and everything tastes good, and . . .

I mean, you gotta have a toaster, right?

Larry Miller is a contributing humorist to The Daily Standard and a writer, actor, and comedian living in Los Angeles.