End of the Line

Southern Ingenuity

Thoughts on some inventions we need—and some we don’t

Illustration: Barry Blitt

My friend Tom Rankin says he heard somebody call motion-activated nature-trail videos “the best thing invented in the South since the five-gallon bucket.” I like the ring of that observation. I welcome the opportunity to lead off a column with it. However, I can’t confirm that either the bucket or the video in question was, in fact, invented in the South.

Could’ve been. Waldo Semon, born in Demopolis, Alabama, invented PVC as we know it. He “brought about the age of vinyl,” said his obituary in the New York Times. He was in Akron, Ohio, though, when he brought it about. (Watch out: If you make the mistake of Googling “Waldo Sermon,” without “PVC,” you get sermons on the theme of “Where’s Waldo?”)

What would you give to have invented the five-gallon bucket? Its proportions are perfect, like the baseball diamond, and its value is universal, like the opposable thumb. You can sit and rest on a five-gallon bucket. You can carry your lunch in it and everything you really need for fishing. (I have a clipping of a baby sitting and grinning in a five-gallon bucket, over the caption “Keeping Company with the Bait.”) And you don’t have to buy a new five-gallon bucket, and be responsible for adding more plastic to the earth, because your bucket can come with driveway sealant or kitty litter.

I’ll tell you something that needs inventing. Why the hell do I have to devote half my life to keeping my phone charged? If it’s so smart, why can’t it charge itself? If it can count my steps, why can’t it wind itself, like my thirty-dollar Timex watch?

And why can’t we have “Organic” stickers that are organic? Or anyway, biodegradable. I don’t know about you, but if I’m buying organic groceries, I’m wanting to compost the skins and the shells and the hulls. Yet every time I dig around in my rich homemade loam, I turn up ten or fifteen immortal “Organic” stickers. After you frugally peel or scratch any persistent organic matter off these stickers, what are you going to do with them? They’re too small to dispose of, somehow. They sort of halfway stick to your fingernail. Try to roll them into a ball, as one might a booger, and they just kind of splinter.

I don’t question the necessity of “Organic” stickers. They reassure one’s wife that one is not trying to slip impure produce into the home. But must “Organic” stickers last forever? A nice green lime nearly covered by stickers that a worm won’t eat is like a Popsicle with promotional hot spots.

People don’t want these stickers. At the market today, I noticed a lot of them stuck not on the fruits and vegetables, but on the sides of the bins and shelves. Take the stickers off an organic banana, and it looks just like a nonorganic one, which is cheaper. That wouldn’t even cross my mind. But what one could do: One could pick up a few of those stickers, and buy nonorganic, and then, on the way home…

But that’s not even a good idea, probably, much less an invention. There’s a new garden store in town. Must be something newfangled there, right?

Okay: Roll-a-Bob, “the ultimate solution to unrolling barbed wire.” Well, I do enjoy pronouncing barbed wire, as “bobwar,” something I picked up from authentic Texan ranch workers, but I don’t need to be unrolling any bobwar. Because I don’t need any bobwar.

How about berries-and-cream-flavored treats for miniature pigs? Don’t have any miniature pigs. A solar-powered sonic-spike mole repeller? Don’t need it: do have a cat.

Wooo, here’s something. Somebody has gone and improved the splitting wedge! Look at that thing! Wood Grenade, it’s called. Instead of just being a simple slab, it has four facets to it, two flat and two edgy, tapering to a single point. Tap that sucker into the middle of a big chunk of log and whang it with the sledgehammer, and BOOM! Firewood a-flying!

Trouble is, now that we’re in New Orleans all winter, we don’t run through more than about five sticks of firewood a year. I can’t see sinking $18.50 into a piece of metal that, to use it, I’d have to go out and find just the right logs, ones that are big around. And then I’d have to saw them up. And then I’d have to haul them somewhere that’s cold. A good invention is one that works for me, not me work for it. I guess that’s why I’ve never come up with one.