James B. S. Riley
Global Powders & Notions, LLC
May 12, 2008
Mr. John Oster, deceased,
The Oster Manufacturing Company
acquired by Sunbeam Products,
which was bought out by
Allegheny International, Inc., before
the division was cited, along with
its accounting firm which, not surprisingly, was
Arthur Andersen, LLC, now owned by
four limited liability corporations called
Omega Management I through IV,
for accounting fraud and
filed for bankruptcy, only to reemerge
one year later as the privately owned
American Household, Inc. (AHI)
which was purchased by
Jarden Corporation (NYSE: JAH), the former
Alltrista Corporation, which began as the
spin-off of its canning business by the Ball Corporation
Dear Mr. Oster:
I like toast. In this, as I'm sure you're aware, or would be if you were still alive, I am far from alone; it's a staple of breakfast tables in much of the civilized world. Toward this end I, again like millions of others, employ a toaster, or device which toasts bread automatically on both sides at once. I enjoy its convenience, and, if I may indulge in the personal for a moment, the aroma of toasting bread and the satisfying pop of the finished product, which frequently startles, but in a good way. I like mine with butter (or, more accurately, partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil spread the color of cabbage butterflies); for an occasional treat I'll add some apricot preserves.
I don't know when I first became a fan of toast. As an infant I was fed digestive biscuits, which might serve as a sort of gateway to toast enjoyment; I suppose your marketing department could answer that. I do remember that the toaster was a prominent feature of my family's breakfast table, which, let us clearly understand each other here, was also the lunch and dinner table--we were not one of your fancy breakfast-nook-owning families--but Mother would put the toaster back in the cabinet after the morning meal.
Now, here's the peculiar thing about that, the late Mr. Oster: we must have had that same toaster for at least a decade. If you could remember things at this stage, I'm sure you'd remember that such objects take on a sort of totemic power for young children, being, at the same time, a kind of magical amulet and a provider of warmth and comfort. I can, in fact, close my eyes and still smell the warm brown bakelite of the handles and knobs, with their clearly marked numerical progression, and recall how the Art Deco-ish bulge of its chrome body offered literally hours of enjoyment once I discovered it would distort faces most comically, like a household funhouse mirror. And the redorange glow of its elements was mesmerizing, presaging a lifelong fascination with various forms of flammability, something I would eventually turn into a career of sorts. So I remember it clearly, and it was the only toaster I would know until the late 70s ushered in the craze for throwing perfectly good equipment in a landfill, during which time it made toast.
You may have seen where I'm going with this, Mr. Oster; I'm not quite clear how perceptive people in your situation are. Last fall I replaced my previous toaster, which, at a mere five years of age, had lost a portion of its electrical function. (Here I might explain that in the American economy of the 21st century it is both cheaper and faster to replace the entire apparatus than to contrive with ten cents' worth of wire to repair it.) So I cranked up the flivver, bounced my way to my local retailler, and bought a sleek and shiny replacement. As you may have guessed, or not, an Oster.
Now, sir, like you, I imagine, I find myself living a portion of my life in a century for which I was not prepared, though I imagine the dazzling rate of increasing complexity seemed to you like progress. I get home with this product and spend ten minutes reading the instructions. For toast. I mean, sir, I don't generally swear around the deceased, in case they're not partial to it, but what th' fuck? The thing has a setting for bagels, which is fine in a politically-correct sort of way, but there's also a WARM and a FROZEN button which I can't for the life of me figure why anyone would need. And the dial is a marvel of illegibility. There's no marking on the knob itself, which apparently would have demoralized the design staff no end. Instead it has a small ridge between two beveled sections which serves as a marker supposing one has sensitive enough fingers (and, I might point out, small enough to still read the numbers underneath while fondling it). The scale runs from 1 through 7, with dots in between offering what frankly must be termed the illusion of decimal increments of control. In the actual event numbers 1-4, and their fractional handmaidens, do nothing beyond getting the bread slightly warm, which, while it may be some user's cup of tea, does not actually qualify as "toast", and would seem to raise the question about what that WARM switch is doing there.
All of this in fact, sir, I would have learned to live with without too much bother as, in fact, I had until recently, when the thing began to develop a mind of its own, which, although I haven't checked yet, probably signals the warranty has expired. This may have begun when my Poor Wife, who is a notoriously fickle, sensitive, and, well, no need beating around the bush, half-insane eater, as is the rest of her family (at least she doesn't vomit nearly as much as her baby brother, who can be set off by someone trimming the broccoli too long) decided to have some toast one morning instead of whatever godawful coffeeshop provender she usually indulges (a sensitive eater who readily consumes feedlot-quality comestibles prepared by people who were in prison as recently as last week!). She, you might have been able to guess, favors toast in which the color of the bread remains unchanged, and in pursuit of this started fiddling with the dial which, of course, I didn't discover until the next morning, when my own toast popped up so quickly I thought I'd failed to completely engage the switch. And, of course, since what markings there are are in Hipster Design Braille it took another exercise in warming bread to figure out the problem. As I say, I haven't checked the warranty; perhaps "changing the dial once set" voids it.
So this weekend I planned on fixing club sandwiches for lunch. This means, for two of us, six total slices of toast which I generally toast lightly in consideration of my wife's preferences and avoidance of keeping them all straight during assembly. Six total slices of toast, one unchanged setting, yielding four different visual results, including one piece which looked on one side as though it had gotten a suntan through a picket fence. You may compare, sir, that old chrome model of my youth, which, rescued by some landfill archaeologist, is probably available on eBay as we speak, listed as "works great!"
I write to you, Mr. Oster, not because I cannot contact the company online, or because I imagine that you still have some pull there, but because it is your name on the thing ("Oster: The Quality Goes In Before The Name Of Some Guy Who Died Thirty Years Before His Company Ever Made A Toaster Goes On") and I feel this makes us partners in grievance. And I was wondering if it's true that the dead can shoot laser beams out of their eyes, or cause people to stab themselves with their own letter openers, or raise maps of painful boils, anything the people responsible for this thing deserve? A simple haunting, if that's the one interaction you're permitted, would be satisfactory. I remain, sir, yours in spirit.
James B. S. Riley