Best laid plans

by CarlD

From Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, p. 50:

One time, I had a job with the department store Abraham & Straus, in their ‘systems’ department. There were four or five of us under one director, way up in the attic of the building. There was some dispute with a salesman about which system for making change for the customers was the faster: the Lamson Conveyor or the cash register. So, I was stationed on the main floor with a stop watch, counting the time it took customers to pay and get their change with either method. I was bareheaded and was often interrupted by people asking for their way out or for the nighties department. To stop this, I took to wearing a bowler. This mystified everybody, including the house detective. I guess I left before concluding on the Lamson Conveyor or the cash register, but after a discussion with the boss–a rather heated one. He had become crabby after being flooded with inquiries:

“Who is this man with a bowler, a gray herringbone suit, a mustache, and a stop watch?”

Exact timing can be hard to ascertain in Calder’s engaging anecdotes, but this would have been in the early 1920s, during a knockabout period after his graduation from college and in the context, evident here, of widespread fascination with scientific management or ‘taylorism’.

 Lamson Conveyor Ad

As we now know from supermarkets, the answer was 'both'.

Calder’s laconic delivery is a nice counterpoint to his engineer’s eye and artist’s sensibilities. This is the guy who defined the field of kinetic art and who elsewhere in the book describes a Shriners parade as a ‘human mobile’. What I like here is his fine sense of irony about the moving parts in this human situation that defy reduction to a linear control system. The bowler is not normally found in the inventory of rebels and saboteurs, but it’s interesting to see here on a micro-level how little pressure is needed to disrupt semiotic systems and deflect, for a moment at least, the clumsier projects of power.



3 Comments to “Best laid plans”

  1. For some reason I find this post almost weepily hopeful. Maybe I’m coming down with something…

  2. I know. The whole book is like that – every new experience an adventure, every lemon a chance to make lemonade, always alive to the opportunities in the play of how things work. What a life.

  3. At some point I had occasion to relate this story to a group of parents of “twice exceptional” kids; i.e., gifted plus ADHD, agoraphobia, bipolar, or some other difficulty. One of the moms, whose kid recently got kicked out of school for punching out the teacher, is an artist. She said she’d heard that, as a kid, Calder used to stash little pieces of useless paper and junk to make things out of, and that his parents encouraged him in this strange habit. Two or three of the other parents said that their kids do this too. It made them happy to hear about Calder.

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