Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Cracker Eater (circa 1998)

Well, it just so happens that I was eating Triscuits this morning when I had what Walt Whitman would refer to as a special revelation. I was sitting there at the table and picking crackers out of the box two and three at a time, breaking them in half, and then eating them. The salty taste on my tongue was pleasant as I chewed them, and the grainy texture felt good in my mouth as they broke up in there. I started staring at the box for some reason, reading all the words on it, just to do something, just to kind of pass the time I guess. I’d just woken up and I was kind of lightheaded and still caught up a bit in sleep. Everything started coming to me in a fugue. Every new thing that came to me, or at me, kept building slightly on the last thing. I read: “BAKED WHOLE WHEAT CRACKERS” “Improved Wheat Taste!” “Not for nibblers!™” “NET WT 9½ OZ (269g)” “NABISCO®” My eyes just kept reading everything. It all seemed really important and super interesting. The top flap on the box had this little recycling symbol on it, you know, with the arrows going around in a kind of triangle in the black circle, and it said on it, “Carton made from 100% recycled paperboard.” And under that in this really tiny print it read, “Minimum 35% post-consumer content.” I had no idea what this meant, but like I said before it all seemed extremely important. I decided to make coffee. I began to wonder about how the wheat taste had been improved. The crackers didn’t taste any better than I’d remembered them tasting before, but I really couldn’t be sure. Maybe the taste had been improved. It seemed really important that I figure this out. I wanted to be very sure of this fact. I grabbed a coffee filter from a box of coffee filters sitting on my table and put the filter, which was a superior quality brown-colored filter, into the top part of the coffee maker where the filter goes. The box of filters had these words on it: “Flavor Pores,” and, “FEEL the quality…Taste the difference!” and also, “FOUR TREES are planted for every ONE used in the production of our filter paper.” I wondered about these trees. Who was planting them? What kind of trees were they? Where were they being planted? How many trees does it take to make a coffee filter? Well, I scooped the coffee grounds into the filter with a little measuring spoon that I keep in the coffee can to measure out my coffee. I closed the tray with the filter and coffee grounds inside of it, and set the glass coffee pot under there to catch the drips of hot coffee. I poured water from my water-filtration pitcher into the back compartment until it went up to the 5-cup line on the thermometer-looking measuring device on the side. After doing this I sat back down and grabbed a few more Triscuits. I noticed that on the tab that keeps the box closed after it’s been broken open for the first time it read, “To open slide finger under the flap and loosen gently,” and under that flap it read, “To close insert tab here.” I inserted the tab and the box stayed closed. I was extremely pleased by this. Turning the box around I read the side of it where the nutrition facts and ingredients were listed. I wanted to find some significance in these things. It read, “No Cholesterol” “Low Saturated Fat (Contains 5g per serving)” “Good source of Dietary Fiber.” It also said on it that one serving size was seven crackers. I wondered who had come up with the number. Why not five? Or Ten? There was some deeper meaning there. Something spiritual. I read the ingredients: “Triscuit crackers are made by a unique process from whole wheat, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, salt.” It seemed odd to me that there was no, “and,” in there. I felt that it should have said, “and salt.” So again I pondered things. What was so unique about this cracker making process? Were there actually people specially trained to make these crackers? Did they go to school? Did they have a license? And how the hell had they improved the whole wheat taste? It seemed a mind-boggling mystery of infinite depths and immeasurable longitudes of thought. I listened to the coffee drip and gurgle, and watched the steam rise from the coffee pot. Then I turned the box of Triscuits over and looked at the bottom. It read in really tiny black print, “This package is sold by weight, not by volume. Packed as full as practicable by modern automatic equipment, it contains the full net weight indicated. If it does not appear full when opened, it is because contents have settled during shipping and handling.” For some reason I thought of all those bags of chips I’d opened over the course of my chip-eating life, and how there would be a popping sound and sometimes only like five chips in there when you opened the bag. There was some esoteric kind of language being transmitted in all this. All these words, all of this language being used. I felt like I was deciphering some kind of code, some kind of hidden world of symbols and wonderful mysteries. Why else would the folks at Nabisco go through all the trouble of putting this stuff on the box? It didn’t make the crackers taste any better. It didn’t change my opinion of the crackers. I’ve always liked Triscuits. I probably always will. And even if they keep improving the whole wheat taste, I’ll probably continue not to notice. I started to think of all the words on all of the boxes and bottles and crates and trucks in the whole world, all of that language out there being wasted, beating against deaf ears, all of this noise and distraction going unnoticed. I started imagining this giant cartel of word smugglers going from one town to the next with their cereal boxes and their ammunition of slogans and fine print. They’d go unnoticed just like their words. People wouldn’t even see them. They’d be overlooked. And they could communicate to each other through paper products and box tops and commercial jingles. Only they would know what the words really meant. And nobody would care. They could do as they pleased. Just what would they do? Who knows? Maybe nothing. But as I was sitting there this morning it seemed like I was on the verge of some miraculous breakthrough. Like I was at the mouth of a river of endless possibility. I fell into this delirium, this foggy muddled kind of state. I read the bar code on the bottom of the box. 04422903. The coffee pot stopped making coffee, and it kind of whistled like it does when it stops making coffee. The numbers made no sense. I turned the box over and over in my hand. I read the address of Nabisco: East Hanover, NJ 07936. It said that when writing to them one should enclose the top flap with the printed code on it. My mind flashed. That was it. That was how they did it. Finally, I felt like I was on to something. It was more than just words. Maybe the words were just a distraction. It was all bar codes. What else would they have all of those numbers for? They were communicating with box tops and cardboard flaps and numbers. But who was doing all of this communicating? Then it kind of just came to me. We all were. All of us who bought things and sold things and felt like we owned things and lived out our lives so cut-off from each other. We had found this new way to get our messages across. It was more than numbers and words or even symbols. It was more than blips and bleeps and digital beeps. We were talking to each other, comforting each other, and sharing our lives with one another in this new and profound way: by buying things. We were all partaking, as consumers, in something larger than own tiny selves, fitting into the whole, becoming a member of society, fulfilling our duty as a proud citizen of this nation. And we had somehow invented a new way of doing all of these things, of spreading our culture, of making ourselves feel like our lives were more worthwhile. It seemed really epiphanic at the time. Something like the essence of God was around in that kitchen there. So, I got up and grabbed my coffee mug and I poured my coffee into my cup and I blew on the hot coffee as it steamed there under my nose. I stood there sipping my coffee and staring at the clock for a long time.