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INFOMERCIAL ADDICT REVEALS SEAMY SIDE OF CONSUMERISM GONE BONKERS

By Frank Thomas Croisdale

How can I live without this? Maybe more importantly, how have I lived so many years without what surely has to be the greatest invention since toilet paper on a roll?

The "this" referenced in the lead sentence is the life-altering product known as the "Chef Basket," and I had those thoughts at 1 a.m. while watching the only reality TV worth its salt -- an infomercial.

I'll confess right here and now I am powerless against the otherworldly warlock-like magic of the infomercial. It's not that I actually buy any of these products, at least not right away, but I do find myself comfortably living in that temporary universe of "anything is possible" Zen bliss that swirls around the infomercial galaxy.

I mean, have you seen the Chef Basket spot? In essence, the basket takes the place of your colander, tongs, frying basket and steamer in an all-in-one, easy-to-use device.

I'm watching the pitch, thinking, "What am I, some sort of rube? Here I am straining pasta the old-fashioned way, while putting myself at great risk of being scalded beyond recognition, when scientists have so obviously found a far better solution. I'm such a Philistine."

Then, just when I think it can't get any better, the infomercial model shows me that just by flipping the Chef Basket over, I can now steam my vegetables in an ease-of-use way that would make George Jetson green with space envy.

Oh my God, I'm thinking, why is this on at 1 a.m.? Shouldn't Brian Williams be leading with this on the evening news? Why wasn't this headline screaming from the masthead of the Washington Post? Forget that, why hasn't Google made their homepage logo out of Chef Baskets yet? Charlie Chaplin is yesterday's news, Google. The Chef Basket is the new little tramp that every kitchen can't live without.

So, just as they have me nearly reeled in like a marlin about to be pulled onto the deck of a fishing charter, I find myself thinking, I wonder how much it costs?

That's when they have you. As soon as you let yourself contemplate, even for a nanosecond, how much you're willing to spend to rock your own world, it is game over.

If you've seen even one infomercial in your life, you know that the price close is the most insidious part of the whole production. If they've set you up properly -- and they always do -- you're sitting there like I was, thinking, "Man, that's got to go a hundred bucks, easy. I mean, it replaces a whole kitchen drawer of utensils. In fact, one Ben Franklin probably won't cover it, but hey, can I really afford to quibble over price for something this revolutionary? It's a chance to be like Neil Armstrong and do something others can only dream of, for crying out loud."

Then they land the marlin: "You can own the life-changing Chef Basket for the low introductory price of just $14.99."

Ex-squeeze me? There is no way that you just said that I can possess, in my own greedy little hands, the invention of the millennium for under 15 bucks. Oh no, you didn't? Oh yes, you did.

Before I can even get the Visa card out of its anti-identity theft, foil-lined sheath, they adroitly drop the other shoe on me.

"But wait "

Oh no, not the "but wait."

I'm damn near doing a male version of Kegel exercises as I tensely wait to hear what's coming next.

"There's more. Act now and we'll send you not one, but two Chef Baskets "

Two? I couldn't have heard that right. Did he (the disembodied deep-voiced announcer) just say two? You mean I can keep one for myself and give the other one away as a "hey, you just won the kitchen accoutrement lottery" gift of all gifts?

This has to be a dream. I mean, it is 1 a.m. I must have fallen asleep and concocted this Ron Popeil-influenced wet dream inside my own demented head.

Just when I've nearly convinced myself that my lucid dreaming skills are in full play, the announcer draws me back to reality with these words: "Act now and we'll also include a bonus Everlast chef knife."

The Everlast is the Ginsu with a new name, right down to the depiction of it cutting through a screw and still being able to smoothly slice a tomato -- because, as we all know too well, that comes up all the time.

That's it -- I am sold like an item with the auctioneer's gavel still ringing in its ears.

I have the Visa in my hand. I am using a mnemonic memory device to cement the toll-free ordering number in my head as I reach for the phone.

No more cracked eggs, I say to myself. The fact that I only boil eggs once a year at Easter has no bearing on the conversation. I only know that this Easter will be spent cooking eggs in the fashion meant for the new century.

And it lays flat when not in use, I remind myself. At that moment I hate the colander taking up space in the cupboard adjacent to my kitchen sink. Bloated, obnoxious, pompous piece of metal, I think. How have I lived with this for so long? It represents everything that is wrong with contemporary American society, but in just six to eight weeks the sweet winds of change will blow through the cupboards as we usher in a new, ambitious, space-efficient America.

I feel so patriotic. I can hear Kate Smith belting out a few lines about mountains and prairies and oceans white with foam.

Yes, my life is about to change, and I owe all of it -- every last ounce of ingenuity and advanced gadgetry -- to the unnamed genius who sat in a garage somewhere and decided to build a better colander.

Just as I start dialing the phone, the infomercial ends and an old "Twilight Zone" flickers on the screen.

In the black-and-white brilliance I see the great Burgess Meredith and I instantly recognize that it is the episode entitled "Time Enough at Last."

Rod Serling offers the opening narration.

"Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of the clock. But in just a moment Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He'll have a world to himself without anyone."

The episode is one of my favorites of maybe the greatest TV show ever. The ending outside the library -- where Meredith has meticulously piled up the books he has always intended to read, but never found time for -- is so well-written, so bittersweet, that I always find my heart breaking for poor Henry Bemis, no matter how many times I've seen it before.

In an instant, the Chef Basket is gone from my consciousness. The infomercial universe gives way to a far more cunningly crafted one. The Visa card goes back in my wallet, the phone receiver back in the cradle. I'm $14.99 to the good, and if I listened closely enough I would have heard my colander exhale audibly.

Goodbye, pasta-boiling made easy, the next stop is the Twilight Zone.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 19, 2011