Essayist Peter Sagal is the host of NPR's quiz show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" and the author of "The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things — and How to Do Them."
Everybody thinks that if the Big Three (or the Big Two And A Half) American car companies go under, it'll mean the end of the American way of life. But it's too late. The American way of life is already dead and gone, singing in the choir celestial. It died last February, when The Sharper Image filed for bankruptcy. They said they would keep stores open, but they're all gone, and their Web site is nothing but an empty promise of a quote: "Something big coming."
I mean, if GM and Chrysler vanish, we'll still have cars from Asia and Europe. But since The Sharper Image went under, we've been completely without a reliable supplier of expensive computerized massage chairs and laser-tag games for grown-ups and combination CD/MP3 player/blood-pressure monitor/shaving mirrors. I'm not even going to get into the suits of armor and the ray guns, because then I'll start weeping again.
When I was a kid, I would go hunting for my dad's Sharper Image catalog the way other kids would look for their fathers' Playboys, and that's not just because my father didn't have any Playboys.
To me, The Sharper Image was mailed from a mall located someplace in the future, where everything was glossy and smooth and battery-powered, and the photographs were airbrushed and softly lit. And the people from the future who used these remarkable instruments, these digital watches with eight buttons and foot massagers and abdominal exercisers, were tall and sleek and slender and so clearly happy to be living in the future, where your watch could also tell you the temperature and deionize the air. Someday, I said to myself, I will live in that future.
Well, now I do, and it is a sad place. I am not airbrushed, and I am not tall and slender, and not only are there no professional grown-up laser-tag leagues, there is no Sharper Image.
I am told by the business press that the company couldn't survive the general retail downturn. As times got tougher, people began to ask themselves whether they really needed a musical instrument you play by waving your hands through laser beams. Like Tinkerbell, doubt was fatal to The Sharper Image.
But with that company went something more than a tenant for the retail space next to the Lane Bryant down the mall. With it went a certain, purely American idea: That no matter what happened, we'd always have enough extra money to spend on useless nonsense, as long as it had an LCD display. I don't know what my kids will look at to inspire their dreams of being a future consumer. Does Wal-Mart have a catalog?