Reading and the plastic straw

Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine* is devoted to the outwardly uneventful lunch hour of an employee who contemplates staplers and shoelaces and pharmacy bags and everything else in minute detail that is either hilarious or maddening, depending on your own obsessive compulsive tendencies, or the lack thereof. I think you know which camp I’m in.

Here’s an analysis of the problems the plastic straw — the only kind I know — creates for the paperback enthusiast trying to enjoy pizza and Coke while reading.

My interest in straws had fallen off some years before, probably peaking out the year that all the major straw vendors switched from paper to plastic straws, and we entered that uncomfortable era of the floating straw.*

* I stared in disbelief the first time a straw rose up from my can of soda and hung out over the table, barely arrested by the burrs in the underside of the metal opening. I was holding a slice of pizza in one hand, folded in a three-finger grip so that it wouldn’t flop and pour cheese-grease on the paper plate, and a paperback in a similar grip in the other hand — what was I supposed to do? The whole point of straws, I had thought, was that you did not have to set down the slice of pizza to suck a dose of Coke while reading a paperback. I soon found, as many have, that there was a way to drink no-handed with these new floating straws: you had to bend low to the table and grasp the almost horizontal straw with your lips, steering it back down into the can every time you wanted a sip, while straining your eyes to keep them trained on the line of the page you were reading. How could the straw engineers have made so elementary a mistake, designing a straw that weighed less than the sugar-water in which is was intended to stand? Madness!

But later, when I gave the subject more thought, I decided that, though the straw engineers were probably blameworthy for failing to foresee the straw’s buoyancy, the problem was more complex than I had first imagined. As I reconstruct that moment of history, circa 1970 or so, what happened was that the plastic material used in place of paper was in fact heavier than Coke — their equations were absolutely correct, the early manufacturing runs looked good, and though the water-to-plastic ratio was a little tight, they went ahead. What they had forgotten to take into account, perhaps, was that the bubbles of carbonation attach themselves to invisible asperities on the straw’s surface, and are even possibly generated by turbulence at the leading edge of the straw as you plunge it in the drink; thus clad with bubbles, the once marginally heavier straw reascends until its remaining submerged surface area lacks the bubbles to lift it further. Though the earlier paper straw, with its spiral seam, was much rougher than plastic, and more likely to attract bubbles, it was porous: it soaked up a little of the Coke as ballast and stayed put. All right — an oversight; why wasn’t it corrected? A different recipe for the plastic, a thicker straw? Surely the huge buyers, the fast-food companies, wouldn’t have tolerated straws beaching themselves in their restaurants for more than six months or so. They must have had whole departments dedicated to exacting concessions from Sweetheart and Marcal. But the fast-food places were adjusting to a novelty of their own at about the same time: they were putting slosh caps on every soft drink they served: to go or for the dining room, which cut down on spillage, and the slosh caps had a little cross in the middle, which had been the source of some unhappiness in the age of paper straws, because the cross was often so tight that the paper straw would crumple when you tried to push it through. The straw men at the fast-food corporations had a choice: either we: (a) make the crossed slits easier to pierce so that the paper straws aren’t crumples, or we (b) abandon paper outright, and make the slits even tighter, so that (1) any tendency to float is completely negated and (2) the seal between the straw and the crossed slits is so tight that almost no soda will well out, stain car seats and clothing, and cause frustration. And (b) was the ideal solution for them, even leaving aside the attractive price that the straw manufacturers were offering as they switched their plant over from paper-spiraling equipment to high-speed extrusion machines — so they adopted it, not thinking that their decision had important consequences for all restaurants and pizza places (especially) that served cans of soda. Suddenly the paper-goods distributor was offering the small restaurants floating plastic straws and only floating plastic straws, and was saying that this way the way all the big chains were going; and the smaller sub shops did no independent testing using cans of soda instead of cuts with crossed-slit slosh caps. In this way the quality of life, through nobody’s fault, went down an eighth of a notch….

* Although The Mezzanine is a fun book, it does not, IMO, hold a candle to The Fermata (second item). But then a writer of my acquaintance reports: “I saw [Baker] read a few years ago, and he joked that he’s trying to write as many novels as possible to put some space between him and the erotica [e.g., The Fermata, Vox] he once wrote.”


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