As a kid I realized that my interests were different from those of many my age. The boys were interested in speculating about whether the Yankees would make it into the World Series. The girls wondered whether they could make their Barbie even more alluring if they put some of their mothers’ lipstick on her. I didn’t understand why kids were interested in either of those subjects.
I had been taught by my parents that one of the first responsibilities of being a civilized person was listening to others, no matter the subject matter or what their opinion was. This resulted in several occasions where I had self-inflicted wounds to the palms of my hand, caused by my nails digging into the flesh as I tried patiently to wait for the subject to change to something in which I had an interest. There were some days that never happened – many days.
At a fairly early age, I realized and started to accept the fact that I was “different” from other kids my age. In fact, I could readily picture myself growing up and being “different” as an adult. This was not a judgment about who was better but merely an understanding that I had an alternative path to follow than others. I thought that path might not have many fellow travellers on it – and that has proven to be the case. And I longed to be transformed somehow so that I could change my route and find myself happily treading the road that so many others followed and with which they were content. That never happened either.
One of the manifestations of my self-realization came in the form of a nightmare which repeated itself over several nights. I was buried in Times Square in a glass coffin. I could look out and see people walking over me on their way to work or one of the girlie joints that existed at that time – or perhaps rushing to the Automat to grab a quick bite to eat. I remember crying out, “I’m here. Somebody help me get out.” But no one seemed either to hear me or to care enough to make an effort. Fortunately, that nightmare went away, although mentioning it these many years later still sends a shiver up my spine. Years later I realized that the line from “Cool Hand Luke,” ‘What we have here is failure to communicate” was pure plagiarism. But not being a litigious person, I have no plans to sue the screenwriters.
One morning at breakfast one of the great questions of all time overwhelmed me. Two eggs over easy, hash browns, three strips of crisp bacon and a couple toasted slices of Grandma’s homemade bread. (I had already drunk the small glass of freshly squeezed orange juice – with pulp included).
There I was looking at breakfast. and it hit me as I cut into the yolk of one of the eggs and tore off a piece of the bread to soak up the yellow liquid. “Who invented toast?,” I thought to myself. This seemed to me, at the moment, to be the most profound and interesting question that anyone had ever posed. Even though I was really hungry, I was tempted to set down my fork and walk over to “The Encyclopedia Britannica” and read about the history of how toast had come into existence. But based on previous experience with eggs over easy, eating them cold wasn’t very appealing. So I ate breakfast quickly, forgetting to enjoy it, and then, after bringing my plates into the kitchen, stood on the couch so that I could reach the “T” volume.
I thought that all the knowledge of the universe was contained in my encyclopedia. I anxiously thumbed through the “T” articles, “Th,” “Ti”, “To” finally I was almost there. Finally, I came on the entry. The EB described (briefly) what toast was – but there was no reference to what I’m sure must be a very dignified pedigree belonging to the individual who invented it. What a let down. I already knew what toast was. The book was absolutely no help. So I turned to Grandma, my go to backup source.
“Grandma, who invented toast?” She always looked at me very lovingly. But somehow I felt that I had an insight into her mind and after I asked that question, I could see her thinking, “What a special child.” She always liked to keep her inner thoughts quite charitable. “Sweetheart, I really don’t know.” A lesser person might have had a different thought after being asked that question by a ten year old.
Frustrated at being left in the dark, I gathered my books and went to school, making sure that my homework was ready and with me. Sometimes, when I was in the middle of solving one of life’s mysteries, I had a tendency to leave things behind, absorbed, as I was with my great thoughts.
I didn’t pay much attention at school that morning. How could I? I debated whether or not I should ask my teacher, Mrs. Bounds my question. She was a very wise person and very nice. But a couple of times she had mentioned how she and her husband were going out to dinner at this restaurant or another – so I didn’t think she cooked very often and probably wouldn’t know the answer. So I waited for lunch.
When we all filed into the lunchroom, I grabbed a tray, the silverware, a napkin and a container of milk. We had beef stew that day and I helped myself to two slices of bread to soak up the gravy. Mrs. Johnson served my stew and handed me my plate. She was quite elderly and obviously she must have cooked or she wouldn’t be handing out beef stew to little kids, so I blurted out, “Mrs. Johnson, who invented toast?” As I read her inner thoughts, I saw that they contained little of the gentility that I had experienced when I had asked Grandma the same question. They were more along the lines of, “Only two more years of this and I’m going to retire.” But she replied quite politely, “I really don’t know dear.” And she smiled somewhat dismissively, suggesting that I was holding up the line and should move along. So I did.
I asked several of my classmates and my friends my question. But the boys were more interested in speculating about whether the Yankees would be in the World Series and the girls wondered if putting their mothers’ lipstick on Barbie would make her more alluring and I could tell they really weren’t interested in discussing my question – since they told me so.
More than a half century has gone by and I still don’t have an answer to my question. Fortunately, I only think about it once in a while so it’s not a source of great emotional distress. But, if you’re reading this and know “Who invented toast,” I would greatly appreciate your getting in touch and telling me. And if you have the answer, you’re just the kind of person who must be walking my somewhat lonesome path and probably can answer my next question. “Who invented butter?”
Let’s walk along together. I’m sure we will have a lot to discuss.