This is a tale of three toasters. Any resemblance of any characters to real-life persons is, like, duh! Because everything below is true.
The Sunbeam was probably not the first toaster my family had growing up. We surely had some boxy, cheap toaster that flung the (usually burnt) toast up in the air like in cartoons. But very early in my childhood, when I was too young to timestamp the memory, my mom bought a Sunbeam. It ran the bread perpendicular to how all other toasters do it, which I always thought was a bit cheeky. It was also the first toaster I ever saw that lowered the bread slowly down, automagically, instead of you pushing down a lever like a cash register key. The toast rose slowly out of it as well. It looked a bit like this:
Like all toasters, it was capable of toasting bread properly under certain conditions. If the brownness setting was set just right and the toaster was cold, you might get a good result, but then the next pair of slices would be underdone because the heat detector mechanism was fooled by the ambient heat of the rest of the toaster. (At least, that’s always been my theory.) So then, in frustration, you’d put the pale toast back in, and have another go but watching carefully, tediously, and then you move the lever to a darker setting for the next go, and so on (ours being a family of six). At the end, bored and frustrated and distracted, you’d forget to slide the adjuster back to any baseline, so the next time the toaster was used, when it’d be cold, it would of course burn the crap out of the bread. The Sunbeam wasn’t particularly bad in this respect; it’s just that I expected more. When we first got it, and I peered into it and saw the little springy-wire sensor that enabled it to lower the bread to save you the effort of pushing down on anything, I thought maybe this toaster was the special one that would always work right.
In junior high I read Good-bye, Mr. Chips, which took place at an English boarding school. The younger-year students would wait on the upper-year students, which included making their toast. This was before toasters so the bread was put in a little wire thingie and held in the oven (or maybe over some kind of flame, I don’t remember), so it was easy to burn it. The younger-year student would be flogged for burning the toast. The dialogue went something like this:
“Henshaw, you little oik, you burnt my toast again.”
“Sorry Rivers, I’ll try harder!”
“I don’t like burnt toast.”
“I won’t do it again!”
“Wrong, oik. ‘I won’t do it again’ suggests you did it deliberately. You should have said ‘shan’t.’”
[Paddling, cuffing, or ear-twisting ensues]
I didn’t tend to make toast for my older brothers, so they didn’t throttle me for burning it, but there were enough beat-downs in my childhood that I could certainly relate to the book. For much of my life I considered toast something that wasn’t worth the trouble.
But that Sunbeam toaster was built well and just kept turning out toast (burnt or not), decade after decade. So when I was visiting my mom this past week and she offered me an English muffin, I had that pleasant, familiar feeling of a family ritual being continued. Nothing ever changes, and you can go home again. I glanced into the kitchen to see the Sunbeam in action, and was surprised to see my mom toasting the English muffin in the oven, like at a boarding school. Because things do change: her Sunbeam burned up, along with virtually all of her other possessions, in a terrible fire a couple of years ago. For me to have imagined the Sunbeam doing my toast was just a habit, or perhaps some deep-down form of denial, I don’t know.
“Mom, why don’t you buy a new toaster?” I asked (perhaps insensitively). She replied, “I don’t really want a toaster. I don’t like toasters.” I can relate.
The hardware store toaster
One year, when I was in college, my dad almost forgot my birthday. I received no card or gift, but on the day he phoned me up. “I meant to buy you a present but I ran out of time,” he explained. “I was going to buy you a toaster. So let’s do this: go out and buy yourself a toaster, and then let me know how much it cost and I will reimburse you.”
I wasn’t exactly thrilled. I mean, why would he assume that I didn’t have a toaster, unless he knew I never wanted one? And, if he remembered that I had three roommates, why would he assume we didn’t have a toaster among us? And who asks his kid to run an errand for his birthday? This was especially inappropriate because all financial matters between my dad and me were routinely awkward and painful.
So, I wasn’t keen to go buy that toaster. Every time I burned my toast, I reasoned, I’d think about my dad and his ridiculous gifting scheme. So it became the kind of errand that just gets put off. And yet, through sheer weakness, I had some impulse to not let my dad down—some sense of duty. But where do you buy a toaster? This was decades before Amazon, and I wasn’t about to BART into San Francisco and waste a lot of time wandering around a department store. I decided to ask my roommate M—, who, in addition to being probably the smartest guy I know, owned a toaster oven. I never used it (because I didn’t eat toast and didn’t know how to work the thing anyway) but I was frequently impressed to see M— actually cooking a steak in that bad boy. Unsurprisingly, he proved an excellent resource for my toaster investigation.
“Are you looking for something nice, or just some cheap, crappy thing?” he asked. I replied, “Oh, the cheaper and crappier the better.” He said any hardware store ought to have a cheap, crappy toaster. I worked right down the street from an Ace Hardware, and sure enough, I bought a barebones toaster there for like $8. It looked about like this, but was even cheaper and crappier.
Of course, by this point (two or three weeks after my birthday) it seemed silly to invoice my father for $8, because then when he (inevitably) didn’t manage to actually get over to the Credit Union to do the money transfer (because for some reason he wouldn’t ever write me a check), I’d be all bent out of shape over $8. So, the upshot is that my birthday present was a stupid $8 toaster I didn’t want, that became symbolic of the complicated, perennially strained relationship I had with my father. But don’t worry, this story has a very happy ending.
I’ll need to give some background first. Another roommate, J—, was basically the polar opposite of M—. I should probably try to be kind here but find I cannot: the simple fact was that J— was just a big dumbass. He was a rich kid, the son (he said) of a land developer, though we eventually found out the old man was a gynecologist, which for some reason embarrassed J—. J— loved to not only rock an actual Rolex, but to leave it lying around for us to gawk at and be envious of. And he played Nintendo all the time. It’s basically all he did. And it was always the same game, like he’d rather develop true mastery of one game than to try anything new. This was in the days when video consoles had to be plugged into the TV, which was in the living room, so we all had to witness his endless frustration with the game. He couldn’t go thirty seconds without shouting profanities at the screen. Eventually he’d get fed up and storm off to his room and play “Down In it” by Nine Inch Nails. Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s not a bad song, but it gets old after like the 400th listening. And it boggled my mind that J— could be so simple-minded as to enjoy only this one song, to never want to hear anything else. And he had plenty of music; I once went into his room and counted his CDs, which numbered well over four hundred.
Oh, and when he blasted “Down In It,” it was freaking loud, because he had this giant stereo system, with the four-foot tall speakers with the really fat cables (as though electricity needed a lot of room to travel through). Actually, he had two stereo systems, because an identical one was in our living room. I think he said the systems cost thousands of dollars apiece. We were all permitted to use the living room stereo, but I never did. First of all, I didn’t own any CDs—just tapes, and even though J—’s stereo had a tape deck, it was the short-lived Digital Audio Tape (DAT) format, which never caught on because it was pointless, other than showcasing wealth and a taste for the cutting edge. Plus, I was afraid to go near that stereo. What if I damaged it?
Well, as luck would have it, I did manage to damage it. For some reason one day I needed to move one of those speakers, and I underestimated how heavy it was. I was partly holding it by one of the speaker covers, which couldn’t handle the stress and popped off. Some little plastic fastening bit was broken. Oh, shit! I almost considered wiping it all down to remove my fingerprints. No way was I copping to that—replacement parts for that stereo were way beyond my pay grade.
Needless to say, J— was livid. He was given to very loud orations to begin with, many of them unintentionally comical. For example, he was yelling at his sister on the phone once, due to some complicated matter involving their mom, and boomed, “Obviously it’s gonna take someone with more than half a brain to explain it to her—I already tried!” Another time he rousted me from my room because, for once in his life, he decided the bathroom needed cleaning. Our apartment had two bathrooms and J— and I shared one of them; I did all the cleaning whereas his sole contribution was putting one of those blue dye-infusing doodads in the tank. On this occasion he said, “We’ll do a coin flip. Heads I clean the bathroom, tails you clean the bathroom. Call it.” He flipped the coin and I just stood there. What was there to call? My silence seemed to piss him off. “Dude, you were supposed to call it!” he bellowed. “Try again: heads I clean the bathroom, tails you clean the bathroom. Call it.” He flipped the coin. I said, “Heads.” Now he looked confused, then dumbfounded. I could practically hear the gears mashing in his skull.
If his normal outbursts were annoying, his repeated indignant speech about the broken speaker became insufferable. “Look, you guys, somebody broke my speaker and somebody won’t even admit it. Somebody is lying. I mean, can’t you just admit it? Because here’s the thing: it’s not even the speaker I’m so mad about. It’s the principle of the thing.” He seemed to become addicted to this diatribe because he would trot it out again and again.
And that’s where the toaster comes in. One day, I got a wild hair and decided to actually make some toast. A slice of toast with peanut butter randomly seemed like a good idea. So I chucked the bread in there, pushed down on the little lever, and—nothing. No red-hot filaments, no charring of innocent bread. The toaster was dead as a doorknob. And I was stoked.
I waited until all four of us were together, and a couple girlfriends (including J—’s) for good measure, and then I confronted my roommates: who broke my toaster? Of course nobody fessed up because it’s kind of impossible to use a toaster wrong; it had spontaneously died. Or who knows, maybe it had never worked to begin with, cheap piece of crap that it was. I panned across my roommates, looking each in the eye. “Look, you guys,” I said, “somebody broke my toaster and somebody won’t even admit it. Somebody is lying. I mean, can’t you just admit it? Because here’s the thing: it’s not even the toaster I’m so mad about. It’s the principle of the thing.”
With the precision of a fine Swiss watch, the next step of the ruse clinked perfectly into place. “Yeah, exactly!” J— cried. “It’s just like with my speaker! It’s the principle of the thing!” Two of my roommates completely cracked up, while J— looked utterly nonplussed. As his incomprehension dragged out, I started chuckling too. His girlfriend, who’d heard the speaker harangue several times herself, whispered in his ear, and he stormed out of the room. That was so worth my eight bucks.
Once I got married, a toaster was pretty much inevitable. No, we didn’t get one for a wedding present (not having done a bridal registry, which tradition I consider stupid and pointless), but went out and dutifully bought one. It was kind of a piece of crap, a Cuisinart or something (and everyone knows they only make food processors so they’d just slapped their rapidly declining brand on some generic thing). It died young. We got another, probably the same thing, and the only good thing about it was its mirror-like chrome finish, which could lead to the best kind of clowning around, which I managed to get a photo of.
That toaster also died—the sides actually came away from the base, it having been made no better than a Happy Meal box, following which we got yet another toaster which was fricking blue. Who ever heard of a blue toaster? I was starting to get fed up with my participation in this disgusting consumer culture where a never-ending series of poorly made products cycled through my home briefly on their way to a landfill, none of them costing much individually but giving me the vague feeling that if I ever realized how much I’d spent on them over time, I’d be pretty pissed. The days of my mom’s Sunbeam, which lasted like 45 years (and would probably still be going strong if it hadn’t burned up), are long gone.
I don’t even know what happened to the blue toaster but one day, not so long ago, I was out for a walk with my wife and we came across this little number, which had been put out in someone’s driveway with a “FREE” sign:
I guess “little number” doesn’t really apply because it’s a pretty giant toaster. No more waiting around when two of us want toast at the same time. Plus, when you toast simultaneously instead of serially, you avoid the cycle of pale-and-then-burnt toast I described earlier. Best of all, the slots are long enough to toast a giant slice of San Luis Sourdough in one go, instead of dropping it in vertically, toasting one half, and then flipping it. I’ve come to love big sandwiches on sourdough, mainly because non-whole-grain bread is so notoriously bad for you with its sky-high glycemic index. When my dad was visiting many years ago and I made French toast, which I always make with slices of day-old Acme sweet or sour bâtard, he requested whole grain bread. What’s next? Whole grain croissants? Decaf? Near beer? Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a nice veggie sandwich on whole grain bread, but look at this bad boy:
But I mainly just love that this Oster toaster lasted long enough for somebody to get tired of it … that bodes well. After all, my mom’s most prized kitchen possession, a waffle iron that looked like it was made of sterling silver, she’d gotten at a garage sale. It made the hands-down best waffles I have ever had. It was so old it had a woven cloth cord, and lasted something like fifty years before it started catching fire. Actually, even after that my brother’s family continued to use it anyway for a year or two before, sigh, giving it up. Maybe a second-hand kitchen appliance is a good omen. And even if this Oster doesn’t give me years of decadent use, hey … don’t cost nothin’.