IT ARRIVES in a stiff blue and white box, not wrapped in paper like other hand soaps. Inside, the bar of soap is thick, curved like the Universe, but with slightly sharp edges. It smells like the jar of Pond’s Cold Cream my mother keeps on her dresser. (The top of the refrigerator, actually.) On the box is a stylized picture of a dove; a gentle dove. In the Cold War Fifties, a slightly provocative dove of “peace”—a curvy, Einsteinian bar of soap with cold cream added, gentle on your face, mild on your pocketbook. New, new, new. And we are privileged to use it before almost anybody else because of my mother’s position as editor of McCall’s, a well-established women’s magazine. We are to report back on our opinion of the product.
Well, I like it, but I don’t LOVE it. It gets soft and gooey really quickly if you are sloppy and leave just a little water in the soap dish—not like the English or French soap I sometimes receive for Christmas. And the unique added ingredient—cold cream—somehow gives it a vaguely clinical odor. Like the emergency room at St.Vincent’s the night I had strep throat. Or maybe it’s as simple as not wanting to smell like my mother.
However, and most pertinent, it is free. The hotel where we are currently living also supplies free soap, little pink bars of Camay, but the perfume in these is so strong that it tickles my nose unpleasantly, and eau de Camay tended to overwhelm my Lilac Time cologne (Woolworth’s finest). So Dove it would be.
In my father’s apartment, about seven blocks away as the pigeon flies, the samples are not of soap but of small household appliances. Toasters, steam irons, waffle irons. His electrical engineering degree from Purdue had slowly engineered him into the downwardly mobile job of traveling thermostat salesman; his territory, New England. The benefit to me—the best and fanciest steam iron of anyone in my class at school. His kitchen cupboards are full of various models of toasters, each more complicated than the next. If only they could be given as birthday presents to my peers, my popularity would be astronomical….
It could often be confusing. In our hotel kitchenette, my mother and I mostly scrape the burnt charcoal off the surface of the toast we make in the oven of the clunky gas stove. At my Dad’s, he and I debate over whether to use the medium-light setting, or be daring and go for medium-dark. (I think he never offered to give us one because he knew that most likely, before it could even be plugged in, it would be on its way to a cold and lonely shelf-life at our local pawnshop.)
Being a residential hotel dweller and a privileged recipient of “samples” did not exactly prepare me for the life of the typical American consumer. (Coupled with an actual lack of cold cash, of course.) No family trips to Sears to buy patio furniture or Laz-Y-Boy chairs; no shopping for refrigerators or mattresses, television consoles or barbecues, no lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners or table lamps with white shades encased in crisp cellophane. No, each hotel room was always set up and ready to live in, like a stage set portraying perfectly nuanced genteel poverty, New York City circa 1954. Shortly after arrival, I would have my corner outfitted with my Tab Hunter Fan Club posters and my Albert Payson Terhune collie books, ready to make hot chocolate and Wonder Bread toast (try thick margarine with sugar sprinkled on top). Ready to open my copy of Seventeen Magazine and discover “17 Things to Do With Straight, Limp Hair”; “10 Ways To Get Him To Talk To You”; “Why Heavy Petting Can Wait.”
While I hunkered down, reading and munching, my father, only a few blocks away, would undoubtedly be packing for the road. He never talked about his work; the closest I ever came to contact with that world was one visit to his boss’s family spread in suburban Connecticut on the occasion of an elaborate outdoor barbecue.
Unbeknownst to any of us, I was at that precise moment incubating a vicious case of whooping cough, which nearly killed me that summer. I would hack and cough until I turned pale blue, coughing up weird little pieces of white stuff. In my deliriums, I imagined myself a pre-teen Moby Dick, spitting out pieces of Dove soap. Later we found out that the boss’s daughter had mysteriously come down with whooping cough right after our visit, and couldn’t go to the fancy summer camp she went to every year. Her parents had to cancel their long-planned trip to the South of France to stay home and nurse her back to health.
Shortly after that terrible summer, my father quit—or was fired. The flow of samples dried up, and he moved to Southern California. He found an apartment in a cheesy concrete building with a pool, where old people hung out in their bathing suits drinking gin and tonics from breakfast until dinnertime.
They didn’t seem to eat toast all that much and certainly didn’t need steam irons.