Telephones, toilets and car parks: random observations on life in England. Betsy Staples.
Telephones, Toilets and Car Parks
Last year in our report on the Personal Computer World Show we commented on, among other things, the showers and telephones in England. The showers haven't changed much, but here we bring you an update on phones and other items of interest to readers who want to learn about life beyond Harrods and the Inter-Continental.
This year, I, liberated, independent woman of the world that I am, flew to England alone, rented a tiny Ford Fiesta, and set off to see the countryside.
The few difficulties I had driving on the right side of the road were the result mainly of my preconceived terror. It wasn't bad at all. But then, I can't tell my left from my right, don't know which way faucets are supposed to turn, and have to think every time I unlock my front door.
I drove to Oxford and staggered into a 400-year-old inn with 6 1/2" ceilings and stairs of different heights. As I chatted with the proprietor, he suddenly lowered his voice to a confidential whisper and asked, "Why are you traveling alone? Did you have a fight?' I attempted to explain the situation to him, but should have been forewarned; it was a question I was to ask myself more than once in the coming days.
After spending a day each in Oxford, Bath, and Salisbury, I concluded that traveling alone is for people made of sterner stuff. It just wasn't fun, and I all but gave up eating, so distasteful did I find sitting alone in strange restaurants.
Parking the Car
Thanks to my rented car, I did discover an interesting British innovation that I had not noticed on previous trips: automatic car parks, as parking lots are called. The best kind provides a numbered card from the automatic card-spitter-outer at the gate. As you leave, you stop the car at a little check-out station right before the exit gate. You enter the number of your card through a membrane keyboard, the display flashes the amount you owe, you desposit the correct amount, the gate rises, and you drive away.
The other kind is similar to our metered lots, the main difference being that there are only three or four meters per lot or level. You park your car, walk to the nearest meter, set a dial for the amount of time you plan to stay, and deposit the indicated amount of money. A slip of paper with a bit of stickiness on the front emerges from the machine. You then return to your car and stick the paper to your windshield. I never saw anyone patrolling or checking these lots. I suppose they rely on the innate honesty of the British people.
It does strike me as strange that a country with such a high rate of unemployment which has failed to automate some of the lowliest functions known to man, would eliminate such a good source of low level jobs.
Cleaning the Toilet
And speaking of automation and low level jobs, there is in London at least one automatic toilet. David Tebbutt of Caxton Software took us (by this time I had met Dave Ahl in London) to the ultimate in modern sanitation right on the sidewalk in Soho Square. When you place the appropriate coins (about 10 pence, I think) in a slot in the shiny, white, cylindrical structure, a door slides open and you enter a (presumably) sanitary little rest room. When you are ready to leave, the door slides open, you exit, the door closes, and the whole interior (we were told) is hosed down, shaken up, or otherwise washed and sanitized.
There is only one catch. If you stay longer than 15 minutes, the cylinder concludes that something must be wrong, opens the door, and begins its cleaning cycle. Rumor has it that more than one unfortunate soul has been caught with his pants down.
Sanitizing the Phone
Sanitation, it seems, is something which is of great importance to the British people. For example, when was the last time you looked upon your telephone as a vector of disease? Not too recently, right?
Well, here is something to join Toxic Shock Syndrome, Extra Strength Tylenol and Copperheads in Northern New Jersey on the list of "Things We Never Had to Worry About Before': filthy phones.
The first time I saw the cheery Phonotas woman on a poster in an Underground station I thought it was a joke. "Keep your conversation clean!' she urged. "Call Phonotas to clean the whole phone!' Come now, they couldn't be serious.
So incredulous was I that I called the number given on the poster. A very earnest man answered and explained that the service was offered only to businesses and that he could not give me any idea of the cost until one of his representatives had visited our offices and made a thorough survey.
He explained further that Phonotas provides a uniformed cleaner who comes to your office weekly and "sanitizes the receiver against infection.' The process takes about one minute per visit per phone "except, of course, the first time when it usually takes longer to get the phone up to scratch.'
He asked for my address, promising that a salesperson would call within the week. I hadn't the heart to tell him my office was in Morris Plains, New Jersey, USA, so I numbled something about calling back when my phone was dirtier and hung up.
My conclusion: the phones in England don't work any better than they did last year, but they must be cleaner. Perhaps that's what has become of all the former parking lot attendants--they have become phone cleaners.