Friday, June 01, 2018

Polystyrene Peanuts

A dissertation from Occasional Reader

There are certain expressions that have been used by people when they stub their toe, drop a prized possession, or otherwise mess up. Not wishing to use the standard expletives, they find an alternative – devotees of creaky old movies may remember W C Fields and his “Godfrey Daniels” or on a slightly higher cultural level, Sylvester (when losing out to Tweety Pie) “Sufferin’ Succotash…”

Well, the Occasional household have just got their own, their very own - Polystyrene Peanuts.

It has a certain sound to it. And as with most of these things there is a ring of truth in it.

We recently bought some polystyrene peanuts. You might know them as loose fill chippings, void-fill, or something similar. Basically they are made from polystyrene off-cuts, and look like unshelled peanuts. They are used to surround and cushion fragile items when sent in the mail, so that the combined efforts of the postal system – store it upside-down, throw it across the room, crush it with huge weights and generally totally ignore signs like Fragile and Handle with Care – may still allow the contents to reach their destination relatively intact.

I have recently been selling a large collection of 78 rpm shellac recordings. This system took over from cylinders around the start of the 20th century and lasted until around 1960, when vinyl and 45s and 33s took over. Interestingly, the old 78 revolutions per minute recordings – while they have the nostalgic background sound of bacon frying – have lasted a lot longer than modern electronic data storage systems are expected to last. But that is another story.

My 78 rpm recordings are religious in nature, from the days when an American preacher was regularly recorded and then taken around and played to people on their doorsteps. The message was not flavor of the month for everyone, and after a few acts of violence, there was even a famous American court case Cantwell v. Connecticut about it.

So these recordings are an acquired taste. But some collectors have this taste and who am I to deny them the privilege of paying me silly money to clear box-loads of them.

The problem is as noted above is that they were made using shellac, which cracks and breaks and warps in sunlight and is particularly susceptible to inferior packing. So – at great expense all these records have to be packed between layers of specially cut thick card, covered with bubble wrap and then suspended in a large double-walled cardboard box with the aid of our old friend, polystyrene peanuts.

So far, it has worked a treat.

BUT – where do you get polystyrene peanuts from? There is obviously one answer – eBay. I started with small boxes, but they cost the earth and didn’t even fill one large box I was sending. But someone offered bulk supplies and for a ridiculously small figure, I could buy 30 cubic feet of the stuff. I did some rough calculations of volume and made the same mistake as the film Spinal Tap, but in reverse.

Devotes of Spinal Tap may remember the Stonehenge sequence – pronounced Stone’enge by purists. (Americans are usually rubbish at authentic British accents, but this time they got the flat Essex vowels off perfectly). This huge stadium rock number planned to have a huge model of Stonehenge descend from the sky at a given moment. Unfortunately the person who ordered it got his symbols for feet and inches mixed up and a tiny model came down to the stage and the “little children” (actually vertically-challenged adults) then fell over it during the instrumental break. I still laugh every time I see it, and Mrs O looks at me and sighs…

But in reverse, I had the vaguest of ideas as to how large 30 cubic feet were. I was either wrong, or the company just filled the largest bag available without worrying and sent off a removals van to deliver it.

I was out when it arrived. Mrs O was not. She opened the door to be greeted by what appeared at first sight to be a scene from the original Steve McQueen film The Blob.

Just getting it into the house was interesting. Squeezing it along the hallway to then fill the downstairs rooms was an art she had unwillingly managed by the time I arrived home. The only thing you could say in the monstrosity’s favor was that the material was very light.

Where we were going to store all this stuff? The only logic place was the attic. Many years ago I built an enlarged trap door for the attic with folding stairs up to it. I know I have told this story before, but I am of an age where repeating myself is a given. Sawing away at ceiling timbers while balancing precariously on a ladder, working on my own in the house (which was both daft and dangerous) I actually brought the ceiling down. I watched in mesmerised horror as a small crack suddenly spread and with a huge thwack 120 years worth of lathe and plaster and accumulated coal dust came thundering down, taking me with it. My daughter came home from school to find her father sitting at the bottom of the stairs, doing an impersonation of Al Jolson, laughing hysterically. She joined me. We sat there rocking back and forth as if we were stark raving mad. Then Mrs O arrived home. She didn’t laugh.  I remember that very clearly. I also remember the grief of several weeks putting our Humpty Dumpty domicile back together again.

Anyhow, enough of past less-than-glorious moments, I now had an enlarged trap door to get through. But it was bad enough getting the stuff up the stairs in the actual house. We decanted huge quantities of polystyrene peanuts into the largest black bags we could find and a jolly time was spent getting them into the attic, snagging them on the folding stair mechanism, and watching as polystyrene peanuts in their millions wafted through the atmosphere to cover every available surface.

You now cannot get in the attic for huge bag loads of these things. Tools and suitcases and old guitars and forgotten books and the ghost of lesson-plans-past are all swamped by the stuff. And every time I sell another batch of records, I have to rescue a bag or two and make my way down the ladder to civilization without another burst bag and polystyrene peanuts everywhere.

The income from eBay is of course compensation. But Mrs O wants me to go back to selling badges – tiny little paper things, again going for amazing prices – but with not a polystyrene peanut in sight. I assure her that the 78s won’t last forever, but there were around two hundred of them to start with, plus multiple sets of some titles. And then there are transcription records which are 16 inches across… No matter how many I unload, at the moment the piles still look about the same. We may even have to send off for another U-Haul’s worth of void filling. But I haven’t dared telling her that… Yet.

Yeah – now wash your mouth out with soap d’y’all hear - polystyrene peanuts!

1 comment:

Amy Goddard said...

We too have a bag of polystyrene in the attic, they are the small type that go in bean bags. An impulse buy some years ago of a giant bean bag is the source. The bag is folded up in the attic too. The black sacks full of bobbles have acquired a few holes and a gentle fall of warm snow greets each opening of the hatch.
We have also, at times, had polystyrene peanuts here. Our Labrador seemed to think they were a toy for her and a lovely time until she couldn’t get them off the roof of her mouth. Pinning down a large unhappy dog whilst trying to scrape masticated polystyrene from her teeth was not the easiest of tasks. All polystyrene packing that comes here is immediately disposed of since!

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