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Metro Pulse I Am Curious (Yellow)

An invigorating two-fingered stroll through the 1999 Yellow Pages.

By Jack Neely

MARCH 22, 1999:  Lying on the floor in front of my grandmother's new color TV, sometime late in the Kennedy administration, I grew fascinated with one particular commercial that I came to like more than most of the TV shows. "Let your fingers do the walking in The Yellow Pages," a cheery female chorus sang, as a disembodied hand strolled across an open phone book. "Why don't you?"

At age 5, I believed these sirens were singing directly to me, luring me toward some mystical adventure, daring me to join these intrepid fingers as they sojourned across an unpredictable yellow plain. I imagined that grownups played this game all the time, and the prospect made adulthood seem much more promising than it had before.

I couldn't read, but I got out a phone book myself, turned to the yellow section, and walked my fingers across a page about radiators and radios. I expected something to happen. But there was no music, no movement, no unexpected encounters, no entry into another dimension of adventure. I just noticed my fingers, walking on yellow paper, looked a little like a woman's legs. I wondered if maybe there were something wrong with me.

Finding out that stable adults rarely actually walked their fingers across The Yellow Pages was one of the many disappointments of growing up. But those Yellow Pages are still there. And maybe they're more interesting than they were 35 years ago.

Even if you have no interest in the service advertised, some are just fun to look at. They're fun because they get you wondering about the minds of the advertisements' designers, and the sequence of ideas that brought each image to each yellow page.

Perhaps employing reverse psychology—whatever that is—some ads seem deliberately to undermine your confidence in the quality of the service advertised. Some ads for painting companies, for example, use careless splats of paint to showcase their services. (Is it the equivalent of a writer advertising himself with misspellings and double negatives?) Thomas Painting Co. has been around for 17 years, so they must be doing something right. But their ad features those splats, with a line-drawing of a painter who's swinging his bucket so recklessly that at least a pint of black paint is sloshing right out of the bucket.

You wonder what the message is—as you do with a Tattoo Parlor's ad, which portrays an irate skull with paintbrush and rose clenched in its bony jaw. Around it is a scrawled message: "GUESS WHO'S BACK / JESS IS BACK!!" It's an irregular scrawl, as if an angry child did it with his left hand. The exclamation points are dotted with little circles. Maybe prospective tattooees find it appealing to imagine that same hand making permanent marks on their tender flesh with an electric needle.

That tattoo artist isn't among the 37 who list themselves as Graphic Artists in The Yellow Pages. In fact, not one of those 37 graphic artists includes any graphic art with their ad. Maybe they've learned something house painters and tattoo artists haven't.

As a rule, the larger and more colorful a Yellow Pages ad is, the stranger and more incomprehensible it is. Here's one of my favorite Yellow Pages games: Turn to a page at random, but don't read any words. Just look at the pictures and try to guess what's being advertised. Take this one expensive color display ad. A color photograph of a sweaty white boxer brandishing two boxing gloves right in our face. Now try to guess what business is being advertised. Hands? Anybody? It's a transmission repair service, of course! The headline is "Don't Get TKO'D By The Competition." Just be sure he takes off the big gloves before he starts messing with your clutch.

One full-page ad touts a contractor as "the Picasso of Plumbing." Consider, for a moment, what that might imply. I don't know about you, but when it comes to artistic plumbers, I'd strongly prefer a realist: a John Singer Sargent, say, or a Winslow Homer. A Thomas Hart Benton could probably do the job. Or, for that matter—and you may laugh—even a Norman Rockwell. But it seems to me Picasso is a big risk. The philandering Spaniard's great as far as he goes, but give him a pipe wrench and you'd always have to worry about the effects of cubism on hydrodynamics: the possibility of both knobs appearing on the same side of the faucet, the efficiency of non-linear sewer pipes. I try to be open minded, but would a cubist toilet flush properly? When it comes to plumbing, I'm afraid I'm strictly old-school.

In his movies, W.C. Fields hated to share a scene with an animal or a child, because he knew that no matter how deft and clever he was, the movie audience would always be looking at the dog or the kid. It's not fair, he said, and he was right. Knoxville entrepreneurs know it's not fair, and that's why they use so many kids and dogs in their Yellow Pages ads.

Dogs are a recurring theme in these Yellow Pages, showing up in unexpected contexts, as they often do in our yards. One roofer depicts a cartoon hound running on its hind legs up your roof with a stack of shingles. An optometrist displays two photographs of an aged retriever reclining on the floor and, of course, wearing glasses. One ad for a dentist in Karns shows a color picture of an attractive woman fondling two black Labrador retrievers. An ad repeated throughout the book shows an alert cartoon terrier chomping the top of "The Real Yellow Pages." A plumbing company has a round portrait of a real rotweiler, surrounded with the words "Trustworthy-Honest-Reliable." And you ask yourself: can these plumbers prove they're every bit as honest as a dog?

I didn't count, but I'm not certain whether there are more dogs or kids in The Yellow Pages. The only full-color photo in the section headed "Glass-Automobile" shows a five-year-old girl in a pearl necklace sitting on the hood of a car, talking on a cell phone, looking angry. It's a cute picture, sure enough, but its message about the quality of the work at Aardvark Auto Glass is obscure. Is the windshield broken because this little girl has been driving the car?

Some kid-centric dental ads are clichés of the let-my-daddy-be-your-dentist genre. But one large ad for a West Knoxville group that specializes in "dentistry for children" depicts a little girl seated at a SEGA computer game machine that looks big and menacing enough to eat her alive. You worry about her. Does the dentist have one of these things in his office? Why? Is he saying his waits are always long enough to play a video game? Is this supposed to be appealing to the parents who make the appointments? And does this poor little girl have anything worthwhile in her life—piano, jumprope, Laura Ingalls Wilder? She makes you want to cry.

In a category beyond dogs and children are the cartoon characters. You don't even have to stray from the dentists section to find quite a variety. One ad shows a turtle with a toothbrush; another shows a blue-eyed chicken in a Vols cap with a toothbrush. (Only a cynic would question how beaked vertebrates might offer dental testimonies; still, you suspect maybe they could more conveniently handle their oral hygiene with a damp cloth.) One ad, for "South Knoxville's Singing Dentist," depicts a singing molar. That sounds intriguing, sure enough, but the ad doesn't tell us what the singing dentist sings. It seems to me that part is very important, and I for one am not calling for an appointment until I find out.

The "Attorneys" section is one part of The Yellow Pages where dogs and kids are scarce—there are no "let my daddy be your attorney" pleas here—but some of these ads might bring you to ponder the old question of whether lawyers should be allowed to advertise.

Photographs of the lawyers are pretty typical, even though most lawyer photos don't add much to your faith in the firm. One ad stands away from the crowd. Alongside the headshot of the lawyer there's a much larger color portrait: not of a lawyer, judge, or client, but of a policeman speaking into a microphone. On these pages of gavel-and-scales lawyer clichés, it makes you read the ad, if only to figure out why a criminal lawyer would pay to display a large color photo of a policeman. You gather that the policeman's prominent presence has something to do with the fact that this lawyer advertises DUI cases as a specialty.

But just have a look at this particular policeman. Without a hat to muss his thick, blow-dried hair, he's young, handsome, one might even say buff. Relaxing in broad daylight and speaking with a genial smile into a microphone, this cop doesn't really look like he's running a make on some drunk's Gran Torino. He looks like he's a famous TV star MC'ing the Rose Parade. Maybe he's with the GQPD.

It's the sort of picture you'd expect to see with the words, You, too, can be a cop! Or, even, You, too, can be a gay cop!

Think that's an odd ad for a lawyer? Just let your fingers do the walking over to page 62. For my money, it's the most fascinating page in the whole phone book. Attorney J. Brent Nolan's large, color ad is actually more attractive than most. It's a law-office still life: an old-fashioned gold Roman-numeral pocket watch, sprung open as if to reset it, resting on a large open book. The Still Life With Book genre, of course, is one of those trustworthy clichés you expect in lawyer ads. In most cases you're safe in assuming the book depicted is a law book of some sort.

This one is not a law book. It appears to be some kind of poetry. Mr. Nolan has used this same picture in his Yellow Pages ad last year, but in '98 you couldn't tell what book it was. This time, for some reason, the picture is enlarged and this detail of the photograph is greatly magnified. Though it's obscured by the pocket watch, you can read a few words of the open text. Rather than the desiccated and numbered paragraphs of the Tennessee Code Annotated, the page features some rather vivid verse. The page begins with the phrase "Unto Death..." and includes another intriguing phrase, "paramours and priests"—as well as a reference to the 19th-century Italian nationalist Giuseppi Garibaldi, whose conquest of Sicily and Naples led to the first Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

What poem is this, you ask, and why is a Knoxville lawyer who specializes in bankruptcy and worker's comp cases using these lines about Garibaldi to advertise his services? The photograph allows us only a few clues. On the left side, which we can't read as well, we can make out "NG'S VERSE." I was at first convinced it was Robert Browning's, because I knew that he lived in Italy, and was a contemporary and admirer of Garibaldi. But I combed through several complete-works volumes by Browning and found no trace of this poem. The reference to Garibaldi and the key phrases "unto Death" and "paramours and priests" didn't appear in any of the poetry reference indexes I could find.

I threw myself at the mercy of the Lawson McGhee reference desk, where I've thrown myself so often they've sued me to repair the dents. One particular librarian friend who's too humble to want her name in print took the project to heart. After an exhaustive and fruitless search of the Internet and a perusal of all the Browning biographies, we gave up on it. Later, though, it occurred to this brilliant answerist that maybe that NG wasn't the NG in BROWNING. Maybe it was the NG in KIPLING.

Before she left for the day, the librarian's hunch took her upstairs, where she found this very book on the shelves. The photograph is of a book called Rudyard Kipling: Complete Verse / Definitive Edition, first published in 1940. The particular fragment is from a 1903 comic poem called "The Files." As it turns out, it's a poem perfectly appropriate for any lawyer to keep open in his paneled office.

The beginning of the poem, which you can't see in the ad, goes, "Files—The Files—Office Files! / Oblige me by referring to the Files. / Every question man can raise,/ Every phrase of every phase / Of that question is on record in the files—"

In an irreverent imitation of the style of Poe's "The Bells," Kipling's poem outlines the desperately important role that those cardboard folders play in human history. Along the way Kipling mentions Garibaldi, Carlyle, even Robert Browning.

Most of the poem sounds like lyrics sung by a wacky lawyer in a Gilbert and Sullivan musical: "Light your pipe and take a look along the Files. / You've a better chance to guess / At the meaning of Success... When you've seen it in perspective in the Files." It's a fine motto for any attorney.

I'd like to encourage all my lawyer friends to consider running a picture of some of Kipling's humor in their Yellow Pages ads. It's definitely more interesting reading than most books you'd pull at random off your shelves. We could use more Kipling in our daily lives, I think, especially on those unpleasant occasions when we're frantically scanning The Yellow Pages for a lawyer. The reader will gather your appealing message: "Give us a call! Until you do, we'll just be sitting here playing with our pocket watches and reading some really funny poetry!"

Go ahead—let your fingers do the walking. The Yellow Pages reward a digital stroll today much more richly than they did in the '60s. And adulthood is more fun than I ever thought.


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