Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Big Stretch


Note: This piece first appeared in STYLE Weekly as a Back Page in 2002.

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The prototype was assembled during a lull in seventh grade shop class. After tying some 15 rubber bands together to make a chain, a collaborator held one end of the contraption as I stepped back to stretch it out for a test. Squinting to sight along the taut line to take proper aim, finally, I let go.

The whole thing gathered itself and shot past the holder. The released tip struck a target smartly, several feet beyond the holder. While the satisfaction I felt was a rush, the encouragement from the boys who witnessed that launching felt transforming.

Through a pleasant sequence of trial-and-error experiments, it was soon determined how to best maximize distance and accuracy. Once guys across the room were getting popped with the bitter end of my brainchild -- dubbed The Stretch -- the spitballs that routinely flew around classrooms in 1961 at Albert H. Hill Junior High -- were strictly old news.

A couple of days later, uncharacteristically, I appeared on the schoolyard an hour before the first bell. Inside a brown paper bag I had was an updated version of my invention. This one was some 60 links long -- the Big Stretch. No one at school had seen it and I was only too happy to change that.

Once the Big Stretch was tested on the schoolyard, demonstrating its amazing new range, boys were soon shoving one another aside just to act as holders. Most of the time I did the shooting. Occasionally, one of the guys from my inner circle was permitted to be the shooter. As the wonder whizzed by it made such a splendid noise that just standing close by the holder was a thrill, too. On the asphalt playground behind the yellow brick school building an enthusiastic throng cheered each flight.

The Big Stretch went on to make an appearance at an afternoon football game, where its operators established to the delight of the audience that cheerleaders on the sideline could be zapped on their bouncing butts with impunity from more than 25 yards away. After a couple of days of demonstrations around the neighborhood and at Willow Lawn shopping center, again, I significantly lengthened the chain of rubber bands.

But the new version -- about 100 rubber bands long -- proved too heavy for its own good. It was not as accurate or powerful as the previous model. Then came the morning a couple of beefy ninth-grade football players weren’t content with taking a single turn with the new Big Stretch. Although there was a line behind them they demanded another go.

Surrounded by seventh-grade devotees of the Big Stretch, I stood my ground and refused. But my fair-weather entourage was useless in a pinch. Faced with no good options, I fled with my claim-to-fame in hand. In short order I was cornered and pounded until the determined thieves got the loot they wanted. They fooled around for a while trying to hit their buddies with it. Eventually, several rubber bands broke and the Big Stretch was literally pulled to pieces and scattered.

By then my nose had stopped bleeding, so I gathered my dignity and shrugged off the whole affair, as best I could. I chose not to make another version of the Big Stretch. A couple of other kids copied it, but nobody seemed to care. Just as abruptly as it had gotten underway, the connected-rubber-band craze ran out of gas at Hill School.

It was over.

At that time the slang meaning of “cool” had an underground cachet which has been stretched out of shape since. We’re told the concept of cool, and the term itself, seeped out of the early bebop scene in Manhattan in the ‘40s. That may be, but to me the same delightful sense of spontaneity and understated defiance seems abundantly evident in forms of expression that predate the Dizzy Gillespie/Thelonious Monk era at Minton’s, on 118th Street.

Wasn’t that Round Table scene at the Algonquin Hotel, back in the ‘20s, something akin to cool? If Dorothy Parker wasn’t cool, who the hell was? (Of course, I mean on paper, not necessarily in her day-to-day deportment.) And, in the decades that preceded the advent of bebop jazz, surely modern art -- with its cubism, surrealism, constructivism, and so forth -- was laying down some of the rules for what became known as cool.

Cool’s zenith had probably been passed by the time I became enamored with the Beats, via national magazines. Widespread exposure and cool were more or less incompatible. Significantly, cool -- with its ability to be flippant and profound in the same gesture -- rose and fell without the encouragement of the ruling class. Underdogs invented cool out of thin air. It was a style that was beyond what money could buy.

The artful grasping of a moment’s unique truth was cool. However, just as the one-time-only perfect notes blown in a jam session can’t be duplicated, authentic cool was difficult to harness; even more difficult to mass-produce.

By the ‘70s, the mobs of hippies attuned to stadium rock ‘n’ roll shrugged nothing off. Cool was probably too subtle for them to appreciate. The Disco craze ignored cool. Punk Rockers searched for it in all the wrong places, then caught a buzz and gave up.

Eventually, in targeting self-absorbed Baby Boomers as a market, Madison Avenue promoted everything under the sun -- including schmaltz, and worse -- as cool. The expression subsequently lost its moorings and dissolved into the soup of mainstream vernacular.

Time tends to stretch slang expressions thin as they are assimilated; pronunciations and definitions come and go. Since then, when people say, “ku-wul,” usually it's to express their ordinary approval of routine things.

The process of becoming cool, then popular, pulled The Big Stretch to pieces. Once the experimental aspect of it was over it got old, like any worn out joke. Then it began to play as just another showoff gimmick, which was something less-than-cool, even to seventh-graders a long time ago.
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