Useless Stuff You Can't Live Without

It must be possible to become a trade show junkie, in much the same way TV addicts are drawn irresistibly to the Home Shopping Network, but you'll need a good pair of walking shoes and the sort of laissez-faire world view that allows for encounters with people like the bug exterminator with the free taffy.

Fortunately, it isn't difficult to slip into this receptive mentality because trade shows are as American as tax audits, the ultimate consumer orgy, where you can come away with a long list of new items you've decided you can't do without as well as a shorter list of things that simply make you shake your head. Trade shows convince you that life is both bountiful and odd.

Take the 37th annual Southern California Home and Garden Show at the Anaheim Convention Center, which runs through Sunday. With nearly 1,200 exhibits, it is billed as the largest exhibition of its kind in the country, and if you don't own a house, it will make you want to run right out and buy one just to fill it with all the stuff you see.

However, in the interest of saving you a few bucks, let me offer a few of my personal favorites. They may not change your life, but they'll remind you absolutely that you live in a hard-core consumer society where, if you see tanks rolling down the street, you can be certain Cal Worthington is having a sale on M1-A1's.

So, take a little comfort in:

* The Health Mate Home Sauna. This exhibitor sells wooden boxes with doors in which people sit and sweat. They come in various sizes and with accessories like stereo and look fairly attractive in a woodsy Nordic way. The big selling point at the show, however, appeared to be its health benefits. These were underscored by labels on three of the saunas, in descending order of size: "stress eater," "fat buster" and "pain kicker."

* The Otis Residential Elevator. Just that. The same company that makes the big, swift, spiffy commercial lifts also offers a bite-size model for the homeowner who thinks designer stairs are a waste of money. The model at the show was hard to miss, a kind of mechanized pillar in the center of one of the halls. The exhibitors offered rides in it, and it was irresistible. Elegant and smooth, it moved slightly faster than most glaciers. Best feature: no Muzak.

* The Ark. This is a gallery, based in Palm Springs, that sells animal statuary, everything from jungle cats to rabbits that look a little like Thumper. They are remarkably detailed and painted and are, for the most part, life-size. Also, if you have a pet whose likeness you want reproduced--a dog, a cat, a snake--the artist can do custom work from photographs. However, for pure utility and peace of mind, it would be tough to beat one of the most prominent animals in the show menagerie: a life-size black Doberman.

* Pacific Coast Exterior Designs. These folks sell, among other things, big antique metal street lamps. Some are mere fluted columns with a single globe at the top, while others are highly ornamental and real behemoths, with clusters of as many as five globes. These are the sorts of items you see in the better pizza parlors and they left me flogging my mind to think of a way to arrange a room to accommodate one. The idea that they might be made for exterior use seemed to be the sissy's way out.

* The pink de-fogging stick. Made by an outfit in Santa Barbara called Elking Manufacturing and being exhibited by a genial guy named Jerry Malone, these things looked like pink erasers, cost $6 a throw and, I must admit, changed my life, at least for an hour or so. You rub the stick on a glass surface, buff it, and the glass will remain clear in the face of rain and steam. Malone got around to a home-and-garden application by demonstrating, with a squirt bottle and a convex mirror, that one could shave in the shower if the mirror were properly coated and buffed and mounted on the shower wall. It also worked nicely on my glasses until I adjusted them some time later and applied a big thumb print.

* Spas. If the Home and Garden Show was an indication of what the American homeowner wants most, then he probably will sell his children for a truly nifty spa. They were everywhere, and in nearly every configuration, surrounded mostly by ornate wooden gazebo-like structures with wooden bar stools on the outside and cocktail lounge-like glass holders hanging from the eaves. Most were filled with water and were bubbling merrily away. There was, however, a distressing lack of standard trade show women in bathing suits luxuriating in the water. Apparently, the promise of a palatial home spa still has its limits.

* Pianos. Quite a few of them, in fact, from multiple manufacturers. Several, however, were of the high-tech computerized variety that require no human hands on the keys. Which, unless I'm behind the times (likely), sort of defeats the purpose of having a piano in the first place. If you want furniture, buy furniture. If you want a stereo, buy a stereo.

But do keep an eye out for the exterminator with the huge bug display. The free taffy there is awfully good.

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