Saving Lives and Property, One Paragraph at a Time Stephanie Brea
My first job out of college, I wrote about inventions. It wasn’t quite as glamorous as working in a New York City publishing house, or acceptance to grad school in Iowa, but I could say that I was writing for a living (albeit meager). I moved back to Western Pennsylvania after a brief try at making it in New York City. The Sinatra song says if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, except I couldn’t. After two years, I was tired, lonely and cranky. I wanted to be where I could pay my bills, where driving across a bridge didn’t require money, where I could afford to eat and drink, not eat or drink.
Writing about inventions seemed apropos to my blue-collar roots. I wasn’t locked away in a garret somewhere penning poems that no one would read—I was in a cubicle in the suburbs, packing lunch, drinking weak coffee courtesy of Maxwell House.
In addition to healthcare and direct deposit forms, my new hire packet at the invention company included a confidentiality agreement. It stated I would not discuss the specifics of the inventions, I would not reveal the company’s unique process and, for 6 months after I quit or was fired, I would not write for the competition. While that seemed funny at first, I came to realize that there are other invention companies in Pittsburgh. That’s right, Pittsburgh, PA: home of the Steelers, Iron City Beer, Heinz ketchup and a dying steel industry. Pittsburgh, PA: our country’s invention mecca.
I never thought about the invention industry before, but my 9-5 was instantly transformed. I was drowning in something similar to what the cable company deems paid programming. There was new lingo to learn, and the realization that there is a whole segment of the population that I had never really thought about before. The people of our vast nation were neatly alphabetized files on my desk.
Because Chuck or Mary or Fred from Coral Gables, Florida or Newark, New Jersey or Lafayette, Louisiana decided that they had invented a better mousetrap, so to speak. They saved up money to purchase a provisional patent for a year of protection against idea theft and a chance to get their idea on a manufacturer’s desk. In their minds, a year was plenty of time for them to strike it rich and sell their idea to Kraft, AT&T, Tyco or Titleist.
When they saw this invention in their mind, it was awash in a heavenly light. Who wouldn't want this idea? It was a minor inconvenience for Ted or William or Kelly to quit drinking the Sam Adams and switch to Milwaukee’s Best or for Fillipe to make his kids eat macaroni and cheese dinners three times a week or for Bo to max out his credit card. They were certain a company would want to buy their invention from them.
The job seemed straightforward at first. All I had to do was write about the client’s invention. That’s it. No sales calls and very little filing. After the inventor doled out the money, I received a form in a manila folder that described his or her “invention.” By the end of week one, I came to realize this term was used loosely. These people, they had no idea how this thing worked. Some of them hadn’t really thought it through. They just had an epiphany on the toilet, or after a few Long Island Iced Teas at happy hour, or a random brainstorming session before the end of CSI: Miami. In the time it took David Caruso to take off his sunglasses a few times and solve the crime using a fleck of evidence from a soda can and a smudged fingerprint on a table leg, the newly-christened inventor would have come up with an idea now known as their invention. And that’s it. No building or testing or thinking required.
But, they couldn’t spell. They would spell Velcro “VELCROW” —which would make me think that two birds would hold the pieces of their invention together in their beaks. Which, sadly, was just as conceivable as some of the ways these inventors thought their invention would be assembled.
There was a space on the form for an image. I was lucky if a picture was stapled to the paper, or if Kelly was an elementary school art teacher, I could figure out what the heck she was thinking when it came to her invention. But more often than not, the space was filled with something that looked like it should be scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin. Important parts, such as VELCROW, would be labeled with an arrow. Maybe.
So, they couldn’t spell, and they couldn’t draw, but that the one thing these people could do was present their idea like it was an infomercial. In that picture in their minds, the one where the invention is on a velvet pillow and lit from the heavens, Chuck or Bo or Kelly is standing right next to it, making Vanna White gestures and smiling. Not only are they going to be filthy, stinkin’ rich, they are going to be the next Ron Popeil or Tony Little or George Foreman. According to their form, their product will “SAVE LIVES AND PROPERTY!!!!” all capital letters, four exclamation points. It is bigger, better, brighter than the competition. Only they don’t always know how it will work. It’s more of an idea than an invention. A concept, really.
It was my job to both encourage a manufacturer to take these ideas seriously and present it in a way that the U.S. Patent Office could understand so that the provisional patent, once filed, would prevent someone from stealing their idea. I had some key words that I relied on: convenient, utilizes, provides, features, more efficient, determined upon manufacture, cost-effective, and, my favorite, the unit. As in, “the unit utilizes pre-existing technology.” That was what I typed when the inventor had no idea how it worked.
So, if you think about it, I was really creating the inventions. I was taking a few sentence fragments almost illegibly scrawled on the paper form provided by my employer, and turning them into a beautiful product that will hold baby bottles, aid golfers while on the course, make windshield wipers automatically turn on in the rain. I will provide society with a new bath pillow, aquarium, reciprocating meat and bone saw. Thanks to me, when you drive your big rig, you can exercise on an integrated weightlifting system, or easily perform repairs with a step attached to the wheel. I will give you jeans with holes cut out of the ass and gaudy plastic covers for your shutters that will announce a birthday or wedding or show allegiance to your favorite sports team (Go Steelers).
Months passed, and I continued to slog through ever-growing piles of manila folders on my desk. It seemed like everyone and their mother and their second cousin had an invention that was going to save lives and property, all while raking in the money and enabling them to quit their day jobs.
Everyone except people in Western Pennsylvania. According to the forms, most inventors hailed from Florida or California, with a few from the cornfields of the Midwest or the most humid part of the Deep South. Here in Pittsburgh, we didn’t come up with inventions, or at least we were too smart (or too poor) to need the services of an invention company. The last time we invented something revolutionary was the Primanti Brothers sandwich (you know, put the French fries and the coleslaw on the sandwich). So, I ate Primanti sandwiches and drank Iron City and watched Steelers games and began to wonder about working for the competition.
I had heard rumors that another invention company in Pittsburgh made their employees wear lab coats. They developed inventions in spaces specifically designed for the type of invention. I imagined sitting in a rocking chair in a Goldilocks and the Three Bears-esque house, rocking back and forth while typing on a laptop about some newfangled thing designed to hold pacifiers. I envisioned Disney-colored break rooms and bathrooms in tree houses.
But instead, I took a new job working for a museum fabrication company that specialized in the mounting of dinosaur bones. Dinosaur bones were real. They could be touched. To everyone except religious fanatics, they already exist. I got to use new words such as disarticulate and metatarsal. I vacillated between the use of Tyrannosaurus rex, T rex and T.rex, instead of having to say hook-and-loop adhesive fastener because Velcro is trademarked.
After I left, I heard that some of the things I wrote about were actually bought by manufacturing agents. So, I guess that when some guy on TV is yakking on in the middle of the night about this product that chops and slices, fits in the glove compartment of your car, is constructed from durable, waterproof plastic or other similar material and makes you lose 20 pounds in a week, thereby saving lives and property, feel free to thank me. Or just take me out for a Primanti sandwich.
Stephanie Brea has slung coffee, wrote about inventions and worked for a company that built museum exhibits. This means she likes her espresso doubled, is most likely responsible for some of the products pitched on late night infomercials and can spell archaeopteryx without the need for spell check. She is a part-time copy editor and facilitates creative writing workshops for local schools and organizations. Her work has been published in Pear Noir!, The Legendary, Nerve Cowboy and the Pittsburgh City Paper.