“How I love to read my name on envelopes,” says Antoine Roquentin in Nausea. But, oh, to read your name on the back page of Dr. Leonard’s Catalog, “America’s Leading Discount Healthcare Catalog,” is to be confirmed into a world of abject dependency. Two years ago, inexplicably, Dr. Leonard’s Catalog began arriving at my house. Perhaps I made the mistake of ordering a pair of arch supports from a company that passed along my name and address to the people at Dr. Leonard’s Healthcare, Inc., Edison, NJ, as a candidate for an Invacare® Rollite™ Rollator, an “Invisible” Tummy Trimmer, a Deluxe Gopher Pick-Up and Reaching Tool. Maybe I’m at high risk for diabetes and Dr. Leonard’s wants me to realize that soon I’ll be needing a few pairs of extra-wide Diabetic Men’s Dress Socks. Once a month, tucked around my credit-card statements, exotic postcards, scented love letters from fellow members of my Ivy League dating service, and further proof of my thundering vitality, is Dr. Leonard’s four-color catalog, showcasing a handful of solemnly necessary items among hundreds of outrageously superfluous ones. Need an alarm clock? How about an alarm clock that laser-projects the time onto your bedroom ceiling? Your caftan is okay, I guess, but is it a Dazzling Zip-Front Caftan? Always wanted a Jumbo Satin Sleep Cap, but couldn’t find one that accommodated the “fullest hairstyles?” Now you have, thanks to Dr. Leonard and his rumbling cart of wares, belching black smoke, bringing a little more doubt and a little more death into your life.
THE DOC’S DIAGNOSIS
Once the catalogs started arriving at my house, it didn’t take long to come to the following conclusions about eponymous Dr. Leonard. (1) He’s a quack. (2) His customers are mostly elderly, and he thinks they are remarkably stupid. (3) The world dramatized in the pages of his catalog pullulates with decay. His confidence game begins with a tacit diagnosis, “Your life’s a mess.” I’m incontinent and I’m pestered by squirrels, deer, skunks, mosquitoes, bats. Coarse black hairs are fixing to overtake my once-pristine nostrils and one day this cheap store-bought cane is going let me down. My back is a topography of itches I can’t reach, pains I can’t abide, lotion-deprived places I can’t get to (lucky there’s the Long-Reach Lotion Applicator, $12.99).
And my feet… my feet are a damn orgy of misery. Morning till night, I am hounded by calluses and bunions and corns; weak ankles; fallen/falling arches; ingrown toenails; too-tough-to-cut toenails; too-brittle toenails; cracked heels; sundry fungi; hammertoes; overlapping toes. For which Dr. Leonard’s offers a panoply of correctives, from the Electric Callus Remover (like a Smurf disc-sander), to gauzes and salves, to the “professionally designed” Toe Straightener (terrible, terrible).
One of the more striking things about the catalog is that there seems to be no distinction between the genuinely palliative (Mastectomy Bra, Therapeutic Leg Pillow) and the vaguely convenient (Thermal-Backed Draperies, Streamlined Magazine Table, the Amazing Chef Wizard™). It’s all stuff, and much of it addresses inconveniences I never knew existed. The female models are ageless, marvelously content. They smile confidently, whether sporting Smile With Confidence™ denture adhesive or napping on a Waterproof Bed Pad. They smile in zip-front robes, next to car covers, wearing Terry Turbans, while holding 6-in-1 kitchen utensils. There is an additional pose that I should mention, page twenty-eight: a woman with her head tilted back, eyes closed, mouth slightly ajar. Ailing? Dead? Nope: she’s in the midst of a one-hour orgasm, of course, courtesy of The One-Hour Orgasm Book, part of Dr. Leonard’s selection of naughty items. I’ll get to the naughty items in a minute.
So now, after a month or two of receiving the catalog and dismissing this Dr. Leonard as a mostly well-meaning charlatan (on the order form, it says, “Dr. Leonard is a trade name and does not refer to a physician licensed to practice medicine.”), I was able to scrutinize and scorn his offerings without feeling indifferent to the cries of the infirm. Dr. Leonard ain’t interested in the truly sick; he’d prefer I be healthy and hungry, maybe a little disquieted, phobic, jittery, naïve. Is there a draft in here? Are my dentures loose? Did I piss myself, again? Here’s what Dr. Leonard wants me to be: credulously uncomfortable. He wants me to be alarmed enough by senescence to order some Coral Calcium Supreme ($19.95), “the elixir of life,” formulated by Bob Barefoot, who noticed that “many of the natives of Okinawa, Japan, live disease-free to be 100 years old.” The Doc would like my body’s “Yin-Yang” (another Asian concept, very ancient, very mysterious) to be unbalanced enough to warrant a Q-Ray® Ionized Bracelet® ($49.95); and my judgment to be damaged enough to buy a “space-saving” 3-in-1 Appliance Center ($19.95) with a coffee maker, toaster oven, and griddle with “everything you need to cook a delicious breakfast, tasty lunch, or great dinner.” But what if I want a tasty dinner or a great breakfast? More than anything, Dr. Leonard seeks to dispel any illusion I have of the suppleness and ease of day-to-day existence.
There must be a Spanish phrase for this feeling: las muertes chiquitas, little deaths. Dusk, deep winter, and Dr. Leonard’s. The muertes don’t dwell in any individual item-for-sale or implied ailment, but in the juxtaposition and repetition of the products. Nothing is compartmentalized; the whole suffering gamut spills out on each page. Page thirty-four of a recent catalog features a Denture Repair Kit, Psoriasis Cream, Deluxe Ball-of-Foot Cushion, Ring-Size Adjustors, Eye Sticks, Sheet Keepers (“Keep sheets where they belong!”), Miracle Fade Cream, Bra Extenders, and Instant Touch Up Temporary Hair Color. Each item is given equal copy, from the self-explanatory Easy Care Nightgown to the abstruse Sheath Urinal Kit, and all are presented in the tone of something hollered from a megaphone. Say goodbye to ugly skin blotches! Surround eyes and block harmful rays! S-t-r-e-t-c-h tight shoes where they hurt!
The catalog’s product descriptions are so baldly infantilizing and misleading that they seem composed in another universe. The Copper Ankle Bracelet ($4.99) is advertised thusly: “For centuries people believed in the pain-easing benefits of copper.” For centuries people also believed that the night air carried pestilence and that wizards were able to turn lead into gold, but no one believes that anymo—did someone say alchemy? “Just place your jewelry into the special solution [Instant Gold (
$19.99 $14.99)] and in seconds the jewelry will have a lustrous 24K gold-plated finish that will never chip or peel.” Jewelry gets sick, too, I guess. This is the classic bait-and-switch: he earns my trust by offering me incontinence supplies (I need incontinence supplies), and then tries to throw in Q-Ray® Bracelets®, Snap-On Watches, Fashionable Magnifying Glasses (that aren’t even fashionable!), dildos, etc. In fact, these “convenient” “lifestyle” items make up the bulk of the catalog. Which is why juxtapositions like the GS-27® Auto Scratch Remover right next to a pair of Hernia Relief Shorts are inevitable, and profitable. Folks come for the Hernia Relief Shorts, they stay for the Auto Scratch Remover. Or the Deluxe Card Shuffler, the Brush-N-Color, the Ottoman with Hidden Storage Compartment.
Did you know that many of Dr. Leonard’s products have been seen on the television? This means that the items with the red, square “As Seen on TV” logo above their picture are famous! Whether or not I saw, say, the Pedal Pusher (“walk while you sit!”) on TV is unimportant; at some point, the Pedal Pusher was on TV, somebody saw it there, and that’s that. The catalog is loaded with pseudoscientific lingo and empty jargon. Waterproof Pants are made of “special” vinyl; all the leather items are made of “genuine” leather; the Genuine Leather Wallet “fits easily in pocket.” Everything is Deluxe, Special, Ultra, Easy, Natural, or 100 percent something-or-other. Dr. Leonard surrounds the most mundane objects with the aura of the just-invented: “Sweet dreams are guaranteed when you use this beautiful, rainbow-pattern bedspread.… Imported!” Like my Reeboks!
Dr. Leonard’s pandering often resembles the ramblings of an incredibly optimistic insane person. Here’s the description of the Cobbler Apron: “Brightly colored, this pretty snap-front cobbler apron is the perfect cover-up while you cook, clean, garden, or lounge around the house. Available in two beautiful floral prints—let us choose for you!” Pro Clearz™ toe-fungus remedy “comes complete with its own brush.” The Talking Watch is “great for men & women,” as are Eagle Eyez® and the Neoprene Weight-Loss Shorts. Waterproof Pants “can be washed and reused hundreds of times.” The Classic Poplin Driving Cap is “perfect for town and country.” Bed Risers “elevate your bed to hospital height.” Velcro Tape: “The possibilities are endless with this Velcro Tape.”
Possibilities? Velcro? Is my whimpering audible? Could somebody please douse me in some “non-greasy” Pain-Away™ “spray-on pain blocker” ($7.99)? Or, if you’re feeling especially generous, some of Frankie Avalon’s Zero Pain™ “odorless roll-on pain reliever,” “used by hundreds of thousands of pain sufferers” ($14.99)?
After a few months with Dr. Leonard’s catalog, his less noticeable tics begin to seem more sinister: how he spells the word stretch s-t-r-e-t-c-h, when referring to the Professional Shoe S-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-r and the Waistband S-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-r; how one of the feet in the Dr. Scholl’s ads is always whimsically poised on its toe; how specific measurements and volumes are given for every single item, from the U.S. Quarters Album (13.74” x 8.5” open; folds to 6.9” x 8.5”) to the Pine Tar Soap (eight oz.); how Dr. Leonard makes no assumptions about his products, showcasing them as “Safe & Effective”; how all the clothing is: for women, formless, suitable for passing out in. How there are naughty items.
Which is to say: why, ungentle god, are there naughty items in America’s Leading Discount Healthcare Catalog? Dildos, ostensibly, could be classified as healthcare related, so might the Eroscillator®, a positively dental-looking gold-colored contraption with three intensity levels—up to 3,600 eroscillations per minute—accompanied by the recommendation (and a picture) of smiling, horrible Dr. Ruth Westheimer. (“Dr. Ruth is a trade name and does not refer to a physician licensed to practice medicine.”) The catalog features an array of penis pumps and better-sex videos, as well as two types of erection enhancers, one called Erexcel®, a “comfortable” adjustable band; and Rejoyn®, a “high-grade” “reusable” “washable” “sleeve” made of Santoprene® rubber, “so a man can have sex with or without an erection”…
Parenthetically: I’m reminded of the composition book my grandmother used to keep in her guest bathroom for people to come across. On the cover she wrote “Interesting Facts about Sex over 70” and then left the inside of the book blank. Little did she know.
Then there are the naughty items that, I suspect, are offered solely with the hope that a fourteen-year-old boy in, say, Albany will steal his parents’ credit card and order them. (Although it does say in smallish print below the Natural Contours Waterproof Personal Massager [read: shower dildo], “You must be 21 years or older to order Sexual Aids or Videos.”) For the fourteen-year-old Albanian, the “Totally Nude Aerobics” video and DVD would have to be one of the more popular choices. The concept for “Totally Nude Aerobics” is refreshingly straightforward. In it, the description explains, “exercise and erotica become one!” To which I say, finally. I mean, after all these years of doing aerobics and then masturbating, I’ve got to think “Totally Nude Aerobics” is going to cut some of the torpor out of my life. Here’s the verbatim description: “Get ready for an exciting workout, as lovely instructors teach you how to shape, firm, and tone every muscle in your body. In ‘Totally Nude Aerobics’ you’ll do stretching, crunches, mat work, and more. And because you see the naked, well-toned bodies of the female instructors, you can follow each exercise and see exactly how to achieve the precise muscle extension and position.”
Disconcertingly but perhaps not surprisingly, the naughty items are dispersed throughout the catalog willy-nilly, mixing eros all up in your thanatos. Next door to the Waterproof Cotton Briefs—“The soft breathable non-irritating cotton is noiseless and discreet unlike some waterproof vinyl panties”—is the Arousal™ Cream For Men, with its vaguely Christian description, “Join the thousands of men who’ve put an end to the frustration and discovered pure, wholesome pleasure again.”
The naughty items seem a perfect analogy for Dr. Leonard’s largesse: he takes a legitimate medical condition—in this case, sexual dysfunction—and pursues it to ordure, with herbal remedies, bargain props, and unrealistic videos. His diagnoses may be difficult to bear, but his remedies are worse. His intention is to pamper, but the consequence—the inevitable result of these forty-eight pages of cheap and burdensome devices, delivered speciously—is altogether smothering. The Health Shoe, the Button Helper, the Lighted Magnifier, Clear Vue™, Long-Reach Shoehorn, the Haircutting Umbrella, OxiClean® Wipes, Total Foot Recovery™ Cream, the Mealtime Cover-Up, Portable Bidet, the Female Stimulation System, SofTop® Non-Binding Socks, the Laminating Machine, Arthritis Gloves, Talking Pedometer, Non-Slip Terry Grip Deluxe Loungers…
Twice I’ve moved and Dr. Leonard has found me! A few months ago I finally gave in and ordered Letter Writing Made Easy! by Margaret McCarthy. (Which includes hundreds of sample letters suitable for every admonitory occasion. “You see we feel that [the behavior you displayed/your use of foul language] during your last visit to our home was inappropriate considering the number of young children present on this occasion.”) I ordered it because I was curious about what the free gift was in the advertised “Free Gift with Every Order.” In my case they were two 14K-gold heart-shaped bookmarks, a handheld mirror, a Living Will Kit, and a coupon for 25 percent off the new Ab Swing® lower-ab machine.
Frivolity, vanity, and anxiety: even Dr. Leonard’s freebies are an insufferable bounty. ✯