Wagon rolls on, without the welcome

Sunday, October 18, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Welcome Wagon is officially closed.

Maybe that says it all.

After 70 years, this company will no longer be dispatching wicker baskets filled with coupons from dry cleaners and pencils from auto-lube shops to newcomers and new parents. This was all delivered by a friendly woman who -- even though we knew she was getting paid for it -- acted like a neighbor.

Privacy fences, spice cakes

You know, she behaved the way neighbors did back when people had front porches on their houses, instead of decks hidden behind privacy fences. Remember when the people next door saw the moving van and came over with a spice cake? Now, they show up with regulations about what color you're allowed to paint your shutters.

"The world is changing. People are not home, moms are working," said a spokesman for Cedant Corp., which owns Welcome Wagon.

Oh, good. Blame us working women again for the decline of civilization. I blame Bill Gates. Or maybe Mister Rogers. Or Mary Tyler Moore. Or Jeanie, the automated teller.

I blame whoever convinced us that machines are more interesting than human beings.

Now, Cedant Corp. will send newcomers a bound catalog of coupons in the mail. The Wagon part will continue, but the Welcome is history. Most of the company's 2,200 representatives have been terminated.

They'll be replaced by a big book of commercials. No tips about hairdressers and speed traps and produce markets. No handshake. Especially no handshake.

Maybe we don't like each other very much anymore, except in theory. We watch fake families on television rather than talking to our real one. We spend more time staring into the faces of our computers than we do in the faces of our neighbors. Or even our co-workers. We gossip by electronic message.

Maybe Welcome Wagon went into a tailspin because real human beings have become an annoyance. Machines are much more efficient, plus you can shut them off if they start trying to get you to join their church or their political party.

Priceless tips

Now that I think about it, it has been a long time since I've been visited by the Welcome Wagon. The last time was, I think, two houses ago. A very nice woman rang the bell and gave me a comb emblazoned with the name of a hair salon.

She gave me information about the public library and voter registration before she went to work for the merchants who had stocked her basket. That stuff was nice, too. I think that's how I began my love affair with liquid Tide.

Before that, I was visited by the Welcome Wagon on the occasion of the birth of our daughter. The Welcome Wagon lady gave me a refrigerator magnet with the phone number of a diaper service. She gave me a thermometer, an oven mitt and a bib with the name of a grocery on it.

She told me All My Children was the best daytime soap, and she showed me how to put a rubber band around the waistband button on my pants so that I could hold them closed until my "baby fat" disappeared.

She held the baby and told me she could tell I would be a good mother.

Now that the paid "neighbor ladies" have been fired, solicitations will come by mail, dropped off while we are at work. We will not have to make coffee or chitchat with the person who delivers them. It is unlikely that any unpaid neighbor ladies -- or gentlemen -- will pick up the slack.

And we have lost something considerably more valuable than a calendar from an insurance agent and a fan with the name of a funeral home on it.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com, call 768-8393, or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Her new book, I Beg to Differ, a collection of her most popular columns and commentaries, is available at (800) 852-9332.