Earthworms’ Castings: Befriend the 8-Ball?

Jean Ponzi Earthworms’ Castings

With Jean Ponzi

We humans love and loathe the unknown. At the same time, many of us yearn to rely on an authoritative guide, from Mom to Jesus to Ouija Boards. 

Inner knowing is not the strongest suit for a lot of our kind. Seems easier to get us to pledge our allegiance to the vision and direction of another than to cultivate sound self-guidance. In a species so very fond of choices.

I do pretty well with attuned decisions, but I’m not immune to the lure of a hot tip now and then. 

My earliest brush with oracular thrills was in Woolworth’s, the legendary five-and-dime. Specifically, the one on Mitchell Street, the bustling business district of Milwaukee’s Polish southside. 

Toys were in the basement of this store. Not the smartest marketing, but eerily intriguing to a seven-year-old. I would elude my Gramma and zip down there to sneak a consultation with the Magic 8-Ball. 

Try Me! the box implored, with its cardboard underside open to questions, a siren call to dive into the comfy simple space of Yes or No. 

I can’t recall the first thing I asked, but I sure do remember the answer: Better Not Tell You Now. Hooked by ambiguity, I kept coming back for more, at least till I turned nine. But we didn’t get to Mitchell Street that often; my nascent self-discerning capacity was, thankfully, not at risk. 

One day about a year ago, at Stone Spiral Coffeehouse in Maplewood, a favorite hangout now, I re-encountered this old friend. Delightful! Or so I thought. 

The Magic 8-Ball sharing the counter with a carrot cake’s stand looked just like the advisor of my youth: black, round, flat on the bottom. 

I picked it up to say hello, framing what I intended as pleasant chat: So – you still working in Intelligence? 

First the little triangle would not align to the viewing window. I waited. I “asked” again. 

Don’t count on it!

On subsequent java jaunts I queried the Stone Spiral 8-Ball, just to be polite. Every time, it either refused to show or gave me a maybe or flat-out no. This place is known and loved for being quirky, anarchistic, unvarnished – but never hostile. Curmudgeons get a double shot of Benefit of the Doubt.

But this Magic 8-Ball was a smartass! No social graces whatsoever, and fugeddaboudit serving its Purpose in Life.

On the other hand, what if it had been (gasp!) improved? Updates to a classic can throw a spanner in the works. I did a little research, striving to understand, not judge.

Guts of the Magic 8-Ball were invented by Albert C. Carter, inspired by a spirit writing device used by his mother Mary, a Cincinnati clairvoyant. In 1944, Carter filed for a patent for began as a cylinder gizmo, marketed as the Syco-Slate. When Carter’s partner Abe Bookman encased the works in an iridescent crystal ball, it caught the attention of the Brunswick Billiards company of Chicago. In 1950, Brunswick commissioned a version in the iconic form of a black and white 8-ball, possibly inspired by a Three Stooges film gag. It was meant to be. 

The Magic 8-Ball is a cartoon-y oversized replica of its sporting namesake, plastic and hollow – like so much stuff around us now. Inside, a cylindrical reservoir holds a white plastic icosahedron floating in alcohol dyed dark blue. Each of this die’s 20 faces has a short statement printed in raised letters, read through a window on the ball’s flat base. When the seeker “asks” a yes/no question and turns the ball window-up, the die floats to the top, delivering the white-on-blue mystical goods. 

And what about the Magic 8-Ball’s quota of quips? Was the “cynical” Stone Spiral ball a mutation? Had wisdom been diluted into modern memes? What happened to the mid-last-century kindness of Better Not Tell You Now?

I took comfort in my finding that Magic 8-Ball maxims have not changed. The same old 20 answers are built into 8-Balls of today, the encouraging legacy of Albert C. Carter: 10 affirmative, 5 negative, 5 non-committal. 

Better Not Tell You Now was still drifting in the azure soup, it just had not turned up for me.

The more I understood, the better I felt. Funny how this works: real intel replacing suspicion and fear.

These days, I let the Stone Spiral 8-Ball have its space. I won’t bug it with a flippant quest.

But if I need it, I know it’s right under the cake stand. Time-tested, round, and possibly true.

Jean Ponzi converses with all manner of Green-focused humans in her weekly show Earthworms, podcasting from KDHX St. Louis Independent Media, at www.kdhx.org. Mattel makes the Magic 8-Ball now, which makes it a Delphic step-sister to Barbie. Good coffee, eats and music at Stone Spiral Coffee and Curios!