"Cupholder?" says the computer helpline person, puzzled. "I'm sorry, sir, but I'm confused. Did you buy this cupholder at a computer show or receive it as a special promotion?'
"No, it came as part of the standard equipment on my computer."
"But our computers don't come with cupholders."
"Well, pardon me, friend, but they do," says the man, a little hotly. "I'm looking at mine right now. You push a button on the base of the machine and it slides right out."
The man, it transpired, had been using the CD drawer in his computer to hold his coffee cup.
I bring this up here by way of introducing our topic this week: cupholders. I don't know if cupholders exist in Britain yet, but if not, trust me, they are on their way. Cupholders are taking over the world. If you are not familiar with them, cupholders are little trays, lids or other receptacles with holes for holding cups and other drinks containers, which are found in multiple locations throughout every modern American automobile.
Often they are mounted on the backs of seats or built into armrests, but just as often they are ingeniously tucked away in places you would never think to look for a beverage stowage device. Generally, in my experience, if you push an unfamiliar button anywhere in an American car, either it will activate the back windscreen wiper, which will rub with a heavy dragging noise across the glass once every six seconds for the rest of eternity no matter what you do to try to stop it, or it will make a cupholder slide out, rise up, drop down or otherwise magically enter your life.
It would be almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of cupholders in American automotive circles these days. The New York Times recently ran a long article in which it tested a dozen family cars. It rated each of them for ten features, such as engine size, boot space, handling, quality of suspension, and, yes, number of cupholders.
A car dealer acquaintance of ours tells us that they are one of the first things people remark on, ask about or play with when they come to look at a car. People buy cars on the basis of cupholders. Nearly all car advertisements note them prominently in the text.
Some cars, like the newest model of the Dodge Caravan, came with as many as seventeen cupholders. Seventeen! The largest Caravan holds seven passengers. You don't have to be a nuclear physicist, or even wide awake, to work out that that is 2.43 cupholders per passenger. Why, you may reasonably wonder, would each passenger in a vehicle need 2.43 cupholders? Good question.
Americans, it is true, consume positively staggering volumes of fluids. One of our local petrol stations, I am told, sells a flavoured confection called a Slurpee in containers up to 60 ounces in size. That is three English pints of sickly stuff that turns your tongue blue. But even if every member of the family had a Slurpee and a personal bottle of Milk of Magnesia for dealing with the after-effects, that would still leave three cupholders spare. There is a long tradition of endowing the interiors of American cars with lots of gadgets and comforts, and I suppose a superfluity of cupholders is just an outgrowth of that tradition.
The reason Americans want a lot of comfort in their cars is because they live in them. Almost 94 per cent of all American trips from home involve the use of a car. (The figure in Britain is about 60 per cent, which is bad enough.) People in America don't just use their cars to get to the shops, but to get between shops. Most businesses in America have their own car parks, so someone running six errands will generally move the car six times on a single outing, even to get between two places on opposite sides of the same street.
There are 200 million cars in the United States - 40 per cent of the world's total, for about 5 per cent of its population - and an additional two million new ones hit the roads each month (though obviously many are also retired). Even so, there are about twice as many cars in America as there were twenty years ago, driving on twice as many roads, racking up about twice as many miles.
So, because Americans have a lot of cars and spend a lot of time in them, they like a lot of comforts. However, there is a limit to how many different features you can fit into a car interior. What better, then, than to festoon it with nifty cupholders, particularly when people seem to go for them in a big way? That's my theory.
What is certainly true is that not putting cupholders in a car is a serious mistake. I read a couple of years ago that Volvo had to redesign all its cars for the American market for this very reason. Volvo's engineers had foolishly thought that what buyers were looking for was a reliable engine, side-impact bars and heated seats, when in fact what they craved was little trays into which to insert their Slurpees. So a bunch of guys named Nils Nilsson and Lars Larsson were put to work designing cupholders into the system, and Volvo was thus saved from beverage ignominy, if not actual financial ruin.
Now from all the foregoing we can draw one important conclusion - that no matter how hard you try, it is not quite possible to fill a column space with a discussion just of cupholders. So let me tell you how I happen to know that those fellows at Volvo were called Nils Nilsson and Lars Larsson.
Some years ago when I was in Stockholm and had nothing better to do one evening (it was after 7pm, you see, so the city had long since turned in for the night), I passed the hours before bedtime thumbing idly through the local phone directory and tallying various names. I had heard that there were only a handful of surnames in Sweden, and this was essentially so. I counted over 2,000 each for Eriksson, Svensson, Nilsson and Larsson. There were 212 people in Stockholm named Erik Eriksson, 117 named Sven Svensson, 126 named Nils Nilsson and 259 named Lars Larsson. I wrote these names and numbers down on a piece of paper, and have been wondering all these years when I would ever find a use for it.
From this, I believe, we can draw two further conclusions. Save all scraps of paper bearing useless information, for one day you may be glad you did, and if you go to Stockholm, take drink.
`Notes from a Big Country' by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, pounds 16.99) can be purchased at major bookshops or by mail order on 01624 675137