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Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 25: "Static Electricity"

The science guy has ventured to the Sit & Spin late enough into the night that he’s hoping he’ll have the place to himself. He likes the smell of detergent, the comforting hum the machines make, the fluorescents. He likes people, too, usually, and at any other time he’d sidle up to the bar and sit for a drink while his clothes spin, but tonight he isn’t feeling it. Tonight he’d prefer to be with his thoughts, the smell, the noise, the lights. Some days are longer than others. The science guy is no machine.

No such luck. Elaine is pulling clothes from a dryer on the far wall. Elaine is a native of the Cayuse-Nez Perce tribes of northeastern Oregon. She lives in Seattle with her mother, though both spend most of their time in Roslyn, where they film Northern Exposure for CBS. Elaine plays Marilyn Whirlwind, the main character’s taciturn secretary, and her mother in real life plays her mother on the show. Elaine had driven her mother to audition for the role the directors ended up giving to Elaine herself. They saw her in the waiting room and said, What about her. Her mother was upset, but got over it. Before acting—which Elaine says is just reading, really, it’s not that hard, really—Elaine worked at a YWCA in eastern Oregon and danced every weekend at this powwow or that. She’s won awards for traditional dance. Last year, she was interviewed by Radiance magazine and was named Native American Woman of the Year by First Americans in the Arts. The science guy knows all of this because Elaine has told him all of this. He often wonders if she speaks so much because her job requires her to speak so little. He can sometimes physically feel time crawling as she talks. The science guy isn’t known for his patience.

Hey Elaine, how’s it going? the science guy asks, leaning into the interaction rather than pretending ignorance. He is many things, but he tries at least not to be rude. He starts transferring his clothes to a washer.

Oh hi, Elaine says. The wordsbarely hold back the resignation of a heavy sigh. It’s going good. She is folding her clothes one by one and looks utterly despondent. After a beat, and without prodding, the truth outs itself: Who am I fooling? It’s no use pretending anymore, she says. Every time I do my laundry, I get this embarrassing electron build-up. She lifts a shirt for him to see, a black sock stubbornly stuck on like a leech to a leg.

Oh you mean static cling, the science guy says, a little more interested now, a little willing to help if he can.

Oh fine, Elaine says, affronted. Here I am with my clothes full of electrons creating a negative static electric charge, and alls you can say is “static cling?”

The science guy is not very comfortable with confrontation. He shifts his weight and thinks. Well, uh, have you tried spraying it with water? He brings out a small nozzled bottle from his laundry basket and when she looks confused, at best unsure, starts spritzing the sock-clung shirt. The water absorbs the electric charge. Look, he says, as the sock falls limply off. See? It doesn’t stick.

Elaine holds her shirt in her hands and massages it carefully. And now it’s all wet, she says, not exactly happy.

Well, what can I tell you, Elaine? It’s a process, the science guy says, the end of his rope very plainly in sight, the regret of tonight’s decision to do laundry planted firmly in his cortex. I mean, you know, it doesn’t happen all at once. First the laundry’s in the dryer, spinning around in that dessicated atmosphere, you know, and there’s no humidity and there’s very little water in there, so the electrons with the friction of the spinning that can build up on one surface or the other, either on the shirt or on the sock—really getting worked up now, hearing himself but from a distance—

—while Elaine watches his hands flap in front of his face and spaces out just enough to nod and maintain eye contact. She likes him well enough, and felt rude not making small talk, but is exhausted by his explanations. He is still explaining, only getting more animated. She thinks, Boy this guy can go on and on when it comes to static cling. He just goes on and on and on. She thinks, legitimately annoyed now, My sock’s all wet.

Finally he starts to wind down—so, I mean, well, laundry doesn’t happen all at once, you know. His face has fallen surprisingly quickly, his energy depleted with the same rapidity as its arrival. Elaine hasn’t fully rejoined him in the conversation—she hasn’t heard the last third of what he’s said, and stares at him blankly now. The science guy’s gone sheepish, suddenly feels weird about the night. He doesn’t know what came over him. ...sorry, he mumbles, and carries his laundry back out into the night, completely forgetting his purpose in the first place. Where he walks, he leaves a trail of sparks.

Elaine looks around for some place to hang her newly wet sock to dry, slapping it absentmindedly against her thigh to aid the process in the meantime. She knows the science guy means well, that he doesn’t purposely monopolize her time with asinine lessons she never asked for, but all the same. He isn’t the first, and he won’t be the last. She’s learned at this point to tune out and look for exits along the monologue freeway, the most polite off-ramp or the one that shows up first. She thinks of the number of times she wasn’t looking for help and still got it, of the hundreds of ways she’s said Ugh and they heard Fix it. Generally speaking, she doesn’t much care for men, if she’s being totally honest. She imagines a thunderstorm, the way lightning hits before thunder, the way they happen, in fact, at the exact same time, but we only perceive one a little quicker, gauge distance with the other. She empties the dryer, double checks for twinless socks, and makes her way peacefully home.



Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.

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