There was a time when my top-ranking phobia was fear of scanners. It started during a Paris vacation. There were five of us waiting to get through the turnstile in the Metro. My friend Susan put her pass in the slot, the pass was scanned, returned, and she was allowed through. Her husband Rick put his pass in the slot, the pass was scanned, returned, and he was allowed through. Same for Rick's sister, Stephanie. Same for my wife. When it was my turn, I put my pass in the slot -- and nothing happened. I tried it again, this time turning the ticket upside down. Again, nothing. Backwards. Nothing. Backwards and upside down. Nothing. By this time the other four were waving at me to hurry -- vite! -- since the train had already pulled into the station. Not too many months later, I was at a Mets game with my three sons when the team was still playing at Shea Stadium. The boys inserted their tickets and the turnstile opened for them, no problem. Me? Same deal as with the Paris Metro. Rejected! Even the attendant couldn't make it work. I had to be escorted to Guest Services to get the situation squared away.

After the game, Matt, Greg, Robby and I joined the herd trampling one another in their rush to the subway platform for the No. 7 train back to Manhattan. The three of them used their MetroCards and slipped through without incident. My MetroCard got stuck. If you're familiar with the crowds leaving Mets games, you know that the fans bunched up behind me were not happy campers. "What's with the old guy who doesn't know how to use a (expletive) MetroCard?" I could hear one guy mutter disgustedly -- and none too softly.

The thing is, before I even inserted my card, I already knew it wasn't going to work. Once the phobia is upon you, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's why I freeze when I swipe my card at Walgreen's -- and invariably need help from the pharmacist. Ditto with the slot at the gas pump. I know it's only a matter of time before the digital display is going to read, "Please begin transaction again."

Lately, though, my scanner anxiety has been upstaged by a new phobia: fear of motion detectors. This problem has reared its ugly head primarily in public restrooms. I step away from the toilet, waiting -- hoping -- for the automatic flush. Nothing. I take one step more, wait a beat longer. Still nothing. I'm about to give up, unlatch the door, and try for a quick get-away, when -- thank God! -- SWOOSH.

But then . . . there's the sink. Picture half a dozen guys, side by side at the basins -- myself among them -- all washing their hands. Five of them wave under the faucet and the water comes pouring out. I wave and . . . nothing. Not wanting to call attention to my ineptness, I move on to the paper towel dispenser, wave my hands, and again . . . nothing. Well, on the brighter side, I don't really need the paper towel, since I never got my hands wet in the first place.

My middle son works at Pepsi, in marketing, and in April my whole family went to the Mets home opener as his guests in the Pepsi suite. Between innings I went to use the washroom. I waved my hand under the faucet, every which way, and, of course, nada. Then I pressed the soap dispenser -- and that's when the water spurted out of the faucet! My youngest son was waiting to use the bathroom after me. I explained to him the funky way to turn on the water. He just gave me a look . . . well, you can imagine.

This past spring I was teaching my Memoir Writing course at Trinity College in Hartford, something I've been doing for years. My classroom was in Seabury, a very old but recently renovated building along Trinity's historic Long Walk. During the first session my students and I were a little mystified when the lights would go out from time to time for no apparent reason. I could sometimes coax them back on by walking up the center aisle towards the door, but that didn't work on a consistent basis. There seemed to be no method to the light's madness. Before the second session, I called the administrator and told her the problem. She said, "Yes, the lights are on a motion detector."

"OK, so how do I get them to stay on?"

"Gesticulate a lot," she answered.


This summer I led a writing workshop at the Millrace Bookshop in Farmington. Since the sessions were in the evening and ran two-and-a-half hours, and then I still had an hour's drive home, I developed a ritual of stopping in for a post-class bite in the Grist Mill Tavern, right in the same building. I loved their Philly cheesesteak -- but that's not why I got so attached to the spot. I loved Nikki, my regular waitress, who remembered everything I liked, and ditto for the rest of her customers, from one week to the next -- but that's not why I was so devoted to the place, either.

What I really liked about the Grist Mill Tavern was the men's room. It had an old-school paper towel dispenser with a very prominent bar, and when you pressed that bar, out came a paper towel. Every time. Even for me.

Hank Herman is a Westport writer, and his "The Home Team" appears every other Friday. You can also keep up with his blogs -- "Beagle Man" on the Westport News website at:; and "Old School, New School" on the Hearst website at: