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A Nation of Night Owls

EVER since automatic teller machines (ATMs) revolutionized banking by giving Americans round-the-clock access to their money, it was only a matter of time before clever entrepreneurs devised high-tech ways to help people spend their money around the clock as well. As if on cue, the AutoValet, a credit-card-operated dry-cleaning system, has just arrived in Washington, D.C. Working late? Stuck in traffic until after the cleaners have closed? No problem. The AutoValet makes it possible to drop off and pick up clothes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

To leave clothes, a customer inserts a credit card, lists the items, and signs a receipt. When the AutoValet door opens, the articles and receipt are placed in a garment bag, which is stored in the machine until a regular dry cleaner picks it up.

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To retrieve clean items, the customer inserts a credit card and presto! Within 20 seconds the order arrives at the machine's door.

With a price tag of $60,000, the AutoValet is not likely to appear on many street corners very soon. But distributors, who expect to sell about 50 of the machines in the next 18 months, say they intend eventually to ``saturate the market to prove it's viable.''

Viable indeed! As the number of time-short workers and two-career couples continues to grow, any invention that extends the business day is probably guaranteed a measure of success. The AutoValet is, in fact, the latest example of a revolution in American business - a revolution that threatens to turn the country into a nation of night owls.

Not so many years ago, the hours after sunset were considered a time for relaxing and socializing and sleeping. They were not for shopping. Except for all-night diners and all-night gas stations - patronized mostly by truckers, cabbies, insomniacs, and workers on the second shift - cash registers were silent. ``Early to bed and early to rise'' was regarded as the model for an ordered life.

Today those who follow Ben Franklin's sensible, if boring, advice may find themselves missing half the fun.

They will never have the chance to buy a washer and dryer during a ``Midnight Madness'' sale at their local appliance store.

They will never be able to dial an airline at 2 a.m. to check on the latest super-saver fares to Florida.

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They will never shop in their 'jammies at 3 a.m. by tuning into the Home Shopping Network to purchase, on impulse, a cubic zirconia ring, a gold chain, a ``collectible'' doll, or a comforter.

And they will never phone in a pre-dawn order to a mail-order firm whose catalog boasts, ``We're here to serve you 24 hours a day, every day of the week.''

What freedom! What power! No more being a slave to normal business hours. No more circling the block for a parking space. No more looking in vain for a clerk.

But wait. Defying the rhythm of a normal diurnal rotation may have its pleasures, but it also has its perils. As the shopping day grows longer, so inevitably does the list of things to be bought or serviced - and the accompanying list of bills to be paid.

Parkinson's Law, updated for the 1980s, reads: Errands, like work, expand to fill the time available.

From all-night child care and all-night radio talk shows to 24-hour hotlines and 24-hour sales, the mad extension of work and duties and errands stretches toward absurdity - or the breaking point.

As urban midnight cowboys ride their trusty automotive steeds - their Broncos and Mustangs and Colts - to the nearest ATM or AutoValet to round up some freshly minted money or freshly starched shirts, they prompt a few questions:

What other high-tech marvels will join the ranks of how-did-we-manage-without-them inventions? Will there be AutoValet spinoffs - a credit-card shoe-repair system called the AutoCobbler, perhaps, or a computer-operated 24-hour car wash known as the AutoShine?

Will a disembodied voice from deep within these electronic systems be programmed to chirp ``Have a nice night'' at the end of each nocturnal transaction?

And will there be midnight traffic jams in suburbia?

Let's hope not. Living life to the full is a fine idea. But when all the time zones disappear, even the most restless heart finally calls out: ``Curfew!''

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