Traditionally, I'm a Christmas Eve shopper. This serves two essential purposes: 1) It limits my exposure to the "Baby Jesus economy" to a single day; and 2) as a perfectionist with a tendency to mull and vacillate, I know the sooner I start to shop the more time there is for the process to drag out. On Dec. 24, however, with the Santa clock ticking, I'm compelled to live by the Latin maxim Carpe quidquid ("Seize whatever"). No mulling, no vacillating, no process.
Not this year. In an effort to reduce the routine in my life, amplify my awareness and just generally fuck over my brain — a brain which (in light of the subconscious, subliminal, neurotic, involuntary, deceptive and mysterious bullshit it's pulled on me over the years) richly deserves fucking over — I've been attempting to reset many of my ingrained behavioral paradigms. As a small example, I've switched my watch from left wrist to right. More significantly, I now root, root, root for the away team and ignore Black History Month as a Latino woman instead of as a white man. Relevant here, however, is the fact that just last week I shopped on the first official day of the Christmas season rather than the last.
It's Black Friday, so-called. The day after Thanksgiving.
Outside a megacolossamongous big-box discount store in pre-dawn darkness and autumn frost, I stand among a gathering swarm of ad-wielding, shuffling, fidgeting, elbow-throwing, bloodlusting, cold-eyed, sleep-deprived, fixated vessels of massive consumer debt who are pant-pant-panting for the opportunity to Visa their way to big holiday savings at 21.9 percent APR. It's like some kind of second-stage Ellis Island, where cash-poor, huddled masses are yearning not to breathe free but to buy one George Foreman Grill and get one free.
The doors are unlocked. The crowd surges. I'm propelled forward in a powerful charge, equal parts running of the bulls and dash of the lemmings. People stumble, flail. Children cry. Dogs bay. (There are no dogs here, thou vengeful, mocking brain!) The wizened store greeter soils himself, though thankfully he's already wearing a Depends.
Quickly, the stampede of humanity scatters. Fevered sub-packs dash toward displays of advertised specials. Fleet-footed individuals seeking more far-flung bargains are swallowed by the myriad departments that comprise this retail Thunderdome. I step to the side to catch my breath, get my bearings. Almost instantly, a jumpy employee with a label gun, having spotted an inert form (me!), prices me at $19.99.
Collecting myself, I commandeer a cart and venture into the store. The aisles are already in disarray, clotted arteries of laden carts, picked-over stock and shoppers who, from all appearances, after last Christmas' spend-fest had no money left over to enroll in Jenny Craig and/or anger management. Now I'm stymied. Do I skip a blocked aisle and come back when it's clear or plunge in and fight for my right to acquire? As I pause to consider, I'm marked down to $17.99.
Better to keep moving, I decide, and make my gift selections based on which departments have the lowest shopper density/easiest access. I spot a tight but semi-clear lane down one of the broader main aisles and slip in. The rowdy crowds persist as I forge ahead through Special Buys, Seasonal Goods, Housewares, Appliances, Jewelry, Women's Clothing, Men's Clothing, Toys, Electronics, Music, Books, Sporting Goods, Lawn & Garden, Pets, Livestock, Automotive, Aviation, Space Colonization, Mining, Dentistry, Patents, Phrenology, Antiquities, Didgeridoos, Regicidal Aids, Funerary and now back to Special Buys. Considering I have traveled in a continuous straight line and made no turns, I find this development highly disturbing.
It's time to focus. To put the hour and the masses and the frenzy and the wrinkle in the space-time continuum out of my mind. If I'm to affect my intended paradigm shift, I tell myself, I have to step up, join the fray, plug into the ramped up ambience of this house of red-tagged swag and dial Christmas up to Crushmas. Screw being in the madness, I must become the madness. It is this shopper/warrior who now directs his cart not toward La Mancha but back again into the store.
And this time, I find my Christmas gifts. Oh, not the Microwave Crock Pot that slow cooks in seconds for Mom or the DNA test kit for (Purported) Pop, though certainly I find those, too. No, the true and priceless gifts of this day are the truths and insights about life and survival and the nature of "limited quantities." For those whose first holiday foray into the belly of the big-box still lies ahead, take heed:
· "Move, asshole!" is the new "Ho-ho-ho!"
· To use a piece of merchandise as a weapon, purchase is not required — merely intent to purchase.
· If retail employees have a drug problem, it is not with speed.
· In a crowded Toy Department, touching dolls inappropriately buys you some breathing room; licking them inappropriately buys you a long conversation with security.
· The Express Lane is not so Express when the 12 items being rung in front of you are a set of radial tires, five pieces of patio furniture, a plasma TV, diamond earrings and a bass boat.
Perhaps the most important thing Black Friday taught me, though, is that anything worth having is worth fighting for. Except, perhaps, one's dignity.
CONTACT BOB WOODIWISS: bwoodiwiss(at)citybeat.com. His column appears here the last issue of each month. His book, Keys to Uncomfortable Living, a collection of humorous and satirical essays, is in bookstores now.