Black Friday

(No, you're not seeing double. I scooted this on up here...)

Thanksgiving Day. We’re all lounging around post gorge, high on tryptophan. My mother-in-law tosses me a stack of glossy four-color store adverts announcing the unbelievable never-to-be-duplicated one-day sales that will occur during hours of the morning when I'm just getting in some of my best Zzzzzzs. My first response is, "When a pig flies."

Then she shoves in front of my nose an ad for Circuit City and $9.99 CDs/$12.99 DVDs, and a 50% coupon for A.C. Moore, only the most excellent craft store to ever exist on the face of the earth. I'm still not tempted.

Well, maybe a bit.

She further whets my curiosity by telling me that early-morning shopping on Black Friday is one of those extraordinary happenings that everyone should experience if only once; that I'll observe oddities of human behavior usually reserved for carnival sideshows, witness the uglification and distorted faces of humanity I've only read about in Stephen King novels, see in bright light the dark soulless materialism that has heretofore only been hinted at during President‘s Day and January White Sales.

Now the student of life and lover of the macabre in me has been roused.

Stay over at my house tonight, my mother-in-law says. Your girls can sleep-in with me while you are out shopping.

Hmmmmm...maybe just this once, just to say that I've done it, like running with the bulls, eating live monkey brain, or drinking an entire fifth of tequila by myself….just this once.

5:00 AM. My alarm goes off. I hit snooze and return to my dream about Johnny Depp.

5:10 AM. My alarm goes off. I hit snooze and dream of me and Johnny Depp at Circuit City.

5:15 AM. My alarm goes off. I pull the plug. I try to go to sleep, but in my smitten dream, Johnny Depp has just elbowed my gut and beat me to the last copy of Chicago at only $12.99 and now I’ll have to pay full price for my niece’s Christmas present. I wake up in a cold sweat, my heart racing.

5:45 AM. I’m in the car in the dark, driving up Interstate 83. I haven’t showered and I haven’t had a cup of coffee. I’m running on pure adrenaline. There is no one else on the road except for me and one other guy driving an old Chevy pickup truck. I pass him. He stares at me. I stare at him. Are we getting off at the same exit? Where is he heading? He can fit an awful lot of CDs and DVDs in that truck. If I swerve quickly, I can nudge him off into the shallow ravine along the shoulder. Maybe…maybe. Instead, I step on the gas, but the guy in the Chevy doesn’t challenge me. I cut in front of him and zoom off the ramp to Prospect Avenue. The truck sails by me, continuing north up the highway. Sucker.

5:48 AM. Still not a lot of cars on the road. Is this early morning Black Friday panic a bust? A trickle of doubt begins to erode my confidence. Am I going to be the only idiot in the store at 6:00 AM with all the salespeople either laughing at me or cursing me for further perpetuating this Black Friday urban legend resulting in their needing to be in the store en masse, still half-drunk from the previous day’s overload on Beaujolais Nouveau? Maybe I should turn around and go back to sleep. I feel downcast. Am I a fool?

5:49 AM. I pass the mall. Every space in the parking lot is filled. Now a wave of anxiety rumbles through me…who are these people whose cars fill the lot at this hour when both angels and demons still sleep? I feel as if I’m witnessing some awful evidence of ungodly cult activity. Credit card carrying zombies, ripping off and eating the flesh of the uninitiated. Then, I catch my gaze in the rearview mirror and see wild, glazed-over eyes staring back at me. I grip the wheel, stare ahead, and drive on.

5:52 AM. I drive past Best Buy, another electronics store like Circuit City. There is a line of about 600 people waiting outside the store. I remember having seen a Best Buy ad for a $150.00 computer sale from 6 AM until 8 AM. I am afraid. I decide to revise my plan of going to Circuit City first and instead head for the craft shop, banking on my guess that there won’t be as large a line waiting to get at the $3.49 fake pine swags.

5:59 AM. I pull into the parking lot for A.C. Moore. I park near the front of the store. I take this proximity of parking as a good sign. My pulse begins to race. There are a few women walking into the store, women in sweat suits and wearing no makeup (an ill-omen in the suburbs), an old lady in dungarees and Christmas-themed sweater, a thin guy with a slight hunchback. I eye them carefully. I’m pretty sure I could take them in a brawl over the last swag.

6:00 AM. The lights are so bright, so bright. The fluorescent supernova inside the store immediately makes my temples pound and my skin burn. There is an equally bright-eyed hostess greeting customers. She looks so awake and clean. "Good morning! Please allow me to validate your coupon!" She stamps a smiley face on my coupon to mark my eligibility for the extra discount, the additional pennies-off for sacrificing my precious life-extending sleep to the gods of consumerism. All of a sudden, I’m hit with the realization that I’ve been awake for a half hour without the aid of culturally-sanctioned yet highly-addictive stimulants.

"Are you serving coffee?" My tongue feels like a fuzzy tube sock in my mouth.

The hostess‘ face twitches and for a brief moment the benevolence in her eyes disappears, and I am staring into the black, mascara-ed twin holes of Satan. Then just as quickly, she is again all sweetness and light.

"Oh dear, no we aren’t serving coffee. But that would be a good idea for next year!"

Next year. What do these words mean? Where am I? Why are the lights so bright?

6:05 AM. I’m leaning against a shopping cart and the cart is moving down the aisles in fits and starts, propelled by the weight of my body continually falling forward. My adrenaline rush has waned. I’m disoriented, delirious, loopy…I stare at shelves of 40% off silk stems…so colorful, so pretty. I remember a purple vase, a vase that I had wanted to fill with something that would match my orange dining room. I pick up a flower. I have no idea what it is…something fluffy that looks like a spray-painted, pink weed.

This would look nice, orange and pink… orange and pink…orange and pink…

Orange and pink?

I twirl the weed between my fingers and a few bits of pink fluff fall to the floor. My temple-throb moves and focuses itself to a fine pinpoint of pain between my eyes. I put the weed in my cart. Then I take it out. Then I put it in again. Then I take it out again. After the fifth time, I hold the weed close to my face and look at it for a long, long time. I have no memory of what made me pick it up in the first place. Without knowing why, I stick my tongue out and taste the weed. It’s tangy. Uh-oh..did anyone see me do that? I look at the price tag. $3.99. 40% of $3.99 is…is…carry the decimal point…four times nine…uhhhhhh. The weed sheds a few more fluffs. I know it’s a bargain. I think. It is a bargain, isn’t it? I look back to the rows and rows of silk weeds and flowers I’ve yet to pick up and twirl and the colors are so obscenely intense and all of a sudden it all becomes so overwhelming and my mouth gets dry and I can smell the hot beads of sweat soaking through my armpits and I want nothing more than to take a shower and brush my teeth and crawl into a dark room and pass out…

6:06 AM. I return the weed to the shelf. I lean against the cart and it moves on.

6:07 AM. Why am I here? What have I done with my life? Why are we on this earth? Is there a such thing as altruism or does the feeling of satisfaction over an otherwise selfless act negate that act’s being altruistic? Will I die alone or among friends? My cart is still empty. Is my life meaningful or empty as this cart I push? Who am I? Who am I?

6:10 AM. Oh my god…100 colored lights for $4.00. And the kind where if one light goes out, the whole strand still stays lit. I throw four boxes into my cart. I continue down the aisle. I do not look back. My mind is still.

6:30 AM. A woman rounds a blind corner created by a pyramid of glass etching kits (just reduced to $19.99) and bumps into my cart. She was not looking where she was going. It is her fault. She is to blame. She looks to me, ready to accept my judgment and just punishment, knowing that were the situation reversed on this most stressed-out of mornings, she would deliver her own frustrated grunt in my direction. Instead, I smile at her. "Early morning!" I joke "We’re all sleepwalking without our coffee!" She is relieved - I think - sincerely thankful for my easy-going and sincere benevolence. I walk on, pleased with my power to - in my own small way – begin a small vibration of love, transform the universe. What a good person I am. I rule.

6:31 AM. I decide to bag my trophy and get out of the store while still high on my love vibe. What was my mother-in-law talking about anyway? Beside the caffeine headache and one piddling moment of existential doubt over my purpose in life, this all-hallowed and all-dreaded shoppers’ day wasn’t so bad. Black Friday indeed. Pffft. Novice.

6:33 AM. I am in the checkout line. The tight-lipped woman ahead of me is buying a silver photo frame. The slouching young girl who is the cashier tells the tight-lipped woman that the silver photo frame she is buying does not have a SKU sticker price tag on it. The tight-lipped woman tells the cashier that she is sure that she picked up a frame with a SKU sticker price tag, that she always checks twice to make sure that the item she is bringing to the register has a SKU sticker price tag on it. The cashier glazes over, snaps her gum, and with a tossed-off mumble, directs a dopey-eyed lackey who has been leaning in the corner chewing his nails to fetch another frame that does have a SKU sticker price tag on it. The dopey-eyed lackey picks at a pimple on his face and begins ambling past the silver frame woman, past me, stops, calls down to his buddy Kev to find out if Wayne has come back yet with the Egg McMuffins, Kev can’t hear what the lackey has just said, the lackey repeats his questions a bit louder and with more phlegm in his throat, Kev says that no he doesn’t think that Wayne is back yet with the Egg McMuffins, and through this all I can feel a small black flame of pure anger begin to burn in the pit of my stomach and the flame begins growing larger into something darker and more hostile and consumes all of the good feeling I had previously cached during my exchange with that clumsy woman who had willfully run her cart into mine. That spiteful woman who was probably trying to distract me in an argument so that she could steal my fabulous GE 100 count colored lights -or worse! -take my lights and in their place leave an evil, molting pink weed. And now this - this tight-lipped woman who purposely pulled the SKU sticker price tag off the silver frame just so that I would have to wait a little longer to get out of this fluorescent-lit inferno, this labyrinth of angst and madness….have to wait longer until I could burst forth from this buyer’s bedlam and rush into the parking lot, released, the brisk morning air clearing my mind and cooling my underarms, a crisp white shopping bag clenched in my fist, my white flag of victory on this darkest of holidays…

6:34 AM. The cashier snaps her gum again.

6:40AM. I stand up straight. I release my grip from the shopping cart. I turn and begin walking toward the back of the store, my thoughts focused, my vision tunneling, searching for one thing. I stride tall and fast, brushing past a display of $4.99 poinsettias (reduced from $9.99), weaving through two tables of Novelty Votive Holders in the shapes of snowmen and Santas (3 for $2.00), leaping over a 10 foot mixed-greens garland that has snaked off the shelves and into the aisle. I pass the art supply aisle and in my peripheral vision, I catch the lackey, slack-jawed and scratching the inside of his nose with a purple dual-line marker. No matter how much I want to momentarily alter my course and shove the marker up the other nostril of Young Einstein, I resist the urge. I will not be deterred. I find the picture frame aisle. I find the silver frame. I find the SKU sticker price tag on the frame. I stride toward the front of the store with frame in hand, dodging, weaving, leaping aside when the same woman almost hits me again with her cart. She does not say "Excuse me". This time I stop and look her in the eye. She meets my gaze - at first with smug arrogance - but then she sees that I shine with awful mantle of righteous shopper’s wrath. She is afraid and looks away. "Go forth and shop" I command her "just watch where you’re going." She is grateful. And repentant. I give her one last inspired word of advice. "Check your SKU sticker price tags."

6:42 AM The tight-lipped woman is reading a book on embroidery and the cashier is digging at her cuticles with an Exacto knife. I lean my arm past the tight-lipped woman and place the silver frame near the register. The cashier and the tight-lipped woman both look at me and say nothing. "This frame has a SKU sticker. Ring’er up." The tight-lipped woman and the cashier keep looking at me and still say nothing. I feel the rage rising up in my throat and for an instant I feel afraid at what that rage might sound like when it finally comes out of my mouth. I honestly have no idea…

"Listen....I have no idea why I came out this morning. I have no idea why I am here. I am too physically weak and too emotionally high-strung to compete in this bargain shoppers' gauntlet. I admit it. Okay? There. My mother-in-law sent me out to meet the monster, and this morning and I have found out – unequivocally and quite upsettingly - that the monster is me. Do you understand? Yes…I am crazy…yes, you are right to raise your eyebrow and roll your eyes at me. I get it. I'm completely whacked right now….But listen to me and listen carefully, Sister… If I don’t get out of this store within the next two minutes, I swear to God, my head is going to explode and for the next two weeks you’ll be cleaning bits of my skull off your $7.99 appliqué holiday flags and wiping globs of my lunatic gray matter from your buy-one-get-one-free Styrofoam craft forms so please..PLEASE…PLEASE…..just ring up the SKU sticker price tag on this silver frame, ring up my order and LET ME OUT OF HERE!"

6:48 AM. I am in my car. I am driving back home on Prospect Avenue. My mind is clear. My underarms are cool. Two white bags lay on the car seat next to me. After my speech at the register and before the cashier had rung me up, some crazed impulse made me dash back to grab one more bargain. Now, next to the bag of GE 100 count color lights, the second white bag lays, a tip of pink fluff poking through the top.

6:50 AM. I am approaching the exit for Circuit City. I do not take it.

7:14 AM. I am in bed again. Finally. I am dreaming about Johnny Depp. In my dream, Johnny Depp is begging me to trade my fluffy pink weed for his copy of Chicago on DVD. This time, I'm not taken by his charm and when he makes a move on my prized bargain, I land an expertly placed hip check and knock him back. I tell him to go get his own fluffy pink weed. My fluffy weed is in its purple vase in my orange room and there it shall remain ever more…a once-in-a-lifetime souvenir, a sober pink warning. I tell Johnny Depp to go away and let me sleep. Wake me in an hour or two. Better yet, wake me when it’s Saturday.

7:15 AM. I snuggle down and drift deeper into dreamless sleep.

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