It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and by that I'm not referring to the foggy mornings or the Christmas lights on houses or even the Christmas displays in the stores. I'm referring specifically to the mean-spirited throngs of vicious shoppers, clogging aisles and checkout stands inside the stores, threatening lives in the parking lots and giving peculiar "Santa is #1" salutes out their windows at other drivers on the road.
The day after Thanksgiving is the busiest shopping day of the year. When I worked retail, we called it "Black Friday" and vowed to keelhaul any associate who tried to call in sick. It's amazing. I actually went around to my favorite shops Friday evening with first aid kits to patch up my favorite baristas and clerks. By five p.m., they were shuddering and weeping, looking at the demolished remains of their stores, while their managers sat in the cash room with large grins and glazed eyes, counting the proceeds. Black Friday is a disturbing event that seems to me to be similar to what other countries experience after World Cup Soccer games. Driving through the parking lots, there are pedestrians flinging themselves defiantly out in front of cars; people in huge vehicles whipping through the lanes at mach 5; frustrated shoppers coming out and jumping on cars with baseball bats, breaking windshields; huge bonfires being lit with shoppers clad only in leaves and war paint dancing around burning "out of stock" tags. It's terrifying.
I blame the retail industry for creating the blood thirsty mobs. They lure shoppers out at six a.m., before most of them are awake and in full control of their bodily functions, and they do it with amazing, "too good to be true" sales that really are too good to be true. Because they're not. "Fabulous state of the art Schmell super-computer will run all video games, do your taxes, pilot the space shuttle, and solve world hunger -- $2.50 between 6 a.m. and 12 p.m. While supplies last." Sure, they have computers for sale that will do that, and they'll give them to you at that price. But there are only three of them, for advertising that went out to billions of people worldwide. The result: your community's streets are clogged with thousands of immigrants from Sacramento, Fresno, Baton Rouge, Beijing, all of whom are there to buy Schmell supercomputers for $2.50. The same three Schmells that were purchased at 6:01 a.m. by an insomniac, a World Cup soccer fan and the store manager's wife, respectively. That means every man, woman and child in the Western hemisphere is out driving madly about, going from one sale to the next, only to find that they are too late, and all the good stuff is already gone -- at every store they go to. By eight a.m., they are frantic, law-breaking daredevils. By ten a.m., they're savage, speeding sociopaths. By twelve noon, they are no longer human. This phenomenon recently inspired a movie. 28 Days was originally supposed to be 28 Shopping Days Until Christmas, but they felt it was too frightening, so they took out the references to holidays in the retail sector and instead made it about a man-made plague that turns people into homicidal zombies. Anyone who was out shopping on Black Friday will instantly recognize the truth, regardless of the script changes.
Of course the day after Thanksgiving was just the start. It's only been a week, but there is no longer any such thing as a simple errand. Everywhere I go, I'm wading through a morass of shoppers, all savagely bemoaning their missed opportunity to buy a Schmell. I'm half tempted to spend next weekend in Visalia or Eureka, just wandering through their stores in an ill-temper and driving dangerously through their parking lots, because I am convinced that's what other people are doing. We can't possibly have this many more consumers in the Manteca-Ripon area all of a sudden. They've got to be coming from over the Altamont to do their shopping here.
I did, however, in the midst of all the bustle and furor, experience a Christmas miracle. An hour to navigate what is normally a fifteen minute drive to the DMV. People flinging themselves heedlessly in and out of turn lanes and shopping center parking lots. The entire state of Iowa out browsing for that perfect something for cousin Eunice. In the midst of all that, I went into the DMV because they had failed to mail me the registration form for my car tags.
"No problem," smiled a clerk. "That happens a lot. I'll waive those late fees for you." I was helped quickly. I was helped cheerfully. All my paperwork problems were solved with no hassle and no fuss. I nearly wept with joy.
What kind of world is it where normal shopping is like the mosh pit at a Pearl Jam concert while a trip to the DMV is pleasant and efficient? Is it Bizarro World? The Twilight Zone? Governor Schwarzenegger's New California? Nope. It's just beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
This article first appeared in a December issue of the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin