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Silver Bells

Diary of a patriotic Christmas shopper

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

The economy needed me.

I saw it on TV and read it in the paper. And as I lay there in bed last Friday morning, belly still leaden with layers of mashed potatoes, stuffing, yams, coleslaw, two kinds of cranberry sauce and three kinds of pie, I swear I could hear it calling: "Help meeeeee! Help meeeeee! Bring your wallllllllllet! Bring your credit caaaaarrrrds! I'm mellllltttinnnggg! Meeeooo-oowwwrrr!"

Actually, that last one was my cat yowling for breakfast. But the rest of it, I'm pretty sure, was the economy. I don't understand much about the economy, mind you. And I don't think that whatever's wrong with it is really my fault. I've checked my account ledgers and from what I can tell, my personal levels of revenue and expenditures have remained pretty stable. I kept up my hardy consumption of food and beer and books and wine and recorded musical products and vodka through the dark days of the dot-com failures, when many of my friends were cutting back. The week of September 11, as our leaders rushed to assure us that everything would be all right as long as we kept spending money, I pitched right in. I increased my bar tabs significantly, as well as my outlay on ibuprofen and coffee. I even went out and bought a big new piece of furniture (90 days same as cash—who can resist?).

But obviously it wasn't enough. The economy's ailments were starting to hit close to home. Two friends had been laid off within weeks of each other. Airlines were threatening to suspend all snacks. In my own office, there was talk of substituting Maxwell House for our traditional organic hand-picked Mexican growers' cooperative brew. Maxwell House! Things were bad.

So, levering myself to a semi-upright position in bed, and bravely ignoring the resulting gastro-intestinal turmoil, I resolved to do my part. It was the day after Thanksgiving, the nominal start to the biggest consumption season of them all, and I had a duty to my country. I called up my significant other on the phone. "Significant other," I said (she loves it when I call her that), "it's time for us to stand up and be counted. Ask not what the economy can do for us—ask what we can do for the economy! Let others stay home and tally their 401Ks and hoard their credit limits. When the final accounting comes, let no one say that we flinched in the face of insolvency, that we feared to swim in the seas of red ink. It's time to go spend some money!"

After a breakfast of toaster-oven waffles as seen on TV and a quick shower (I know from careful persusal of advertising campaigns that personal hygiene is very important to the economy, and I didn't want to be disrespectful), we were on the road and easing into a parking lot by about 9:30 a.m. We decided to begin our patriotic shopping by paying our respects at one of the capitalist system's grandest temples, that monument to bulk consumption and volume selling known to our people as Sam's Club.

On entering the store, I was a little disappointed at both the volume and mood of the clientele. Aisles were surprisingly sparsely populated, and the people I saw were almost uniformly grim in their bearing. Despite the holiday music emanating from somewhere within a towering display touting the animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer video, there was little cheer to be found. Shoppers huddled in familial clusters, murmuring in low tones and making hesitant gestures toward computer software and audio-visual equipment. Upon reflection, however, I realized that these people were merely taking their duty seriously. These were my countrymen, and we were united in our determination to bolster the consumer confidence index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the earned run average and other numbers we didn't understand. This was no time for merriment. I promptly banished "O Little Town of Bethlehem" from my head, where it tends to take up residence between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and replaced it with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Mine eyes have seen the glory of the...hey, are those chocolate almonds on sale?

Within a few minutes, the significant other and I had settled on a handful of purchases. I found a nice jacket for a family member at what seemed like a reasonable price. Checking the tag, I noted it said "Made in the Philippines," which gave me some pause. Was it really helping our economy to buy something from the Philippines? Were the Philippines our friends or our enemies? Where were the Philippines, anyway? And if they were our friends, could we just call them Phil? But in Sam's we trust. I bought the jacket.

Next stop was the mall in East Knoxville that used to be called East Towne. This always made sense to me, since the other mall is in West Knoxville and is called West Town (well, the difference in the "Town(e)" spellings didn't make sense, but the rest of it did). But the east mall is now called "Knoxville Center," which just confuses me. The only thing it's in the center of is East Knoxville, but for some reason "East Knoxville Center" obviously didn't appeal to the mall-naming people. However, I quickly dropped this line of thought out of fear that it might not be good for the economy.

The mall was more crowded than Sam's Club, but I still didn't see the surging humanity I expected. This surprised me, given the tireless patriotism of our fair city. All I could surmise was that there was some grander strategy, that I was merely part of the first wave that had gone in to pave the way for a later mass onslaught. Like in that Steven Spielberg movie, where the army guys landed on the beach even though the French guys were shooting at them. Or was it German guys? My chest filled with pride at the thought, and I looked at my significant other with new admiration. It made me feel like we were in one of those ads for the Marines, where they fight wizards and dragons. Maybe we could go see Harry Potter later in the day.

In a big department store, I tried on a sportcoat that my significant other wanted to buy me for Christmas. It was nice, made by somebody named Ralph (not Ralph Nader, though—I've heard he's bad for our economy). It said it came from Taiwan, which I'm pretty sure is kind of a state, like Puerto Rico and Guam. I didn't know Ralph was a Taiwanese name, but you learn something new every day.

The mall was decorated in its normal holiday get-up, Christmas trees and elves and a big Santa's House where children could be patriotic by encouraging their parents to purchase packs of photographs of them sitting on Santa's lap ($19.95). A few of the parents appeared to have brought their own cameras. I wondered how they were ever going to help the economy that way, but I tried not to grimace at them. There were also lots and lots of flags and red-white-and-blue streamers, the way the mall usually looks around the 4th of July. It was like all the great holidays were getting together to give the economy a big party!

At a leather goods store (with a "United We Stand" poster in the window), my eye was caught by a handsome brown jacket. I had wanted a leather coat for quite some time, though I had always been put off by the expense. But that was in my selfish days, when I was only thinking about what I could afford and what I actually needed. Everything was different now. When so many were giving so much, who was I to refuse? The pleasant young saleswoman presented me with a quandary, however, when she noted that there was a jacket of identical cut that differed only in its use of lambskin rather than cowskin. I tried on both coats. The lambskin was softer, the cowskin seemed more durable. They cost the same, so choosing one over the other wouldn't have any negative economic impact. I turned to my significant other.

"Which are more patriotic," I asked, "cows or sheep?"

"Cows," she said. "Sheep are all from New Zealand and Australia."

I realized she was right. After all, when you drive across the heartland of this nation, what do you see out there on the prairies, fattening themselves up on behalf of the American dairy and beef industries? Not sheep, I can tell you that. I bought the cowskin and started humming "Git Along Little Dogies." The jacket's tag says "Made in China," which I think is a town in San Francisco.

We had exhausted the mall, but our credit cards were just getting warmed up. Fortunately, there was still all of West Knoxville to go. At West Town, I was pleased to finally see the swarms of people I expected. The second wave had hit, and we were a mighty army to behold, marching forth in our Dockers and Timberlands and red reindeer sweaters. It occurred to me that the mall at that moment probably had a collective credit limit equal to some small, unfortunate nation's gross national product, and I felt again the pride known only to those with monumental purchasing power.

At a store apparently dedicated to West Coast attire, I found some nice shirts on sale. I thought my brother would like one, and I took it to the cash register. The clerk rang it up, smiled, and said, "That'll be $42." I hesitated to correct her, since I knew she was only doing her part for the economy, but I pointed to the sign that said "2 for $50!" "Oh," she said, "that's only if you buy two. If you buy one, it's the usual price." Having proceeded this far with the purchase, it occurred to me that my brother-in-law would also probably enjoy one of the shirts (made in Mexico, which you have to admit is practically in the United States), and I promptly pulled one from the racks to satisfy the sale-price requirement. Leaving the store, I reflected on the merchant's great wisdom in constructing a sales strategy that enticed me to spend twice as much in the store as I originally intended. With friends like these, I didn't think the economy had much to worry about.

Before the day was out, my significant other and I also visited and patronized (Or is it incentivized? Can anyone tell me what incentivize means?) major retailers of toys, electronics equipment and fast food. Retiring to a coffee shop to rest after our day of duty, we congratulated each other on a job well done.

The warm feelings didn't last long, however. The next day, I read that the consuming season was off to a sluggish start, down 8 percent from the previous year. Eight percent! While I don't like to point fingers, it's clear that some Americans aren't doing their part. I'm pretty sure it's not me. But just to be positive, I think I'll go back to the mall this weekend. There's a sweater sale at Banana Republic, and while I'm fairly happy with my sweater selection, I suppose one of those merino wool jumpers couldn't hurt. After all, this isn't about me.

November 29, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 48
© 2001 Metro Pulse