I took the day off yesterday. I needed it. Even with final exams looming ominously only a few short weeks away, even with all of the time I’ve spent here at America’s Right and away from the books, I didn’t study. Even with winter fast approaching in Philadelphia, even with a few downed leaves lounging around in my yard and in my now barren flower beds, I didn’t rake. Even considering how much I learn on a daily basis reading and debating and writing for this site, even considering the vast number of wonderful people who come here on a daily basis to see what this overworked, perpetually distracted law student has to say, I didn’t write.
Instead, I slept in a little bit on Saturday morning, my daughter in bed with my wife and I, the sweet sounds of Spongebob Squarepants in the background as a struggled to delay wakefulness for a few more precious minutes. Instead, we actually took nearly two hours and watched a movie in our living room. Instead, I goofed around and played hide-and-seek with my little girl. And, of course, since the entire day couldn’t be spent without some sort of accomplishment, we went shopping.
The first stop was a new Wal-Mart Supercenter. We’re on a budget, see, and come Thursday we’re cooking for 12. While Wal-Mart certainly has its detractors (though, to its merits, it is one of the most charitable organizations in the world), at this point in my life, as we struggle each and every month, I cannot afford to do my shopping at Whole Foods. We got everything we needed for a dozen people, everything from turkey to stuffing to green beans to [frozen] shrimp to potatoes and more, for $160. Hallelujah!
I noticed a few things there yesterday. First of all, the store wasn’t nearly as packed out as I suspected it would be. Secondly, it seemed as though even for Wal-Mart, the lower-priced items were flying off of the shelves. In the deli area, the lady behind the counter said that she didn’t even have time to put the cheaper stuff back into the case before being asked to slice them again, that the more premium meats and cheeses weren’t going anywhere. It was noticeable, she said. In another area, the remaining Butterball turkeys greatly outnumbered their generic counterparts, even though the better Butterball birds were only a few cents more expensive per pound. I overheard one couple—the woman was still faithfully wearing an Obama/Biden pin on her coat—saying that they needed to “be serious” this year. Apparently, Butterball turkeys are silly. For me, a guy who looks to be pushing into his second trimester, there’s nothing funny about fowl.
Our second stop was the King of Prussia Mall. The second-largest shopping mall in the United States of America, the King of Prussia Mall has been steadily getting more and more high-end over the past few years. Burberry, Hugo Boss, Armani, Salvatore Ferragamo, Ralph Lauren, Tiffany & Co, an entire luxury store devoted to shaving – you want it, and they’ve got it. We’d been there a few weeks ago looking for a Christmas dress for our daughter (adorable and only $14 at Sears, of all places – woohoo!), and having not been there in a while before that and honestly surprised at the nature of some of the stores, I couldn’t help but wonder how they would fare during this holiday season. How many people, after all, are looking to purchase their two-year-old a $150 dress at Lilly Pulitzer, their husband a $5000 chair at Williams-Sonoma Home, a $12,000 handbag at Louis Vuitton?
Yesterday, the mall was packed. I had to drop my wife and daughter at the door—in the cold weather, I would have done so anyway—and stalk a shivering Asian family just to find a parking spot. Finally, after a few minutes and with many thanks to that perturbed couple and their three adorable children, I wedged my hand-me-down minivan between an AMG S-Class Mercedes (read: $100,000 car) and some sort of Detroit monstrosity no doubt driven by an overtired soccer mom with an infant in one hand, a cellphone in another, and her knee on the steering wheel.
I was astounded by the crowds in the mall. At close to 1:30 in the afternoon, T.G.I. Friday’s had a one-hour wait, and we’d still be waiting if we hadn’t already eaten at home and wanted to eat lunch at The Cheesecake Factory. There was a line to see the new Blackberry Storm—it was disappointing—at the Verizon Wireless store, half of the people waiting to see the new phone playing with their old phone as they waited. People were literally packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the Apple store, everyone clamoring for the latest and greatest from Steve Jobs. Women were doing that “tilt” thing with expensive-looking dresses in Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, a season of hors d’oeuvres and shallow conversations ahead of them. A well-dressed man was laying, reclined in a dental-chair of sorts, getting a shave in the aforementioned luxury store while passersby looked at his scuffed-up shoes in the picture window. Even if I had been tempted to further expand my exponentially expanding waistline with a selection from Haagen-Dazs, I sure wouldn’t be able to find a seat at the enormous food court in which to plant my growing posterior and eat it. It was packed. People were everywhere, everyone with bags.
Here we are in America, facing down possibly the most dire economic circumstances we’ve ever seen, at least since the 1930s, and thousands upon thousands of people were throwing caution to the wind, in some of the most unimaginably expensive stores available, still a week removed from “Black Friday.” I’m not saying that my wife and daughter will not be receiving nice gifts this year, but our circumstances now and the country’s anticipated circumstances down the road demand a little more common sense and reticence on our part. Still, while I’m all for people spending money if they’ve got it, and I’m certainly nobody to suggest that they should refrain from doing so if they do not, I was nonetheless amazed at what I saw.
Quite a while after we arrived, we left the mall with little more than tired feet, sticker-shocked eyes, and a sleepy two-year-old. Our shopping, it seems, will be done at some new outlets which sprung up over the course of the past year. Nicer gifts for our family and friends, doing more with the little that we have.
In the meantime, I’ll be interested to see the retail numbers for the holiday season when they come out in early January. I firmly believe that things will get worse before they get better, and certainly will continue to do so should our president-elect quit being so pragmatic once he reaches the Oval Office, roll back the Bush tax cuts, and go hog-wild with his spend-happy plans and policies. Also, God forbid should anything more sinister happen on American soil again soon—I saw thousands and thousands of people at the mall yesterday, but not a single security guard—and these few months will look like the good ole’ days.
I suppose there’s no easy or right way to tell a few hundred million Americans to quit being so fat and happy and oh … so … oblivious. I suppose it would be foolhardy to even attempt to appeal to the teenagers in every other nook and cranny of the mall to be wiser with their money and more aware of their surroundings. Nobody really wants to hear that stuff. I can only encourage all of you to be careful, think twice, and remember that the real value of the holiday season is in time spent with family and friends.
That, and take a day off every once in a while. From pretty much everything, too. Unplug, de-Blackberry, and do what makes you feel good – play with your kids, hug your spouse and, if you have the chance, marvel at people who may have just lost 40 percent of their stock portfolio but felt it necessary to spend $650 on a pair of shoes.