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I like to think I'm a reasonable man. I've accomplished childhood goals. Traveled all over the world. Dined with heads of state. Yet here I am, pulling into the overflow parking area at 11:55 p.m. on Thanksgiving night for Target's Black Friday sale.
What's perhaps sadder is that I set an alarm for this. Rested up. Went to sleep at 9:30 p.m. to get two hours so I could be fresh. But I'm not fresh. I'm groggy and irritable. And standing in line in 45 degree weather with 300 other people isn't helping.
At midnight, the doors open, but the line moves slow. Strategizing goes on around me. "Electronics first" they seem to be saying. "Then toys, then housewares."
By 12:05 a.m., carts are already rolling out with Westinghouse 46" TVs for $298. The man in front of me emphatically asserts his theory that a store only has to sell one TV at the advertised price for it to be "legal." "Then they can charge what they want." He's clearly been burned before.
By 12:10 a.m. I'm inside. I get one of the last carts. Elbow-to-elbow and wheel-to-wheel down most aisles.
I opt to go straight to toys as my big-ticket items are child-related. Score. An end-cap is still stocked with "My First Disney Princess Doll and Matching Toddler Dresses." I go with the Rapunzel from "Tangled," a fan-favorite at my house. I try to push my cart around the corner to the "Ultimate Disney Princess Collection 7-Doll Gift Set," but it's packed. I leave my cart. I go and pick one out. The entire process takes maybe two minutes. But when I return, my cart is gone, Rapunzel doll and all.
Now, I don't know if there is a Hell, but let me say something I'm sure of: If around 12:20 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 25, the year of our Lord 2011, you stole a shopping cart with a "My First Disney Princess Doll and Matching Toddler Dress," you're a really, really bad person.
Now I'm carrying everything I pick up. The Rapunzel, the Princess Collection, Portable DVD Player, 80-Piece Bag of MegaBloks, two plush pillows, Dora the Explorer footy-pajamas, and Princess slippers, all in my two arms.
A cart. A cart. My kingdom for a cart. I go to the front of the store where the same affable guy has shrugged his shoulders at me at the last three requests. My arms are killing me. I have desperation in my eyes.
"I will give you the five dollars I'm going to save on these two puppy-dog themed hooded bath-towels if you will get me a cart."
He shrugs again, smiling, "I'm sorry, man." I drop everything in my arms at his feet. "Then watch these for me."
I go outside. A solid five minutes of searching, cussing, leads me to one. I head back in and collect my things. "Nobody took 'em," the seemingly unoccupied cart valet says. I seethe.
I pick up a few more items and head for the check-out. I'm nudged, bumped and snarled at on every aisle. This is America.
When I finally make it to the line, I stand in both awe and despair. Fifteen years ago, I was reading Marx and underlining every gutting critique of capitalism (which are still stunning, no matter how short-sighted his prescription for an alternative). Yet here I am, at least two hours after my normal bedtime, in a line that snakes in and out of 38 aisles, so I can afford the toys my kids want in the midst of the shittiest economy of any of our lifetimes. An economy that's not helped, but now depends on this kind orgiastic spending every holiday season. How bad do you want it? Do you want it at all?
When I slide my card, though, I feel my first instance of pride. My total savings is around $127 dollars. Pretty good deal for a fiasco.
On the way out, I decide to treat myself. Marx made good points, but he recedes in the rearview when faced with popcorn and fountain Coke for $1.96.
I fill my mouth and push my cart into the cold, dark night, sighing to myself, "...deal of the day."