Thursday, November 25, 2010

Black Friday

Long Island, New York. The date was November 28, 2008. It was almost 5:00 a.m. on Black Friday—the day when people across the country venture out to mega-retail stores in the early hours of the morning to save money on the most coveted gifts of the upcoming holiday season. A throng of 2,000 ravenous shoppers stood outside Wal-Mart in the dark of the early morning hours, screeching, chanting: “Push the doors in! Push the doors in!” This Black Friday started off like any other.

The crowd had become creature of its own, pulsing and throbbing and rocking with anticipation. All eyes were directed toward the entrance—the crowd lured to it like a horde of marauders eager to plunder a defenseless country village.

Time, for them, ticked too slowly. The doors would open at 5 o'clock, but shoppers couldn’t wait any longer. The crowd turned itself into a thousand-man battering ram, pressing itself against the automatic glass doors, which—once enough pressure was applied—burst off their hinges, permitting the crowd to funnel itself down the main corridor.

It was a stampede. And the shoppers had lost—long ago—all recognizable signs of their humanity. These weren’t men and women anymore; they were savages. Conscienceless, unfeeling, psychopathic, plastic-hungry, mass-manipulated savages.

A group of Wal-Mart employees inside had gathered in front of the doors to slow them down. Among them was Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year old maintenance worker from Queens. The crowd, upon entering—crazed and gleeful—unleashed maniacal battlefront cries. Some of the workers formed a barricade and stood fast as the mob swarmed in. Other workers—once they realized there was no hope at stopping them—took refuge atop pop machines.

On sale that day was a Samsung 50-inch Plasma HDTV ($798), a Bissel Compact Upright Vacuum ($28) and Wrangler Tough Jeans ($8).

Damour was knocked over. The soles of hundreds of feet marathoned across his body; life escaping his body with each footfall. Three others went down with injuries that day, including a woman who was eight-months pregnant. Damour died soon after, and it was announced on the speakers that the store would close.

Shoppers were said to exclaim, “I’ve been here since Friday morning!” before they continued on shopping.


I remember reading this in the news and feeling appalled. Though I can’t say I remember feeling surprised.

Just two months before—with the collapse of several banks—our economy was on the brink of disaster; many wondered how long and how bad this latest depression was going to be. It was baffling—I remember thinking—that people are running over people to get the latest reconfiguration of cheap plastic when in, supposedly, the “worst depression since the 1930’s.”

Black Friday. It just sounds evil, doesn’t it? For me, Black Friday is a day of mourning. It’s a day of loathing and embarrassment and pity. Black Friday is my day to go to Wal-Mart.

I go, not to buy, but to view this American spectacle like any great cultural event. Black Friday, to me, is like gladiators cleaving off limbs in the Coliseum; like a stoning in a marketplace; like witches burning alive for uncommitted crimes. Someday I hope that future generations will look upon Black Friday as we look with disgust at the marvels of our forebears’ moral depravity.

Last year, I spent my Thanksgiving break with my friend Chris in Charlotte. We woke up at 4:00 a.m., and drove the van to the nearest Wal-Mart.

I wanted to experience this cultural event for the first time; to take in all the ugly sights, smells and sounds. I wanted to be swept into the store by an unyielding wave of consumers; to see a pair of soccer moms claw at each other for the latest big-bosomed, wide-hipped doll; to rip an action figure from the hands of a toddler—for the sheer fun of it—and be martyred by a sweaty swarm of goateed dads.

But really, I wanted to sabotage Black Friday. I came in thinking I might be able to cause some sort of mass disruption. I pictured myself getting on the overhead speaker and making up fake deals. I’d send shoppers down the bouncy ball aisle before trapping them inside with strategically placed shopping carts on each end.

But none of this happened. While there were no stampedes, the amount of people there was staggering. The crowd made me feel small and insignificant, and stopping Black Friday, I quickly determined, would be like trying to stop some unstoppable natural process—like the wind or the rain or the ocean tides.

I slowly wove my way around an obstacle course of mid-aisle displays on wooden pallets, old ladies on electric carts, and herds of astoundingly large, cinnamon bun-shaped asses. Finally, I made it to the electronic section in the back of the store. There, the crowd was tightly circled around the cell phone counter, wearing expressions that suggested a mix of impatience and anticipation—discharging the sort of sweaty, farty vibe that brought to mind a rabble of colonists eager to raise a flaming effigy of some reviled monarch.

But for all the hustle and bustle, there was a strange orderliness to it all. Everyone looked a little bored and tired and fairly docile, but these moods, I could tell, were ready to rupture. Perhaps one more elbow to the ribs or shopping cart to the shin and these dead, zombie-like faces would come to life, and the crowd would descend into riotous anarchy.

The aisles were clogged; I could barely move. Shopping carts were brimming, spilling-over, overflowing with junk. They looked like overloaded Okie jalopies ready to topple over under the sheer weight of their contents.

Three-wheeled scooters, boxes of Legos, basketballs, George Foreman grill, stacks of DVDs, Mr. Coffee machines, Fur-real pets, radio-controlled trucks, and Zizo 62-inch LCD TVs.

One cart was crammed with multi-colored towels. One lady was guarding three carts in front of the registers. I spotted a child hidden amidst stuffed-animals in another cart. One man held a vacuum over his head like a soldier carrying his rifle in deep waters. There was a steady, indiscernible babble from the shoppers, but occasionally I could make out a line.

“This is too much. I didn’t get the pajamas.”

“You gotta be shittin me. I need Triple-A’s!”

“Sir, what about the Wii console?”

“Everybody’s in such a big hurry,” a man said in a southern drawl.

“Have you got everything you need so far?”

Isn’t it ironic how Black Friday comes after Thanksgiving—the day when we’re supposed to be thankful for the stuff we have? Then again, Thanksgiving, itself, seems like a ritual gone awry. I love the idea of a holiday that makes us reflect on what we have—but is that really what we do on Thanksgiving?

This is how my Thanksgiving typically transpires. My mom and aunt slave away in the kitchen, preparing food for hours while my father, brother and I watch football. I’ll deliberately starve myself until mealtime so I can preserve valuable stomach space. When it comes time to eat, I’ll wolfishly devour helping after helping of turkey, ham, potatoes, corn, stuffing, followed by pumpkin and chocolate pie until I’m surfeited. Rarely will dinner last more than 20-25 minutes.

By meal’s end, I experience a sort of paralysis. Suddenly the prospect of getting up and out of my chair seems daunting. My eyelids turn heavy, my belly has Homer-Simpsoned, and my belt buckle has suggestively come undone. I’m exhausted and lethargic, and because it seems unnatural—at this point—to do something productive, I’ll spend the rest of my evening sprawled in sweatpants, napping, watching movies, or playing video games.

Never during Thanksgiving do I take a moment to reflect on what it is I have and ought to be thankful for. I think about these things on a long hike, during in moments of strain and struggle. I think about what I love when I do without, not when I revel in hedonistic pleasure fests.

While not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving in such fashion, or participates in Black Friday shopping sprees, we’d be kidding ourselves to insist that this is not the norm for most Americans.

I can’t help but think: What the hell is going on? It’s like our culture has turned into some weird bizzaro, upside-down, opposite-land where our holidays bring out the worst in us; where people spend $75 on a new pair of jeans with holes in it; where a country’s health is measured by its GDP—and not by its citizens' actual health.

Thanksgiving is less a break from our standard way of living, and more an exaggerated version of it. We’ve become humans on holiday. And something is tragically amiss. Thanksgiving, to me, is a sad reminder of times past when we hunted and grew our own food; when food wasn’t shipped from the ends of the earth before being thoughtlessly inhaled. Believe me, I like the internet and laptops and cheap bananas from Ecuador, but they come with costs that aren't explained on the price tag. With frivolities gained, essentials are lost. Lost is our intimacy with the land, which is, I believe, essential for our physical and emotional wellbeing.

The degradation of our morals, I think, is linked to the degradation of our environment. And because the consumer-capitalist machine can only be fueled by mountaintop rocks and exotic oils, the machine—by its very nature—precludes those of us entrapped within the system from achieving a sense of homeostasis with our surroundings, and balance within ourselves. The machine hums nicely so long as we’re removed from the land, and ignorant of the machine's incalculable footprint.

But we’re never fully ignorant. Even if we aren't aware of our discordant relationship with nature, we—without knowing the source of the problem—become intimately acquainted with the relationship's many ugly side effects. We become plagued with a cornucopia of physical and psychological maladies—diabetes, obesity, heart disease, addictions of a thousand sorts, eating disorders, ADD, OCD. The ubiquity of these afflictions would make even the most doltish caveman scratch his extended brow in befuddlement at out backward ways.

Our whole economy is dependent on our “lose and use” culture. We buy shit, throw it away, and buy some more. It’s the American way. This culture, this lifestyle, to me, lacks even the faintest trace of common sense. But I understand why it advances on its destructive course unperturbed.

Without profligacy and waste there wouldn't enough jobs to go around. But jobs! “Jobs!” screeches the angry American. “I want jobs!” ::grunt, grunt, fart::

We’ve become dependent on the machine. Supposedly it’s up to our politicians to create jobs, half of which are—few care to notice—either detrimental to the environment or the human soul. This dependency, of course, is not a personal choice, but a product of the system in which we’ve grown up and been educated. Because we’ve been fashioned into codependent specialists—great at one thing and useless at everything else—to envision another way is almost impossible.

To take a job is to—more often than not—become a nut or a bolt that helps turn a gear in the mighty consumer-capitalist machine—each part crucial for the machine to function, yet useless on its own. We tend to think times are good when the unemployment rate is down, as if it’s a good thing that the majority of our population is pushing carts, flipping burgers, bagging groceries, or performing some other menial, card-punching, soul-sucking task.

No longer is this "work," but soulless, unfulfilling labor. And no longer are these "people," but automatons who must check their humanity at the automatic doors. They’re no longer Jdimytai Damour’s, but meaningless maintenance workers in the way of our $20 sale. When their only public function is to provide luxuries and pamper the next class up, these people come to be considered expendable, and they, themselves, can't help but feel expendable and alienated. They do not play a real or valuable or pivotal role in society, nor does their job provide them with a purpose in life outside of feeding their immediate families. All they get from their labor is a check every two weeks to buy meaningless crap of their own, purchased to justify their hard labor, and to instill a false sense of freedom.

I spent a good hour walking through Wal-Mart taking in the sights. On my way out, someone on the speakers announced “We have four 32-inch Sony’s for $478.” Two women began shouting at one another over a TV in one of their carts. My great plans of civil disobedience had been scuttled. Now I could only watch on in helpless horror.


Chris said...

Haha I was wondering when this story was gonna show up. You didn't mention the guy who was trying to shop lift the laptop by saying his wife had the receipt but then they both failed to produce it. By the way Toni is out shopping right now while I'm stuck at work.

P.S. I couldn't get your package mailed before yesterday so I'll be mailing it today if the post office is open and if not then Monday.

Miss-Fit said...

Black Friday and all it encompasses disgusts me on a primal level.

JR said...

Love it. I looked at the Target ad out of curiousity the other day and there wasn't. 1. single. thing. that I needed or wanted in it. What useless shit.

twokniveskatie said...

great post. i am hunkered down at home knitting my christmas gifts. i am grateful that i don't need to go out and shop today, that's what i am grateful for every thanksgiving.

kenavo said...

It is a shame, but economics depents on it.
This weekend we have a Breton party here organized by the association against genetic manupalation.
First we have a meal with friends; pumpkinsoup and selfmade bread and goatcheese.

We don't need stupid stuff!

Anonymous said...

Really good essay. There is something horribly awry when the economy is dependent upon the vast majority of the population behaving in a manner that is heavily detrimental to their own financial health. Not to mention any other aspect of their mental or physical health.

I avoid going out at all on Black Friday. It really does sound evil.


Ken said...

Chris--ha, totally forgot about the shoplifter. My plans for this year's Black Friday didn't pan out since the Wal-Mart I looked up and went to wasn't even there anymore. Couldn't say I was too upset. Look forward to the package!

Sarah--ha, indeed.

JR--I actually found myself checking out computer mouse's and a pair of headphones. Luckily I was able to walk away.

Hoboknitter-sounds like great xmas gifts. I'm proud to say that I won't be buying anybody anything, and that I expect anything from anybody. I'm sure it's more worthwhile for them to get and you to give something you've made.

Kenavo-- pumpkin soup!? Sounds delicious. I had some pie yesterday. Everything tastes good with pumpkin in it: beer, coffee, etc.

Mary--indeed. More and more, I'm intrigued with the Amish. Their lifestyles, the health of their communities, the health of the land they live on... We have a lot to learn from them.

DragonheartD51 said...

And I though payday on Friday was a B****. But yet again, I only go into town no more then two if not three times a month. Once again, love your stories Ken.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Ken. My take on it is that the powers that be and all-too-willing, happy-to-be-led "consumers" are succeeding in making the one holiday so far uncommerciaiized into a extravaganza of greed and, as you say, soullessness.

What's happening to our society is frightening. Thanks for doing your part to highlight this foolishness!

Nick G said...

Ken, you're a very talented writer. I also could really relate to these thoughts on consumerism.

Christmas is coming up, and it's the same old story. My family "celebrates" in the typical American/Canadian way, meaning buying crap that nobody needs.

It's hard to escape. I'm glad you write this blog. It gives me hope amidst such a dreary world.

I don't go as far as not giving presents, although I would love to. I do, however, insist on giving "experiences". That is, giving concert tickets instead of an MP3 player that will just be thrown out in a few years. Or a restaurant gift certificate rather than a new kitchen appliance.
This year I'm also going to experiment with homemade gifts.

It's time to put more meaning in the things we acquire and the gifts we give.

Ken said...

Dragon--ha, you still cash checks? I thought that whole process was digitized long ago. Two or three times monthly town visits sounds about right!

kim--It's certainly happening to our society, but I think it's been happening for centuries. I just picked up Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class" which has been superb.

Nice--nicely put. I'd been giving/getting gifts for xmas since I was a child. Most times, it's a fairly fulfilling process. There is certainly a joy to both giving and getting. But in many cases, I'd only buy because I felt obligated to. Apart from socks and underwear, my parents don't get me anything, and I don't feel obligated to get them anything. And xmas is just as good as it ever was (better, in fact, now that I don't have to spend the day before frantically looking for something to buy them to fulfill my gift-giving obligation). Tickets and homemade gifts sounds like a good compromise, though.

Lyndsie said...

I got a seasonal job to deal with the never ending influx of expenses that seem to always be coming my way. Unfortunately that job is at a large department store and I was assigned to work a twelve hour shift on Black Friday that started at 5am. I've had some shitty job experiences, but never have I felt as sad as I did last Friday. I was ignored, argued with, and even yelled at by angry customers. You're right, working retail sucks out your soul... What a flimsy foundation to build a country on.

Kevin M said...

I see it happened again this year, at a Target store, thankfully the guy didn't die when he was trampled. It is really disgusting that people resort to this behavior to save a few bucks on crap they don't need and probably can't afford.

I never saw the irony in it being the day after Thanksgiving, but you're right that does make it a little more sad. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it is not commercialized, simply a time to get together with good friends, family and food.

Ken said...

Lyndsie--I've had my fair share of retail jobs, too. The worst was when I cashiered for six months at a supermarket for $5.40 an hour. I remember not wanting to be alive on the days I had to work. Don't get me wrong, I love working. Even hard, difficult work. But it turns into something else when you're required to become a robot or when your day's labor "means" nothing other than a paycheck.

Kevin M--ugh. Didn't know about Target. I'm still amazed how people think we're in some sort of depression... Yeah, I realize the unemployment rate is high, but the standard of living is so much better than what it was in the 30's. Once we see some hoovervilles and a large tramp culture, I'm uncomfortable using the term depression.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work.... you're refreshing!

Buddhistgirl said...

My daughter turned 18 in July and decided to drop out of the rat race completely. She is living amongst the Redwoods, studying ecology, growing plants, and rebelling against the pointlessness of acquiring more crap.
I am proud of her. My Buddhist based philosophies were touching her somewhere deep in her soul and she has turned out wise beyond her years.
I wish you luck in your endeavors... keep in mind the teachings of Krishnamurti..." You transform society through your relationship with it" so stay away from Walmart! Ha, ha... if you're ever near Bainbridge Island I will make you a hot vegetarian meal and give you shelter for the night. Peace!

Ken said...

Anon- thanks!

Buddhistgirl--Ha... Believe me, I'm only going to Wal-Mart to see the spectacle--they can't corrupt me. I've always been fascinated with Buddhism; it's one of my side goals to stay at a monastery for a couple weeks. I'd love a roof for a night!

Anonymous said...

Incredible, insightful post. It's so comforting finding other kindred spirits, particularly around this hectic time of year. I'm envious your family doesn't do the whole exchange-of-meaningless-crap thing, too :P

Kristen said...

You write extremely well, seriously. Good luck with everything.

Ken said...

Allisino--I just started saying I didn't want any gifts. And because my parents knew I was in debt, or in this case, have very little money, they kept telling me that they didn't want any. Thanks for the kind words.

Kristen--thanks. I'm working on it.

Jason R. said...


Love the insights about popular culture. So disgusting at times . . . I have to admit, apparently unlike other commentators, to getting a certain joy from some purchases - like a nicer than necessary used car, or higher quality than necessary food. But as far as "stuff" goes, if it does not have value and utility, I cannot enjoy it! Keep up the great posts. You have an original mind and wonderful life experiences/perspective. You will have a lot to talk about as an old man . . .

Ken said...

Jason R--I think we all enjoy those "nicer than necessary" purchases or foods. I think lobster and shrimp are delicious--I'd eat them any day of the week before a more spartan fare like noodles and beans. I think I just become baffled when we do something we hate for 40 hours a week to obtain a pleasure that hardly seems worth all that strain. I'd love to have stories as an old man--I envision myself as some long, white-bearded recluse who is thought to be, by half the town, insane.

Dolly Iris said...

I remember that Walmart story. Horrifying.

This year I've missed all the holidays back home (Canada) and while I've been relieved to have avoided holiday stresses the things I miss the most surprised me.

On Christmas I skyped with my family and felt so jealous of the paper crowns they were wearing from their christmas crackers from dinner. I missed the glow of the lights on the tree. I missed the feeling of anticipation as I watched people around me open the gifts I had agonized over while picking them out.

I looked around me in Thailand and besides one street vendor selling Santa hats nobody cared. An eye opener for sure.

Megan said...

You've captured everything I detest about America. I appreciate all of the great things we have, as you said, but I don't believe they're worth the consequences. Thank you for this post.

Anonymous said...

To me, Black Friday will always be the day before my mom died. While people were hitting the stores buying crap made in China, my Black Friday 2008 was spent next to her deathbed with my dad awaiting the inevitable which finally came the following morning.
I can't really think of much else when it rolls around every year.

Anonymous said...

It's about culture. Well, you know, American consumer culture.
We all want to be a part of something. We want to belong. And every holiday season, we all get a chance to make ourselves feel like we are a part of the human family again.
It only lasts a couple of months and then we go back to our isolated lives. Paying on our debts. Living not much of a life.