IVAN ILLICH IN THE BIG BOX
Looking back on it, the whole adventure among the acres of ‘stuff’ was just a typical American-mall shopping day. “Maybe, I’m really getting old,” he thought. “There was that incident at Christmas, during the rush.” He recalled Wal*Mart, being somewhat ashamed at shopping in a place he loathed for the deepest of reasons. “Yep, Wally World, for sure.“ Yet, still, there he was shuffling about for necessary cheap must-haves that his Social Security check barely covered from month to month.
There is a naturally rising self-loathing that occurs when reality trumps truth and long held convictions surrender to survival. “What a hell hole,” He thought, as jumbo people and screaming, annoying, whining children swarmed in streams of brutal-looking metal carts filled with decorations, metallic rolls of paper which reminded him of psychedelic insect antennas, bold-printed garments, brightly colored plastic, garish ornaments and huge bundles of toilet paper. He thought, “ If children hate it—-can’t be good.“
The noise, rattling, screeching and loud intercom paging was deafening. His head felt large, his feet grew leaden and un-responsive, sweat broke out and he said to himself, “Jeezum Crow, am I having a stroke?” He rarely profaned or swore, but since he figured in an instant that it didn’t matter in “hell’s-ville” he let go—-to his inner self.
No stroke, but the vast arena of shopping gladiators did grow dim for a minute or two and he rushed through the exit, going through the ‘In’ door and there, just outside was a small bench near a garbage can, which reeked of Diet Pepsi and hovered above a greasy scattering of cigarette butts. His ride had expected to return thirty minutes from then, thinking that, a goodly amount of time to ’do’ Wal*Mart.
Pretending he wasn’t fastidious, he hesitated about the sticky spot on the bench where he was going to land and took out a handkerchief to place it there. A kind woman, who sat next to him said, “Gosh, I haven’t seen one of those in ages. I didn’t realize people still carried cloth ones.” Thinking of Agatha Cristie’s futtsy detective, Hercule Poirot, his stomach churned and he prayed that the woman would just go away. She did.
He knew though, that all the smiley, “How may I help you” s in the universe couldn’t get him to re-enter and find that Celestial Seasonings, decaf, coconut chai tea that his best friend Mary, said was to die for. Then he got the joke he just told on himself and realized that yes, this is exactly how old people deal with themselves. All that used to be ironic is real now.
“Imprisoned in one’s mundane narcissism,” he thought, somewhat pretentiously, and re-embarrassed himself—–again. “Maybe I need to volunteer somewhere and escape this nonsense.” All these thoughts occurred in seconds. Though, to him, it seemed as if some time had passed. “Twenty-five more minutes to go.”
While he was waiting on the bench and watching people pass by, in and out, up and down, here and there, he realized a one consistency. A very young boy and his sister were selling mistletoe—-real mistletoe. Not far off, their father was watching with a box of the green, white berried holiday cheer and he realized with a jolt what it was all about.
This clean-cut, immaculate family were selling the gleanings from their winter backyard to make ends meet and have a holiday, like they always used to, until Dad got canned, ‘downsized’ as they say. “Damn, is this a neo-Dickens novel or what?,” he said to himself and he felt incredibly tired with all the grief his years knew. So, he spent his entire Celestial Seasonings and Prilosec money to buy most of the mistletoe. There he sat until his ride arrived, leaving the mistletoe on the bench for the boy to retrieve as he got in and swore that he just couldn’t do this again for awhile.
That was then, some months ago. This time it was Costco and he was under the wing of a better situated friend, who actually had to pay a membership fee to shop. “Figures,“ he thought. “After all, this old farmland that once produced prunes, now calls them ‘dried plums‘.“ And, instead of orchards, there’s these god awful acres of parking.” “ Ridiculous,“ he fussed to himself. Such associations made sense to him. It never occurred to him that his infernal ‘kaveching’ had become a hobby of sorts.
He knew that his tiny freezer couldn’t begin to store the bulk packages of chicken parts required for the incredible savings—-over-all. He needed a lifetime supply of batteries and water filters though. “It might work out. This is kind’a like a gated community Wal*Mart.”
The parking lot was enormous—-the size of a small farm and all covered with asphalt. When he got out of the car he took a few moments to wonder whether or not the asphalt was actually black, dark gray or aubergine. “Crazy as hell,” he thought to himself. “ ‘SO’ gay.” “Better focus.”
Still, he pursued the trivial observation that, no matter how many decades passed, parking-lot foliage, trees in particular, never seemed to grow and mature. They always looked new and decorative. “I wonder if they come late in the night, or the wee hours of the morning and replace them every so often?” By then he was about to enter the tide stream flowing into the giant maw of Costco’s front warehouse doors, which reminded him of U.S. Customs for some reason. For a brief moment, he got paranoid and felt nervous about something, undefined.
His friend Barbara would probably call it one of ‘those’ Catholic episodes. But, he was more prone to shame than guilt and wondered if his dishabille, always-in-black sweat pants, ratty sweater, elder sneakers and blue Michigan baseball cap made him look like a white-haired, older version of Michael Moore. He realized he fit in perfectly among the creatures of Wally World, and instinctively felt defensive about the prosperity of Costco’s higher station. “Jeezum,” he thought, “I used to wear Brooks Brother’s suits, Sulka dress shirts and Hermes ties.” “Now I look like a bag lady.” “Can men look like bag ladies?” “Or, just bums?” And so, on went his jumbled inner dialogue, of which he was quite aware and considered that Ronald Reagan probably went through a similar process near the end. But, he didn’t have a Nancy to consult astrologers and make it all OK.
He admitted to himself that Costco was amazing. Near the front entrance, there were no immediate, vulgar cash registers and conveyor belts gobbling up the space, nor the sickening smell of popcorn, burgers and onions wafting in the air, nor that desire to scratch oneself like all the Wallys in the other place. No, Costco greeted one with a bank of flat-screened TV’s showing wonderful things, dazzling sports feats, delicious food, enormous boobs, or soothing landscapes.
Beyond them were cases of high-end electronics, watches, and glass cases of sparkling jewels all lit by specially focused light spots, which reminded him of Fire Island parties in the old days. Only in the latter case, the spot lights fell upon poses of beautiful people hired especially to just stand there and be decorative. “Same goal and sales technique,” He thought. “Just different merchandise.” “Hard to believe this old wreck was once cool.” “Now’a’days kids say, ’hot.’” He tried that one out and thought, “I was hot once.” He couldn’t even remember what that felt like. He let the idea drift off, his image floating on the tattered edge of a passing cloud.
He made the long trek to the back of the store, while his friend picked up prescriptions. They had a seating bench! He was beginning to warm up to Costco by then. He also noted the absence of annoying children and he liked that. Then he noticed how well dressed most of the customers were, much older, and the shoppers—–quite attractive for the most part. The isles weren’t like those of Wally World. These were more like boulevards, wide, spacious and beautifully designed by blocks of types—-he liked the pasta section and became quite fixated on a case of tortellini which contained items such as spinach/lobster or three-cheese/portobello.
He realized that it was possible to dine-out for free at Costco. First, one could have a dixi cup of soup, taste a slice of gourmet pizza, eat a shrimp shumai, taste a fancy olive or marinated red-pepper on cracker, and finally end with a dessert creampuff on the way out. But, his background wouldn’t allow him to munch in public like “a grazing goat,“ as his mother would have said. But, he noticed that many others did.
Then he saw the prices. “How in the hell?” He wondered at the bills those loaded, mammoth carts would cost. “Are they shopping for assisted care homes?” His chicken parts would cost him nearly twelve dollars. “No way.” So, he settled for the batteries, filters, and a package of strawberries and blackberries, extracted from a specially constructed room of ice-cool air.
By the time he got to the discount books, he was exhausted. That’s where he first saw her. From the back, she was trim in elegant sportswear and heels. Her shiny blond hair looked expensive. She then extended her hand to grab the ‘Oprah’ bio. That’s when he realized she was very old, even way older than he, for her hand was deeply spotted and wrinkled, blue veined and as thin as tissue paper. Yet, her nails looked like those finger-hooves (as he called them) that he saw on QVC Jewelry, when channel surfing the cable. He knew, though, that the gems which decorated her fingers were not cable variety.
Then she turned to smile at him and he was flabbergasted. She seemed in her late thirties, with beautiful, smooth skin and bright blue eyes. He mumbled something and moved quickly on down the row. The thought occurred to him, “Maybe, she’s a vampire,” and said to himself, out loud, “I need a nap!”
By the time he reached the patio section he was done-in and very relieved to find chairs and ottomans, which beckoned like old friends. “No doubt about it.” he thought. “I’m freaking out in a store again, and must be getting dementia.” His knees and hip hurt like hell. Oh, did those soft, wide patio cushions feel like heaven. He closed his eyes and rested. A few moments later he opened them and looked around, and sitting, here and there were a bunch of gray haired seniors just like him. One old gal, recognized his amazement and said, “welcome to Costco’s senior center.” They both laughed out loud and the whole incident would delight him in the retelling for weeks.