(a Poor Mojo's Classic reprinted from Issue #67, December 2001)
Here is what I know to be true:
Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was invented by Sears in the 1930's as a marketing mascot.
Our ideal of Santa Claus—red and white outfit, old fat and jolly—can be traced back to designs implemented by Coke in the early part of the twentieth century.
It's that time of year again, and I am exhausted.
I work in a large chain bookstore. One way to describe my store is to say that it is a meeting place for the community, where the public feels comfortable and welcome and where they can shop and browse for hours. Another way to describe it is to say that everyone who walks in the door treats the store like it was their home. We have seven different homeless people who spend their everyday at our store; most of them have scoped out particular chairs as "theirs." And will pester and torment anyone who sits in their chair.
We have groups of students who sit in the aisles and work on school projects—the Xmas season is after all also the final exam season. Every table in our cafe is filled with students from the neighboring university or high school doing homework, holding study groups. Which is a thing I have mixed feelings about. They have libraries around here, very nice libraries. These people could be doing their homework there. But they feel more comfortable at my store for whatever reason: better music, cleaner bathrooms, coffee. A class met in our kids section to discuss the upcoming test. Thirty-five students there were filling every inch of the department and steadfastly refusing to let any of the anxious parents in to shop.
They just decided to meet at Borders, and grew enraged when I told them they'd have to meet elsewhere. "But this is a public place?" One of the girls sneered. On their way out of the store, they knocked down displays and one of the thirteen year-olds yelled in all sincerity, "I'll never shop here again!"
"So let me get this straight: you heard about this book on NPR six months ago, but you don't know the title or the author. You think it may be about Cuba, but you can't wait to have it ordered because you need it for an Xmas present next week."
I had a customer—tall, white haired Midwestern grandpa type—ask for a book about Chinese clipper ships, he thought the author was Hart. I checked our systems, and found a book called China Clipper by Hardt. When I told him about the book, he insisted that it was the wrong one. "Nope. I looked it up myself. The author was Hart. With a 't' and no 'd'."
I told him that it was probably the same book, because there was exactly one book about Chinese clipper ships in the computer and the last names were very close and could easily be mis-read or mis-pronounced. He looked at me as if I was trying to sell him a corpse and told me, "Well if you can't be any help I guess I'd better take my business elsewhere."
Heard often at the information desk: "Four business days? I can't wait four business days for this!"
I caught an old man yesterday cutting pages out of gardening books with an X-Acto knife. He was well-dressed and hung his head when I caught him like a scolded dog. I made him pay for the books and felt a little better.
Christmas music blares and everyone wonders if it's really necessary. Would it still feel like Xmas without the music playing in every store?
A woman walked up to the information desk today. She was in her early thirties and dressed in business formal: black blazer, white blouse, knee-length black skirt. She had Friends hair, and immaculate make-up. She also had chocolate smeared across the side of her face. It wasn't a dab of chocolate, or a smudge near her lips, but rather a smear as wide as her hand from her mouth almost to her left ear. She spoke very briskly and demanded to know where we hid our Jim Brickman CDs. I didn't look up at her and see the chocolate until I'd started typing. And then I couldn't think of any polite way to tell her about it.
So I offered her a green or red foil-wrapped chocolate egg from a dish on the counter. "No, thanks," she said. "I just had one of your chocolate croissants from the cafe. They're excellent."
"Is this book [that came out in hardcover last week] available in paperback?"
A guy at the registers was paying for an Xmas CD with a gift card today and had a problem. I got called up to deal with it. He said his eleven year-old son had given him the gift card the week before as a birthday present. The card was stamped $25.00. The cashier tried the card and found it had much less actually on it. The customer immediately starts in with, "Well, are you calling my son a liar... Faulty machines... Lawsuit..." There's this feature on the register where you can check the history of a gift card. I'd always wondered what use that button could possibly have. I told the guy about the feature, and printed out the card. And sure enough it'd been bought six months previous and used a few times in the store. Instead of $25 it had less than six dollars on it. The cashier, the customer and I all knew what had happened: the kid had given the dad a used gift card for his birthday. But there's no way I can tell the customer this. So I suggest that maybe the son gave the Dad the wrong card, maybe he accidentally switched the used card for the new one. The father nodded and left the store.
"I want to give one of these bargain books to my dad for Xmas, but all of them have this mark on the bottom. Do you have any without the mark?" "No, all of the bargain ones have that mark. It's how we know they're bargains." "What! But I can't give my dad this book with the mark on it!" "Then spend more than three dollars, asshole."
I saw a man today scream a horrible string of curses and the guy ahead of him in line because he decided to pay with a check. "Why don'tcha balance yer fuckin account while yer attit?" Echoed throughout the store. Tis the season, I suppose.
No we don't rent videos. No we aren't a library. No we don't sell out of print books.
A woman called today on the phone utterly irate. She had bought this thing which is an expansion pack for this electronic kids trivia game. The game is called The Gizmo among the staff. The woman is irate because she bought this expansion pack, but didn't know she had to buy The Gizmo to use it. I put her on hold while I went and got a copy of the expansion pack. It says, printed in big letters on the front of the box: for use with The Gizmo. You need The Gizmo to use this! When I told the lady that it said right on the box that she needed The Gizmo, she roared, "So what are you saying? That I need to read things before I buy them?" And she hung up.
There's a moral approaching, but it jumps out of nowhere. This is just a warning: for those who react poorly to sermons, you'll want to stop reading after the second paragraph following.
An old man approached me this morning and grabbed my shoulder and kneaded it between his bony fingers. As he did this he looked at me fondly and said, "That Emeril, man. That guy can cook! Man, that Emeril." And He kept on kneading my shoulder until I shoved him away.
A young guy, a Russian came up to the information desk and asked for the book Avalanche Falling by William Forester. he wanted to give it to his dad for Xmas. I searched through every program I could, but could find no listing. So I grilled the customer: what's the book about? How old is it? Where did you hear about it? "The book is pretty new, maybe a year. It's a novel, fiction. And it's written by that guy in Finding Forester." I blink. He's looking for a novel written by a character in a movie. I told him that we only had actual and real books in the store. He thanked me and said that he wanted to ask before he wasted a lot of time looking for it and embarrassed himself.
There is a moral buried here, by the way. It's not an original sentiment, but it bears repeating. At the heart of our American Christian Capitalist holiday there is a profound dichotomy. On one hand we voice the opinion and mouth the words that this whole thing is about family and togetherness and goodwill to men. Every commercial you see is showing joy and tenderness and holiday cheer. But the flipside is that these are commercials, it is in their interest to show you these ideas and to present however subtly or sublimely that in order to show your love for love-d ones, you must spend money on them. The more you spend, the more you love. Think I'm wrong? How much did you spend on your mom this year? How much on your dad? did you do any mental balancing, did you turn down an adequate gift because it wasn't expensive enough or refuse to buy a different gift because it'd throw off the balance? We're being sold the equation that money equals love. Every year it gets worse, and every year retail sales blossom a little bit more.
These stories, these people are being poisoned by the Xmas spirit run amok, run unchecked. The need to prove their love through expensive presents has so gripped their minds that they can't think straight. Capitalism poisoning maybe. Maybe it's like Erik Garner Warren says, maybe it's just all the fucking Gentiles.
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