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Thursday, February 26, 2004

This Could Be Such A Lovely Civilization 

I finally got my car fixed today. It's been wobbling something awful since I slid into those curbs several months ago. Turns out it was just my tires! I was preparing to replace the axle; sweatstorm averted!

As the Sears technicians worked on my car, I wandered around the East Towne Mall, mulling over the sparse, clean floors and seemingly upscale shops. When I was a kid, the mall was a noisy, disheveled place, packed with things I wanted and teeming with life. Today, the malls I visit feel vacant and subdued.

A while back I overheard some students of mine making plans for the weekend. They arranged to meet at Best Buy, which struck me as odd. Obviously, it's odd that I used to meet my pals at a hypercommercial space like the mall, but at least the mall has some neutral public-like areas. There are no fountains anywhere near Best Buy.

Everyone at the East Towne Mall looked joyless -- shoppers as well as workers. The managers always try to look happy, but given the experiences I've had with mall retail work, I always highly suspect the cheer in managers' voices. Many of the clerks were talking on the phone to their friends; some of them had a group of buddies hanging out in the store. I was never allowed to have friends hanging around. I suppose at this point the bosses have figured out that when you pay people the minimum wage and no benefits, you have to let them get away with some luxuries here and there. Or maybe the managers just don't check up on them very much.

The people at those weird kiosks seem the most disenchanted. One guy does custom name-painting in an unusual artistic style; he seemed happy enough. But most of the clerks in those pods are obviously just filling up someone else's space. Always on display; rarely approached or bought from, it seems. Never consulted on matters that might stimulate brain waves. At least they get to sit down.

Is this really the best we can do? So many of the mall workers are older people -- folks who look like they're hoping for some real career, instead of a boring wad of constantly shifting hours spent feigning interest in cheap jewelry and consumer electronics. In this respect, I suppose Al Bundy on Fox's "Married With Children" is the true portrait of modern work life. Willie Loman of the postindustrial age. Who needs travelling salesmen? Let the buyers come to us -- the company won't have to pay travel costs. Now we don't even get to see the country.

How have we allowed the great promise of this society to be so inanely packaged into cookie-cutter fashion "boutiques" and garish rows of gumball machines? Is this what our ancestors worked for -- the privilege to buy truckloads of garbage we don't need (and don't even want two weeks after we get it)? What happened to the spirit of discovery, the insatiable thirst of our imaginations? Not in the land of One Size Fits All. Who makes their own clothes anymore? How can I know about the stuff I don't see if I don't see it?

I know this is a tired old diatribe, but it really struck me today. My apologies to all the AdBusters devotees out there. (From this month's issue: "The neocon Right is on a rampage, while the Left is whining and struggling to get its [expletive] together." What needs to be done to overcome the onslaught of corporate world domination? We "can force force capital to retreat by . . . plugging up toilets [and] crashing spy surveillance systems with spoof emails." Man, I had no idea it would be so easy! Get bent, Lasn. Punk probably never worked a day in his life.)

The most singular absurdity in the mall is the One Dollar Store. The basic idea behind it is that everything in the place has an equal value (US$1.00). But I refuse to believe that a paring knife has the same value to the world as a plastic jump rope. How can a box of trash bags be economically equivalent to a scented candle? I always question the quality of the things I find in the One Dollar Store, especially when I own a similar item but paid many times more for it. Take the wrench: It's metal. It feels sturdy. It weighs about the same as the one I own. Is this one more likely to break when I'm changing a gasket, or did I just get suckered in by Stanley's name brand price gouging? Either way, there's no denying that some of the items in the One Dollar Store are every bit as good as the ones for which we pay ten times more. (Consider the tape measure; the sieve; the paint roller.)

I'm always simultaneously amused and depressed at the presence of books in the One Dollar Store. (Today's most amusing find: Standing Firm by J. Danforth Quayle -- but now that I've been to its listing on Amazon, I realize that $1.00 would be a massive overpayment!) How sad would it be to get a book published, only to find it on sale for one dollar? And they always have so many copies; even at that ridiculous price, no one wants your crappy work.

Why was I in the One Dollar Store in the first place? Sunglasses. I always lose or break them, so it doesn't make any sense to spend more on them than I absolutely must. Tangential query: Do they have the One Dollar Store in other countries? Do Indonesians shop at the One Rupee Store? Is there a Magasin du Franc in the malls of Paris?

Ultimately, I find myself seriously considering more purchases in the One Dollar Store than any other place in the world (with the possible exception of the supermarket). Even if it appears to be cheaply made and likely to break or unravel or burst into flames -- I can't escape from the thought: "I'd only be out one dollar." Could it be that this is the business plan of the entire One Dollar Store enterprise? That they're basing their whole sales strategy on the disposability of this most basic of American currencies?

The One Dollar Store: America's Warehouse for Everything We Only Kinda Might Be Able to Use. Special this week: Willie Loman -- Buy one, get one free.

We've come full circle, which means we're done.


Monkey Cliff Diving! I don't know which is more bizarre -- the fact that this game features monkeys plummeting onto jagged rocks, or the fact that it's part of a website for a company that sells skin care products.

Today I'm listening to: Atomic Babies!