27 January 2011

Character and Black Friday

I confess, I am one of those. The misguided, ill-advised, hopeless types who actually go out to shop in the middle of the night on Black Friday. Even my children have abandoned me at this point. But if I have one claim to fame, it is that I am a born hunter-gatherer. I have dickered in department stores. I have walked away with free merchandise and the store's blessing. I am the yard sale diva. I can barter with the best. I can win the who-paid-less game hands down. So Black Friday is my yearly magnum opus.

When I first started this crazy trek, I was in a position to truly value the economics of the effort. And my first year or two of this was both successful (in a commercial sense) and surreal (in an outlook on humanity sense). I saw some interesting crowd dynamics, suffered discomfort and cold (do they do this in warm climates?), came away with everything on my wish list, and solidified my future strategies.

By last year, the economic necessity was somewhat less, but I was hooked: the socio-anthropologic aspects of this ritual are irresistible. Nevertheless, it is measurably more enjoyable to go out on Black Friday if you remove the desperation aspect, leaving only the mildly competitive element. You'll just have to trust me on this. More, even, than the dollar savings, is that whiff of big-game hunting excitement in knowing you must be the fleetest, or the craftiest, or the cleverest, to claim victory. It is the notion that you are willing to commit something of yourself (your time, comfort, sleep and relative sanity) to the pursuit of the worthy goal: to be finished with THE LIST before December 1st.

Let me say, for the record, that I have heard the horror stories. People trampled in the melee to get those flat-screen televisions (true). People who pull guns or throw punches (also true). I have been in stores swarming with police officers. I have seen the hackles rise on people - gentle people - who have stood in line all night when a line jumper tries to break in line. I will also say, for the record, that many stores do not take sufficient precautions for crowd control.

Do yourself a favor - pay the extra for electronics and/or don't go looking for them on that day. Electronics departments are like entering the lions' den. Leave those deals to the folks who have camped out since the previous Wednesday. Happily, you have a very respectable chance of finding them online for a comparably discounted price.

Don't go at all if you are feeble, timid or in any way less than vigorous. Don't bring the little kids (anyone under 16) or Grandma, unless she's a black-belt.

Vastly more often than these incidents would presuppose, people rise to a level of remarkable decency on Black Friday. My experience this year was a case in point. I waited in line for nearly an hour with very kind women on either side of me - women who offered to help me get things to the front of the line, knowing that I had no cart. Women who sent their extra helpers out on scouting trips and brought back things for me too. The overall mood was cheerful and uncomplaining. When we reached the head of the line, the cashiers were calm and chatted amiably.

I am reminded that the same adversity that creates monsters of the weak, make heroes of the strong. This may be putting too fine a point on it, but if you can be helpful and cheerful when conditions are terrible, you haven't slept or eaten (or even gone to the bathroom), and you missed out on that Tonka truck as advertised,  you are among the truly virtuous.

You may wish a different arena in which to test human nature. I am fast approaching an age when I probably should forego the gladiator life. But in the meantime, I set my alarm and venture out to find some unexpected gifts for Christmas.

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