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Jun
02
2020
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Bechtlandia at dusk. Photo from Loopnet.com.

Bechtlandia at dusk. Photo from Loopnet.com.

BLOG— Alive in Bechtlandia

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I had some shopping to do on Bechtle Avenue this weekend, and as usual, I braced myself. My first stop was Lowe’s to purchase — wait for it — batteries and packing tape. Going to a mega-store for such ordinary, diminutive items makes about as much sense as commandeering a battleship for a scenic turn around a small lake. I despaired of ever finding the tape (surely I would die of thirst first?) after my timid inquiries elicited such vague, distracted answers as “that’d be a few aisles over, ma’am” or “up front.” (Front? Isn’t that, like, 29 checkout counters long?) Finally, hunched over in supplication, I practically clawed at the next Docker-clad salesperson I saw and got the beautiful specificity of “aisle nine.” At that moment, no words in the English language were more splendid. Aisle nine. Possibly the world’s shortest, most perfect poem.

The tape was not exactly what I was looking for (I won’t bore you with the details), but I wasn’t going to walk out without it. Oh, no. I was buying this expensive, not-quite-right tape if only to dignify the hardship of locating it. Leaving empty-handed (well, I had found the batteries, but they only filled one hand) was unthinkable. I had already wasted time, and the only way to make things right was to waste money, too.

***

Buoyed by my success, if a little wrung out, I continued on to Kohl’s. Forty-five minutes and 45 discarded possibilities later, I ended up with three pairs of socks and a long wait for the register. When my turn came, my credit card had fallen asleep, and multiple swipes failed to wake it up. Or was it that I had assured the cashier, a little more briskly than intended, that I did not now have, nor did I want for future use, a Kohl’s card? The card reader might have been malfunctioning in retaliation. (Cashiers have a special button, don’t they, like a teller’s panic button only designed to make the customer panic as impatience spreads like small pox through the rest of the lengthening line?) My card finally worked, and just in time. Revolution was as close as a finger signing on a screen.

But it was at Marshalls where the writing was really on the wall. Capitalism is mostly a horror, and Marshalls has cleverly turned the horror to its, and my, advantage. Anyone willing to stoop to buying last year’s fashions (see what I mean? the horror!) can have said fashions for $7.99, or 14.99, or $24.99. “Compare at” [insert larger amount here], the tag instructs, and another tag on a different part of the garment bears an even larger amount, the putative “original price.”

Unless it’s all a trick, a breadcrumb trail of phony markdowns leading me not out of the forest but to the very door of the witch’s oven, the checkout line. And if the price reductions aren’t fake, then the joke is even more profoundly on me, for the retailers have merely turned inside out the black art that transformed an item worth $7.99 into one costing $68 plus tax in the first place.

The oven, I mean checkout line, made a last bid for my soul, I mean dollars, with attractive displays of plastic phone cases, gummy worms and Halloween socks. I resisted. Checkout 4 flashed. No, I don’t have a Marshalls discount card, I said in a voice I hoped was firm enough to cut short further questions, yet light and friendly enough to prevent the cashier’s surreptitious reach for the button…. It worked. No card reader errors, just a smooth $87.95 whisked from my bank account. The cashier informed me I had saved $102.83 today, as though I had done it, me!, with my sharp eye and my shopper’s savvy and my keen gathering instincts honed over millions of years of evolution and reaching apotheosis only now, at a busy discount retailer on a mild Sunday afternoon amid the loveliest blaze of leaves I’d seen for many years.

***

Driving home through all those gaudy golds and irrepressible persimmons, I thought of a line from “The Educated Heart,” Ihab Hassan’s essay in the current issue of the Antioch Review. “Genuinely rich cultures … generate a certain ‘surplus’ or even ‘waste,’ a surplus of creative energy that no calculus can measure,” he writes. I’m pretty sure he’s not talking about Marshalls, or the “creative energy that no calculus can measure” of the Sunday shoppers pulsing like blood cells through the artery of Bechtle. Or maybe — bear with me — he is.

There’s a profligacy to the world that I can’t help but love. The trees have it. The grasses have it. The rivers have it. Nature is not parsimonious. Even out west, where water is scarce and life is correspondingly constricted, there’s a different kind of surplus — huge skies, lavish rocks, mineral colors in gradations from subtle to outrageous. I dare you to call any of it “waste.” Too much of a good thing, as Mae West knew, is wonderful.

Consumption is part of this exuberance, I think. Call it misdirected. Surely it is. But I don’t think it’s tragic, exactly. Life creates more of itself than it needs. Life’s a potlatch, everything beautiful brought out in celebration and smashed on the rocks. In her memoir of World War I, Vera Brittain says the challenge for the peace movement is to find a way to tap the thrill, the high emotion, the deep chord of war. What she’s acknowledging (though she’s a committed pacifist) is that war has appeal as well as horror. The same is true of consumption. It has and expresses energies that are real. Alternatives must reckon with this fact.

I don’t think Bechtlandia is a soulless place. (Well, I kind of do, but something in me resists this easy dismissal.) The riot of market capitalism — a thousand varieties and flavors for every manufactured need — is also the riot of human imagination. I mean, really: if Marshalls is selling three dozen different plastic phone cases, someone on Etsy is offering artisanal, hand-crafted phone cases of sustainably harvested bamboo inlaid with pressed native wildflowers. (I am not making this up. I am making this up, but only a tiny bit.) Both seem extremely silly, and also rather wonderful. (And I don’t even own a phone!)

Look, we all know that the world doesn’t need another shade of vermilion. But try telling that to the trees.

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