The Stuff Itself Is Sad

Last night I worked in a mausoleum of consumerism, known as an American shopping mall in the 4th quarter of the year 2008. I was hired to work during a special Sunday night promotion in late November, during which the mall was open only to shoppers who had applied for a special pass to shop all the way up until 10pm.

I am a stilt walker. I often work in promotional environments where my job is to bring some whimsy, a few smiles, make people stay longer. I was hired to walk around as a very tall Snow Queen saying cheerful innocuous things like “Happy Holidays!” to everyone. Victorian Carolers, a juggler, a magician and another stilt walker were also hired.

The place was not crowded. It was eerie and cavernous actually. Mostly women milled around, some teenage groups and mothers with kids.

Something about this holiday promotion was forced; strange, just all wrong! The elephant in the room is that We Can Not Buy Anything Anymore, and the efforts to try to work around this fact struck me as tragic.

The place offers over 180 specialty stores. They are all perfectly lit and decorated – a shining example of a lovely retail environment. All the stores are there – Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, JC Penny, Sears, Aeropostale, Apple, bebe, Guess, Ann Taylor, Brookstone, Cache, Coach, Eddie Bauer, Gap, Victoria’s Secret, etc.

And it was sad. The merchandise itself was sad. It looked cheap, unwanted and desperate. It looked stressed out. Rushed to market. Unimaginative. Racks and racks of identical holiday dresses hung at Macy’s. Was the polyester-made-to-look-like-silk always this miserable? Was the velvet always this tacky? Everyplace felt like an outlet store – but with pristine matched merchandise on the racks. Not messy yet. Not picked over. This was like an outlet store where nobody has bought anything, ever. The stuff is just going to sit there. Discounted today – utter trash tomorrow.

I have done these types of mall jobs for years and always end up spending at least $100, feeling very triumphant and accomplished – that I have killed 2 birds with one stone – put a dent in my holiday shopping after a job at the mall! So convenient! “I needed a few things anyway, right?” Beating the system!

It’s just that now—do we really see shopping as something we inevitably will be doing? The program that generated all this desire in me for merchandise has been deactivated. This inner dialogue, these cues, learned on our mother’s knees and from a lifetime of being a western female – they are leaving me quickly. The conviction that you “do in fact need a few things and may as well have a look around”…it’s over.

I find this reversal fascinating. Do you see the big neon sign that says “Game Over.” No more coins. No more shots. Game Over.

I made small talk with the kids at the mall while I towered above them in my snow queen get up. “So are you buying Christmas presents here tonight with your parents? What are you getting? Are you getting some good stuff to wear for the holidays?” I asked. “No, we’re not shopping – we just came for the entertainment” several kids replied.

I’m totally with them. My new happiness is in Not Buying Anything. It’s not punishment. It’s not even a revolutionary statement. I just generate more endorphins; feel like I scored points if I DON’T buy something.

The great spell we have been under is breaking. We don’t have any money. We wish we didn’t buy all the things we had. The whole thing has turned on itself and has begun eating it’s own tail. I think we’re finally done shopping!! Those pathetic stacks of merchandise nobody wants told me so. They spoke to me most profoundly at Linens and Things, going out of business, as you know. Now I have been in there many times, while under the spell, forking over hundreds of dollars over the years. I see so clearly how it all goes back to the housing market, as I am a textbook case. I bought a house when they were handing out mortgages on the street – refinanced for an even lower rate – HOORAH let’s go shopping for the new home! And these charges are still ghosting around my combined debt – the decorative blanket, and co-coordinated pillow, window dressing for 16 new windows, those colorful kitchen towels, the table settings, and that unit I HAD to have to keep the space under the kitchen sink more organized. Of course I needed them—what kind of question is that?

Now Linens and Things has stacks of Crème Brulee kits nobody wants, and next to them, Cocoa Making kits nobody wants. Keep walking and you’ll find fake pine, cinnamon and vanilla scented candles and the forlorn mismatched sets of curtains and sheers, and 400 thread count damask sheets that don’t even interest me at 40% off…the very ones I used to drool over.

The combined impression of the scent of those awful chemically scented candles, all that useless stuff, perfectly packaged and NOT selling, and the morose yellow Going Out Of Business signs in this massive, bright but sad space was…well, it was the look and feel of consumerism itself – dying.

Like some by-product of a failed food chain-these are the products that are excreted, pumped out, but not absorbed, not metabolized. This is the overflow this is waste. Orphaned merchandise! I think of all these Chinese factory workers, making only pennies per hour but sending money back to their families in rural China, making this garbage for us around the clock. I am brainwashed to think that it somehow has improved their lives, the global economy. How else can you justify the waste that is our western Christmas? Through our over-consumption we helped China become a strong industrial nation – right? Look at all these factories we keep pumping around the clock!

In December of 2008 The New York Times ran at least two front section stories on how China’s factories are closing. The workers are going back to the rural provinces, where no jobs await, to their parents struggling in rice fields who will no longer get a little bit extra to help them get by.

I never questioned the virtue of buying mass produced items from China. So recently had I rejoiced in a pair of deep red potholders from Linens and Things that traditional American red, Martha’s red, the Starbucks red that goes with the minty turquoise. For only $5.99 I had a piece of perfection, they made the kitchen happy! Now, even for $2.99 they just seem to mock me. They belong to an ideal, a larger picture that we can no longer believe in.

And at Macy’s—in the Cellar, the houseware section—a whole universe of items for kitchens in the homes of people whose kitchens already cost too much. Kitchens they may never pay off…Beautiful appliances, sitting there, perfectly packaged, perfectly lit, 25% off. 50% off. And nobody buying.

It was a desolate and surreal playground of another era, the era when we could go shopping.

My mother inducted us into the Church of Beautiful Things Women Should Buy, but she grew up during WWII in Sweden, which although they were neither attacked nor occupied nonetheless suffered shortages and rations. A few decades later, she made her home in the United States and joyfully embraced the abundance of cheap colorful stuff made overseas that surrounded her. She didn’t grow up with excess or mass produced anything. They played with home-made toys. For Christmas she and her brother would get maybe yet another home made toy-and perhaps an orange! An orange! They were thrilled! When she turned 13 she got her first real bathing suit, possibly one of the first mass-produced items she ever owned. She hung it up on a rack in a changing room and when someone stole it, she was devastated. And she didn’t get another one.

Of course she reveled in the new world of inexpensive mass produced imported goods in the ’60s and ’70s in America. She filled our home with bright colors – a festival of mod, fun, sparkly items. We had a curved pink sofa in the living room, and a white fake Christmas tree with only pink bulbs, a real statement in 1964! We had a kitchen full of very hip “modern” yellow and red and orange plastic mixing bowls and plates of all kinds. She LOVED that things were, for the first time in her life – plentiful, colorful, fun and very cheap.

My sister and I associate the joy of “picking up a few things” with our mother’s happiness at being able to fill her life and home with these delightful trinkets of plastic and color, a post-war celebration of New Cool Stuff. In our home, nothing was grungy, nothing was drab. For a few dollars you could have a new pretty clean whatever-it-was. That was a way in which we charged our spirits.

The Never Ending Stuff…The spell worked so well when it worked. But clearly, we blew it. It turns out: both buying stuff we don’t need—and NOT buying stuff we don’t need—brings us to our knees! Either way, we really have it coming. Mayor Mike Bloomberg said the other day—and I could hear the frustration in his voice—I paraphrase here: that New Yorkers should cut back on extra spending, and drive the car we already have for a few years, eat at home, spend more wisely-but curtailing spending is of course exacerbating the problem!

This new time will be interesting. Hopefully, some of the satisfaction of a more frugal way of life will be experienced as genuinely empowering. I realize I am in a privileged minority in the world to be able to see myself as someone who “has everything” and it’s simply high time I got out of debt and stopped shopping. Yes, the glamour of Mom’s time and our memories of pink sparkly things Made in China may be coming to a close. Billions of people are suffering in this downturn, all over the world, and there’s more to come. We sure know how to ramp up- but how do we ramp down?

If my mother were here I’d want to tell her that we’re all soon going to go back to making the most of what we have, of using and re-using things and rediscovering how to make things ourselves, and how to be grateful for a piece of fruit that came from halfway around the world.

And Mom – I’m not saying I really stopped shopping…I did buy four cashmere sweaters in the last year actually, two from a moving sale and two from a cheap thrift store. Total cost? $18. Cash, no cards accepted. They are used – but they aren’t sad!