It was a cold November night. The area outside my apartment complex was pretty dark (as it always was after sundown) in the quiet university town in Florida that I lived in. I quietly locked the door making sure that I did not wake my roommates and proceeded towards my rendezvous with a guy at 2:30 am.
No, he wasn’t a boyfriend or a dealer of illicit substances. He had a battered old car which was a luxury for us those days of early grad student life. Few of us had a means to move about town after 7:30pm in the evening here when the buses stopped. So it was either him or accepting being left behind.
We were going for Black Friday sales at the shopping plaza in town that housed a Walmart and a Best Buy. We had always seen the plaza in broad daylight or in the evenings until then.
So the view that greeted us when we reached the plaza at about 3 am was astounding.
One of the first things that struck me about small town USA when I had first arrived from India was the wide spaces in between the gigantic stores in the shopping plazas of the town full of parked cars and cars and cars and no people. Empty benches waiting to greet people where there were none and bus stops with signs for no one to read. Only stretches and stretches of white concrete dazzling the eye in the bright sun.
But not so that dark night. It was as if a magical city had suddenly emerged spilling out its populace into the quiet plaza. In the shadowy stretch I saw scattered people everywhere. Soon a dark line became prominent starting outside the Best Buy curling around the edge of that section of the plaza and reaching the next up to the Walmart next door. A line just like the first one started at said Walmart in its turn following the reverse pattern up to Best Buy.
Those were the days before the heyday of the online electronics stores.
An outsider would misinterpret this nocturnal activity as the real festival after the previous day. Folks were parked towards the front of the lines on folding chairs with cans of soda and chips chatting with the neighbours in the line even fraternizing with people they did not know on the second line. This was like a village fair or like the festive crowds on game day during a home game that made the town come alive. Except that this was amazing energy at 3 am, not football on Saturday afternoon.
I had come to stand in the Best Buy line for a laptop advertised at a very cheap price after sale.
Like everybody else, I struck up conversations. People’s stories came out in the camaraderie one feels standing next to each other deep into the night for a common cause. One man told me his wife had been strategically placed in the other line for a series of goods at Walmart while the man himself was in line at Best Buy. He told me he was braving the cold for a very high performance computer although he had about five more of the same at home. He was very proud that he and his wife had bought stuff during Black Friday for several years (much harder at night in some of the colder states, he told me) and sold them online soon after. He did not need the money, he confessed. It was just something he did.
There were others in the line who had clearly come for the excitement of the chase as well. Although I needed that laptop, I could feel the competition exuding out of people and the anticipation filling the air.
Only a limited number of the items with the most price reductions would be available on sale so that the moment the doors opened, we’d have to make a rush for it.
I thought I had come early enough since the doors would open at 5 am (in subsequent years, they have been opening doors earlier and earlier). But the line was already a long, dark, coiled thing in front of me like a sleeping python that could wake up any moment.
The more the moment of anticipation came closer, the more the excitement I felt about rushing in and grabbing my object. It did not matter if I needed the laptop anymore. It would not help if someone gifted it to me (for free). I wanted to win. I wanted to win big and bring home my spoil. Right now.
I felt like if I saved big I’d be accumulating karma through my desire to be thrifty and my industriousness standing in line and exercising my smarts in catching the sale compared to my lazy self who could have been in my warm bed that very moment. No, I wasn’t that wimp.
What is it about festivals of consumerism that make us behave alternately reckless and carefree one moment as though the world is upside down at a carnival, returning home with a bunch of things we don’t need, and ruthless, competitive, goal oriented creatures the next making a beeline for the objects on sale before someone else grabs it? It’s like we start alternating between the California hippie and the driven New York professional at the same time in an alternate universe located close to stores on Black Friday.
The python woke up at lightning speed alright at 5am and broke into a thousand grey fragments (for dawn was breaking) as those fragments rushed to the door to get in first. I too ran for the door with the crowd and lost my companion for a few minutes as a professional-looking person at the entrance directed me towards the right hand side of the store where the laptops on sale would be piled.
I ran faster and faster, through the piles of DVD-player boxes on the floor and the cell phone displays and the audio systems and the multimedia cases because a whole crowd was running with me. Were there more than fifty people here? For I knew only the first fifty would get the laptop at the price I wanted.
As we reached the right limits of the store we found that it was the section that housed TV’s. The crowd stopped a second, broke up and rushed around to find the laptops. Several minutes elapsed until we found a sales associate. She sounded surprised at us being here but directed us towards the exact opposite end of the store.
Needless to say, by this time the laptops were over. The very last of them were gone. I was not destined to get one.
I found my companion at a different section buying a much more expensive computer than he had wanted. We returned at about 9 am when my friend was finally able to pay for his purchase after standing for hours in line at the checkout counter. He was my ride so I could not come back alone.
I, being the much more conservative buyer, returned empty handed. Besides, none of the other stuff on slight sales were for me. It was either the whole spoil or nothing. That’s who I was.
As we came out into the broad daylight (which hurt our eyes because of lack of sleep), we heard several people discussing the fiasco of the early morning.
Apparently a group of people had stationed themselves at the door taking it upon themselves to send anyone who asked for the laptop in the opposite direction so they could get a head start themselves. Those five minutes, they knew, would be enough.
They were veterans at this. They knew that a sale is almost never ever just a sale after all.
I wasn’t there just to buy things. None of us were.
All of us had crowded there to buy back our lost selves on sale in the uncontrollable universe of our daily lives through things. It hadn’t been that difficult to make already lost souls lose direction.