Thursday, October 1, 2009

Running to Stand Still

I got an unexpected package the other day. It was on the stoop when I got home from Target, where I’d gone to buy humidifiers in preparation for the swine flu pandemic. I had to take the first one I bought back, because it didn’t have automatic shut-off. The instructions said:

The humidifier tank empties in 6 hours. Be sure to turn it off when the tank is empty.

I don’t see the point of turning on a machine that’s supposed to help you sleep, if you have to wake up in the middle of the night to turn it off. Mike told me not to worry about consumer warnings like that, because “they’re written by attorneys who are paid to quantify the risk of unlikely outcomes.” Mike talks like that because he’s paid to work as an attorney. It’s true that nobody has ever told me a tragic tale about a humidifier that ran out of water and blew up. But I don’t need examples from real life to convince me of things. I base most of my decisions on the anticipation of a worst-case scenario, even if it’s one I make up in my head.À Why should a humidifier be any different?

My sister recommended Target because they sell humidifiers in animal shapes. Target’s pharmaceutical department had not one animal-shaped humidifier for sale but three: an elephant, a penguin, and a frog. All had automatic shut off functionality. I liked that the mist sprays out of the animals’ faces too, even though from an anatomical standpoint, it really only makes sense with the elephant. The penguin just looks like it’s exhaling.

I know this because I bought the penguin and the elephant. I spurned the frog. I have disliked frogs since ninth grade biology, when I was handed one soaked in formaldehyde and fastened to a plate with stick pins. Nothing turns you onto a species like slicing into its hard, cold, rubbery body. After we dissected the amphibian, in fact, we advanced to a fetal pig. Only two things crossed my mind as I cut into that pig. One was whether pathologists, over time, develop an aversion to living humans. The other was that the fetal pig looked a fair amount like the raw pork loin my mom used to pat down with burger seasoning and put in the oven. I can’t imagine why those heady days of scientific inquiry failed to make a scientist out of me. Or why I hate frogs but don’t mind pigs. At least they didn’t make a pig humidifier. A pig that spits water vapor from its mouth wouldn't seem to be a hot seller during a swine flu outbreak.

In any case, the humidifiers were not my only purchase. It’s taken me over a year to realize that I buy too much when I go to Target. People say they love Target because it’s cheap. I don’t think Target is that cheap. But more to the point, any store is expensive if you spend enough there. I’ve come to believe that the secret to Target’s success is a simple formula, like a ratio of store size to the quantity of merchandise. If you pack enough stuff onto the shelves, and make people walk five or ten city blocks to find the items they need, the average consumer will at some point just start throwing stuff into their cart that they don’t need. Shopaholics start even earlier. My cart the other day was full before I even got to the animal humidifiers. My sister only came to Target to help me pick out the humidifiers, and she left with 125 dollars worth of stuff.

The real key to the Target formula, I think, is tidy stacking. Everything in a suburban superstore is stacked so neatly that it doesn’t appear to be the retail dumping ground that it is. My friend Kate recently wrote me that she overshops at Target because it represents possibility for her. When she’s there, she thinks: that melamine platter and sno-cone machine will be perfect for outdoor entertaining! When she gets home, though, the melamine cracks and the sno-cone machine jams and her hostessing dreams fade to black.B But, of course, she also mentioned the baskets -- the eternal possibility of getting organized. Have you ever wondered why Target sells so many different things you can stack and store stuff in? Is it because stacking bins stack well, so there’s a lot of room to sell them? Maybe, or else they’re meant to sell the promise of stacking at home. The promise of stacking means the prospect of buying more stuff. All those bins and baskets somehow convince you that your house will actually be neater when you bring more stuff home. Target doesn’t care that when you finally get the stacking stuff to your own house where you don’t have shelves the length of a football field to stack your stuff on, you’ll feel disappointed. They don’t care if you bring most of the stuff back. Because broken retail dreams only breed longing for new possibilities. Once you’re inside Target to return something, resistance is futile.

It’s not a coincidence that I started overshopping at Target when I moved to the Midwest. At our Target in New York, the Formula was just not in play. Meaning, if you go to 225th street in the Bronx, you get a glimpse of what happens at Target when stuff is not packed on the shelves, and not neatly stacked. On weekends, it’s so busy and crowded in there that it’s hard to even find stuff you need, let alone stuff you don’t need. When Target isn’t tidy, all that stuff of glittering promise just looks like a bunch of manufactured plastic crap. You don’t want to stroll through the aisles and stock up on paper products or party supplies. You don’t want to take a little more time to look at wicker laundry hampers or composite wood nesting tables. You pretty much just want to buy what you came for and leave.Ë

All of which gets me back to the package on my stoop. After I put my five Target bags down, and the disappointment started to set in, I brought the box in to open it. It was a box of assorted sweet things from Zabar’s, a belated birthday gift, it turned out, from a friend in New York. There was a chocolate babka, a sack of cinnamon rugelach, a little bag of almond biscotti, and a plastic tub of Chris’s Cookies in the shape of tiny sandals, half-eaten watermelons, and hot dogs. All of it was kosher, even the hot dog shaped cookies. My favorite part of the gift was a Chinese take-out container filled with New York themed fortune cookies. They weren’t your typical fortune cookies. One side of the fortune actually bestowed a bit of trivia about New York, like who is New York’s official sister city and how big is the Public Library. The other side had the fortunes.

Starved from my long walk through Target, I opened one immediately and ate it. The fortune read thus:

If you go only once around the room, you are wiser than he who stands still.

I liked it…. a metaphor for life, or at least a reminder that it’s better to do something than do nothing. But then – drained and disenchanted as I stared into the center of a big red bulls eye -- I reconsidered. Are those really words to live by? It depends. If the room in question is on fire, and you need to find a way out of it, it’s definitely better not to stand in a corner and wait for backup. But if the room you’re talking about is say, Target, then this could be a bad personal philosophy. From a budgetary standpoint, standing still is the better path.

Since I wasn’t satisfied with my ambiguous fortune, I decided to try another one. I reached into the container and opened a second cookie. My second fortune read thus:

Before taking steps the wise man knows the object and end of his journey.

W.E.B. DuBois.

I don’t know if W.E.B. Du Bois actually wrote that. I also don’t know how often you get a fortune that contradicts the previous one. But plotting a careful course is pretty much the opposite of walking around the room to keep busy. The Fates must have known that Du Bois is one of my favorite writers of all time. He’s on my short list of people smart enough to be in fortune cookies. Since that other fortune didn’t even have a footnote, I had to conclude that the Fates were actually trying to tell me something.

People don’t overshop the same way in the city because there’s no space anywhere. As I said, I didn't roam aimlessly around the Bronx Target --or Zabar’s. They’re crowded and there’s no room for dillydallying. The slightest hesitation in your step at Fairway can result in violent confrontation, or trampling. But you also can’t shlep a ton of stuff home that easily in the city. Even if you take a cab or have a car, no miracle of stacking bins can change the fact that you still live in an apartment. There’s a certain sustainability about being all crammed together.

City people sometimes lament the consumptive excess of the suburbs, with the mega shopping malls and fast food restaurants on every corner. I don’t think urbanites always look that clearly at the crass consumptive excess they’re part of. But the suburban superstore really isn’t helping us as much as it wants us to think. It doesn’t need so much time and attention. We are wiser, I think, to follow the advice of the venerable W.E.B. Du Bois, who once wrote about shopping at Target: get what you need and get out.

À A friend of ours, Seth, uses the term “fear-based person."

B I embellished the thing about hostess dreams, but the rest is verbatim.

Ë If you want to read some more nuanced opinions about the Bronx Target, and you can stomach all the racism, you might consult this website, where people like Alexandros O and Driesler B spend their free time writing customer reviews. There is also anecdotal proof of my tidy shelves theory.