February 4, 2007

Saved by the Bell in Costco

Scanning the news and the blog stream is part of my daily job. And I mean pretty much 24/7/365. For every item I may choose to run at Pajamas Media, I probably look at from 10 to 50 web pages. ("All day, all night, Marianne./ Down by the seaside, sifting sand.") I don't regret it, but every so often you get a day when you get the "Hello in There" earworm and, "all the news just repeats itself / like some forgotten dream that we've both seen." That's okay if your earworm decides to sing the 10,000 Maniacs cover, but when it reverts back to the Bette Midler version, it feels like somebody is pounding lukewarm butter in your ear. You just have to regroup; it's Gopod's way of telling you to log off and get a dog.

But dogs, sadly, are out and so yesterday, when the Net, the News, and the Blogs filled me with inertia, I hit the off switch and gazed out the window.

A February Saturday. Overcast, cold, rainy... as per usual in Seattle. If any city could use a little global warmin... er,"climate change" right now, it's Seattle. In true Orwellian fashion, this city's catechism for the "climate change" religion is the catch phrase, "Colder is warmer." But the short form for a typical Saturday in Seattle in winter is that its like getting on a methadone program for life. You don't get high, you don't get sick, you just stay on it. Which is a longer way of saying, "Boring."

So, because I am an American, I took refuge in the American mantra, "When the going gets boring, the bored go shopping."

Shopping, our shared cultural catatonia.

Just say shop! Just do it! Get out there and buy something you don't need. Then buy some accessories for it. You'll need those to work the thing you don't need.

Then you haul the crap back home and add to the other crap you don't need. It is what we do, I guess. Like many others I can resist it in my normal state, but not, I find, when I'm bored. You probably have a problem like that too.

Result? In a kind of daze I found myself driving the maze of south Seattle in the rain. I'd been to where I was going once before and was trying to triangulate my way to it by driving the highways and flyovers that shoot along the fringes of this muscular, once thriving industrial district. Now the glazed green gaze of the Starbucks queen looks down on it from Starbucks Galactic Headquarters as the aliens within plot how they can possibly put a Starbucks into your closet, and the big box stores grow all around and around.

For some strange reason, the destination formed in my mind for this shopping excursion was "CostCo." A vague mention of a friend about the "great deals on small televisons" put it in my mind like a BuyMe earworm. This small mental disorder was even stranger since the last thing I need in my life is another, smaller television. On second thought, the absence of need was probably why I wanted one.

After a few false starts I pulled into the CostCo parking lot. If I hadn't been in a Internet-overload hypnotic state it would have struck me immediately as a bad idea. The sign certain? Cars shadowing shoppers slowly back to wherever they happen to be parked. Pick the wrong shopper gaggle and you can find yourself far, far away from the store entrance. I got lucky and shadowing a gaggle of shoppers found a slot near the entrance. It was the end of my luck.

Like Rick who came to Casablanca for the waters, I'd joined CostCo for the tires. It makes a certain amount of sense since the savings on these plebeian but necessary items can be substantial. Since buying the tires, I hadn't been back and hadn't been exposed to the main cavern. Grabbing an abandoned cart, I entered the cavern of CostCo.

Remember the haunting Cooleridge poem "Kubla Khan" that he wrote on the downside of an opium jag?
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Except for "caverns measureless" and the opiate effect, Costco's nothing like that.

I don't know why Wal-Mart is taking all the heat for box-store degradation of truth, justice and the American Way of Really Rich Americans. A brief tour of Costco reveals it is a much cheesier organization with the exploitation of the aged, the alien, and the disabled more obviously on display. But who knows why some companies become fashionable to disparage while others get a semi-pass? It probably has to do with the jerking knee that says either, "Biggest is baddest," or "The deepest pocket is the easiest to pick."

The Wal-Mart stores that I've been in have the charm of a Swiss village compared to the Gulag atmosphere of CostCo. Oh, Costco has a look. It is as if the Costco "Decor" vice president decreed, "Hey, just pour a slab of concrete, drop bunches of crap here and there on the grid, and be done with it. Huh? Oh, okay slap up some industrial shelves so the bodegas of the world can find their salsa stock. And bolt some airport landing lights on the ceiling so you need to put on sunscreen before entering. Just light that sucker up so that nobody can smuggle a buttload of pretzels out the door."

It is also evident to a single person in CostCo -- in about two nanoseconds -- that he or she needs to rent a family of 12 illegal aliens to get any real value out of the place. I mean, I like pickle relish on hot dogs just fine, but a two gallon container is probably enough that I can pass some on to my heirs in my will if I live another twenty years.

But all this carping arises from, as Wordsworth decreed, "Emotion recollected in tranquility." The truth is that the moment I entered the measureless cavern of Costco my brain was colonized by its Conquistaconsumadoras and I was plunged into a fugue state.

I glanced at the recommended "small televisions" and rapidly lost interest. Still, my reptile consumer brain said, "You've come all this way and the bargains abound around you. You have to get something. Shop, shop, shop, my precious, you eyelids are getting heavy, your wallet is getting light..... shop.... shop....."

In this brain-wiped state I rolled my cart about the wasteland eating this or that small bite of a food sample offered by one person or another for whom English was neither the first, second, nor third language. All the samples were, as I imagine most of the food "bargains" were, decidedly mediocre. It was as if Costco has decided to make all food "Not Available in Stores" available in their stores. The idea here is that if you take a bite of "Hoosegow Chili" you incur an obligation to by a large vat of the stuff.

At some point in my trance I must have put things in my cart although I kept wandering away and losing it, and then spending five minutes finding it again. I remember noticing, in some vague way, that the crowd and their gigantic carts was growing denser and denser as the minutes ticked away, but I did not yet understand the deeper more horrible meaning of the hordes.

Then, just as my degradation deepened, I was saved. Saved by the bell. My cell-phone rang.... loudly and vibrating at the same time. Hard to ignore the vibrating ring in your pants. I answered it. It was a fellow Pajamaista (who assumes that I am always in front of the screen) about a detail on the home page. He was startled when I told him I wasn't in front of the computer and mumbled, "I... must... shop... must... shop." He hung up and I found that, suddenly, I'd been slapped back into reality. And it was grim.

The horror. The horror. I realized that I had, in my fugue state, placed myself in the back of a gigantic box-store with a sideline in food on the Saturday before the Superbowl.

This is not where you want to be unless you have a burning-down football habit, which I do not. I barely know that the football, baseball, or basketball season is on; except for the fact that the basketball season is pretty much always on. (That's the running, jumping, hanging on goals tall-guy game, right?)

Still, there I was, blind and gulping like a cave fish in the deepest depths of the Costco caverns, the part back by the topless temple of toilet paper, 24 hours before kick-off, and around me countless hordes were preparing to feed even larger hordes.

I shoved my way through the cartlock around the beer and hot dogs to the center aisle where I could see, barely, the front of the store. In one horrified glance I saw that the Superbowlers were clogging the register lanes to a depth of about 500 fathoms. A quick consultation of my check-out line algorithm determined that if I joined the line at that moment with my cart I might reach the parking lot with my crap around the end of the second Clinton administration.

This is the kind of blood-simple shopping moment that makes grown men ask, "How bad do you want the stuff you've got?"

Hard to answer since, frankly, I wasn't sure exactly what I'd put in the cart in the first place. A glance down into the cart let me see my shame. It seems that in my shopping daze I'd decided I needed, out of everything on offer in Costco, two large Orchid plants and eight low-energy light bulbs. I have no idea why I put them in. Perhaps because the orchid plants made it easy to spot the cart in order to put nothing else in it.

Two orchid plants and eight light bulbs in a cart at the back of Costco equals one abandoned shopping cart, and me back in the car and heading to the nearest south Seattle dive bar in order to clear my mind.

But first I called my colleague back to thank him for snapping me out of it.

As I left the parking lot I had to drive carefully between the endless hordes pushing large carts filled with mediocre food and very large television screens. There would be a lot of cooking and assembly and swearing far into the night in Seattle. I wished them well.

Now I'm back online and much more interested in what's going on today. It's so calm here. Just me and you and you're pretty quiet. Soon the Superbowl kickoff will roll around and everyone who went to Costco and all the other stores yesterday will be at home for hours this afternoon. The only thing more boring than the much-touted and now utterly predictable ads will be the game itself.

Want to go shopping? I know where you can get a great deal on orchids and light bulbs this afternoon. Best of all, there'll be nobody in the stores.

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

Posted by Vanderleun at February 4, 2007 1:24 PM | TrackBack
Save to del.icio.us


"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

I remember Marianne.

The "hair from she * * * * would tie a goat," as I recall.

The song required more Bowdlerization than "La Bamba."

Posted by: Grumpy Old Man at February 4, 2007 4:46 PM

The reason that CostCo is acceptable and WalMart is not is that CostCo is west coast and therefore cool. WalMart is middle america, and therefore deserving eradication. Or had you not noticed that ordinary behavior for someone from the pacific states is generally considered pathological eldewhere? Sort of a running social experiment with no control group and no evaluators.

ed in texas

Posted by: ed in texas at February 4, 2007 7:40 PM

In one article Gerard takes swipes at Costco and Starbucks, two homemade icons of the lukewarm Scandihoovian pastiche that substitutes in Seattle for the passions of life. This is about like standing on the streets of Lincoln, Nebraska, and telling people you're not a Cornhuskers fan. And of course in this post Gerard admits to not being much of a football fan either. Tsk tsk.

If Seattle was capable of righteous indignation on its own account, I'd worry about Gerard's safety on the streets. But for good or ill, Seattle in her smug self-absorption considers her critics mentally suspect and eminently ignorable. It's a comfortable place to go against the prevailing currents. Where in other parts of America you'd find yourself shunned at church and sidelined at work, here they invite you to cocktail parties so they can cluck good-naturedly at your alien density.

There's a Mary Engelbreit drawing that says it all, terminally cute though it may be. It's a drawing of a hayseed blonde in a braid, overalls and checked shirt, with her feet up next to a TYPEWRITER on a massive old desk. Out the window over her shoulder you see fields and a cow. And the caption: We don't care how they do it in New York.

But enough of this. Time for me to get down to Costco and buy a few dozen tanker-sized containers of things for my hundred closest relatives. Because they may be taste-impaired, but they still love to eat!

On the way home we'll stop at Starbucks for a latte, watch the Boeing planes approach the city over the Microsoft campus, and maybe head down to REI to check out the winter sale. Or Nordstrom, for something a little more stylish but still, the ultimate virtue in Seattle, PRACTICAL. There's at least 17,584 rainy days until spring, and you can never have too many fleece jackets.

Posted by: askmom at February 5, 2007 3:29 AM

Awesome post. I got here via Bad Example.

I have a similar problem when I am bored. I don't live anywhere near CostCo, so i use Best Buy! I guess I am a slave to the PS2. When I get bored, I just have to have a new PS2 game.

Posted by: fmragtops at February 5, 2007 2:14 PM

I am the world's worst shopper and go only to real stores for a well defined purpose, like buying a string of pearls or strapless evening dress.

All else can be done through catalogs and customer service representatives.

That said, last year I got talked into a similar "Costco moment" that I hope never to repeat. Ever.

While living and going to school in DC, a "friend" talked me into going to AIIIIIIKA, or something like that, with her. I had heard its praises for a long time and---okay I admit it-- was curious.

She insisted that I go with her on her next trip.

The store was located, about as much as I could discern--somewhere between DC and Philadelphia, PA.

As the appointed time drew closer, and even without computer fatigue, I began to get woosey.

I tried to get out of it, but in the end I acquiesced----but only under my terms of engagement which was "taking my own car."

Yes, over the years, I have found taking one's own separate car to be a rather brillant way of engaging while disengaging at the same time, especially, in iffy situations.

Well anyway, I agreed to follow her there. The interstate procedure was nothing short of hellish. Several times I bailed on unknown exits, only to be found and led back to the promise land through the miracle of cell phones.

At long last, I arrived at AIKA at least 30 mintes behind my friend--no, by this time she was my "acquaintance"--as, I knew that we could never be forever friends, upon entering the parking lot.

And actually, I never saw her there that day...and would no longer answer my cell phone, when she tried to call and locate me.

I went in alone and began to wind through a labyrinth-like monolith. About 3 minutes into this indoor hike, I realized I had a dental appointment in outer Mongolia, and tried to leave. Unfortunately, the store was not designed for a "quick exit" and soon realized I was destined to walk the path I had chosen to start to the end--and the end could be very, very far away.

II found myself going through claustrophia, dementia, bladder and sexual dysfunction and a host of other well known dis---engagements, all at the same time.

At some point, I got a hold of myself and asked some attendent the best was to get out of there.
And he told me.

Without further ado and without a single item to show for this exercise in futility, I made my way in the aforementioned path to freedom. And when I finally made it to the promised land of the front doors and the parking lot, I sighed major relief.

Never again.

I no longer cared about anything but getting out and never, ever getting near such a place again.

It's enough to make you hopeful for things yet unseen.

Posted by: Webutante at February 5, 2007 2:38 PM

I'll say one thing in favor of the local Costco, industrial-ugly though it is-- it's a good place to stretch the funds donated to our local no-kill cat shelter. The savings on the cats' favorite food and the extra-large bags of kitty litter are a big help. (Of course, Ocicat Man in Manhattan would probably look down his pudgy nose at our furry Costco-fed "illegal aliens.")

Posted by: Connecticut Yankee at February 5, 2007 4:51 PM


Tell you what, the next time you get the urge to spend money you don't have on things you don't need, go instead to the Apple Store in Seattle and buy something for me. Start with an iMac, which should give you enough of a sticker shock to keep spenditis at bay for the next year. The model with the 17 inch monitor should do, and be sure to get a RAM upgrade. And don't forget to get shipping insurance, payable to me of course.

This has the advantage of you spending money you'd be spending anyway, but without something extra clogging up the house.


Posted by: Alan Kellogg at February 10, 2007 5:18 AM
Post a comment:

"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated to combat spam and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Remember personal info?