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Inconspicuous Consumption
A modern shopper pulls herself up by her boot laces

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, January 20, 2008

When the shoelace on my left boot snapped (it had been weakened in an incident last winter with a cat), an observant college student in one of the classes I teach said with a smile, "Looks like it's time for some new boots."

I looked down. There was nothing wrong with the boot itself. "It's a shoelace," I said, and made a remark about buying a pair of new laces.

"At, like, a sewing store?" the young woman said, perplexed about where one might go to buy such an item. Others joined in the discussion, the sort of small talk you make as you gather books and put on coats after class.

"Oh, just Google the brand, and you can probably order direct from the company," offered one young man. "It's a shoelace!" I said. An utterly average, plain, brown shoelace. Somehow, the fact that my shoelace was no longer intact opened the door to a discussion of history, of cobblers and grandparents, junkyards and TV repair shops.

"Back in those days," one student said, "people tried to fix everything. It was a much better way to live."

" It's a shoelace!" I said. "You would give up on a shoe because of a broken lace?"

"Probably not an athletic shoe," one said with a shrug, an offering.

On my drive home, I decided not to get depressed about living in a society so quick to dispose, decided not to think about how, back in my day, parents didn't just buy you every new thing you thought you needed. For that matter, I decided not to think about how, back in my day, your teacher did not have to tell you to turn off the iPhone you got for Christmas even though you already had a perfectly functioning Razr V3. No, I decided I would not go to any of those places cranky adults go. I would just stop at the store and get me some shoelaces.

I pulled into the shopping area most conveniently located off the highway and scanned my choices: Costco, Best Buy, Target, Toyota, Home Depot, Pier 1, RadioShack, Blockbuster, Sprint, PetSmart, Sears.

I weighed Sears versus Target and opted for Target, and out of habit got a cart and went wheeling through the store in the direction of the pharmacy. I imagined foot care products, insoles and bunion cushions, and just figured, stupidly, that shoelaces would be found in the . . . foot department. The pharmacist assured me I was wrong, and said, woman to woman, "Shoes?"

"Shoes!" I said, thanking her, and went wheeling confidently forth, cutting through electronics, where a mother and a son were arguing about how virtually killing people should or should not be considered a sport, and then through appliances, where a man stopped me and asked me if I worked there. When I said no, he sighed, and so I slowed down out of a kind of politeness, and he asked me if I thought his wife would like a vacuum cleaner for her birthday. I winced. "Not even a Dyson?" he said. I just kept . . . wincing.

When I found the shoelaces, it felt like a victory. They were on sale for 48 cents. They were brown, 45 in/114 cm, Fashion Laces, Women's Low Cut 5 - 6 Pair Eyelets. Nothing more on the packaging. No promises of better tying power or advanced microfiber technology, nothing organic, nothing green, no information about animal testing associated with or without the making of the laces, no Web site listed for further lace information.

Just: 48 cents. A pair of laces. End of story.

There was something fantastically satisfying about the purity of this moment. It put me in a better place. I was Laura Ingalls on the prairie. I was a girl with a penny in her sweaty palm, just enough for a gum ball. I was lifted up and out of the world I have come to know too well. I put the laces in my cart, went wheeling forth. It was ridiculous to wheel a pair of shoelaces around that big store in that big cart, and I could feel all the old instincts flirting with me, all the urges to fill that cart, to not stop until I had about $100 worth of items in that cart, which would inevitably turn out to actually be $240 worth of items, which I would marvel at with the clerk, who would have just marveled about the same thing with the last customer.

But I didn't need anything except the shoelaces. Not one thing. If I thought long enough, I could have come up with plenty of things. But I decided not to think long enough. I wheeled my laces up to the register. The clerk was about my age. She had a fashionable slanted bob cut and a clip in her bangs. "It seems . . . wrong, doesn't it?" I said, holding up my puny purchase.

She smiled. "It's definitely a first for me," she said. With tax, my total came to 51 cents. "It's harder to buy less now than it is to buy more," she said. "Isn't that weird?"

I smiled smugly, a hero, an accidental champion of some vital human cause, and decided not to spoil things by mentioning the urge I suddenly felt, an actual craving, to stop at Best Buy and look at the plasmas.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

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