The tide of sin just keeps sweeping across the nation. As a result of measures that took effect last week, it is now legal to purchase a mixed drink at a public establishment in Kansas, and to go shopping in Maryland on Sunday. What on earth is the country coming to?
Ruin and damnation, is what I say. If you can get a mixed drink in Kansas, next thing you know you'll be able to dance in the aisle of the First Baptist Church or sing "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" in Tipper Gore's breakfast nook. As for Sunday shopping in Maryland, why, that stretches the imagination just about as far as it can go, and then some. Imagine! The very idea!
There's no getting around it: Sin has come to Maryland in all its fury, and by the end of the week the citizens of that once proud state will be wallowing in it. Packing the family into the wagon and blissing out at K mart, letting the kids go wild in Toys-R-Us, getting down and dirty at Banana Republic, blowing the budget at Brookstone, splurging on conspicuous display at Abercrombie & Fitch: Have they no principles? Have they no morals? Have they no shame?
More to the point: Have they no sense? The pertinent question is not whether people should be allowed to shop on Sunday but why on earth they would want to -- on Sunday or, for that matter, on any other day of the week. Doesn't anyone out there understand that the great era of American shopping is over, kaput, sayonara? Shopping in America is now approximately as much fun as mowing the lawn or washing the dishes: It's the same old shtick, over and over and over.
Years from now, when the grandchildren gather around their grandpappy's knee, I'll lean back, put a reminiscent smile on my face and mistily reflect: "You kids were just born too late. Why, back when I was a pup a man was a man and a shop was a shop. You could go into a store and see something there you couldn't see anywhere else. Shopping was an adventure then, kids, for the bold and the determined. Why, now shopping's so boring and so easy, just about anybody can do it."
And just about everybody does. Pundits talk about "recreational shopping" as the national pastime, or the national disease, but what I want to know is: What's so recreational about it? What fun's to be had when every mall not merely looks precisely like the last mall, but has precisely the same shops? It's the ultimate time warp. Whether you're in Stamford or Minneapolis, Baltimore or San Francisco, you find only the same damned stores selling the same damned products.
The full picture dawned on me a couple of months ago when, after flying from Baltimore to San Francisco, I decided to explore that city's downtown shopping district. I strolled along -- past a Doubleday Book Shop and a McDonald's and other branches and franchises of national enterprises -- when suddenly I found myself directly in front of ... I can barely bring myself to type the words ... directly in front of Jos. A. Bank. I had gotten just about as far from Baltimore as one can get and still be in the continental United States, and there I was, belly to belly with Baltimore's most famous haberdasher.
Jos. A. Bank. I first heard of it about two decades ago. You could buy its clothing two ways, by visiting the store in Baltimore or by ordering through its catalogue. That was it; Joe Bank was Baltimore through and through. But now, like virtually everybody else, it's everywhere; which is to say that in terms of distinctiveness, it's nowhere. I still buy its clothes, because I like (some of) them, but somehow the thrill is gone.
Ditto with the record store down the street. When I moved to Baltimore in 1978 it was a dingy place called Record and Tape Collector. Its decor left a good deal to be desired, but its stock was ample and its staff both helpful and friendly. After dinner the beagle and I used to wander down for a browse; she'd go in one direction, looking for crumbs, and I'd go another, looking for music. The staff welcomed both of us: The dog got friendly pats and I got a steady customer's special discount.
But now Record and Tape Collector is gone. It is called Record World, just like all the other Record Worlds that are popping forth up and down the East Coast. The floors have been carpeted and the classical LPs eliminated; at Record World -- "record"? -- it's compact discs or tape cassettes or else. The tapes are behind glass doors; if you want to look at one a salesperson unlocks the doors and stands by, on shoplifter alert. The salespeople are pleasant and courteous, but all my old friends are gone, and I could no more take the beagle there than I could take her to Brooks Brothers.
Speaking of which. When I was a pup and my pappy was fixin' me in WASPish ways, a trip to Brooks -- Mr. Brooks, my father called him, or it, or them -- was an event of religious significance. There were only two Brooks stores then, one in downtown Manhattan and the other midtown, and to pass through the heavy doors that opened onto Madison Avenue was to pass into Westminster Abbey. But now Brooks is everywhere, just like the pro sports leagues. It's even in Miami; Brooks Brothers in Miami! -- the ultimate oxymoron. Soon it will be in Baltimore, right there at the Inner Harbor with all the other branches and franchises; I rather doubt that as I pass through its doors I will feel myself to be at the right hand of God.
Clothes may or may not make the man, or the woman, but they do a lot less making when they are the same clothes that everyone else is wearing. To all intents and purposes distinctiveness has vanished from the American marketplace, except in a few of the shops that cater to the very rich and the artsy-craftsy places that deal in "folk" creations. To wear a shirt that displays Brooks Brothers' golden fleece or Ralph Lauren's polo player is not to express one's distinctiveness but to participate in an advertising campaign.
That people should want to spend their Sundays in stores selling these products, when they could be eating hard-shell crabs or sailing on the Chesapeake, is quite beyond me, but the one absolute certainty is that they will. An employe of a major mall outside Baltimore said last week that Sunday shopping will have a significant effect on business there, and no doubt she was right. Quite apart from the convenience that Sunday shopping offers to people who are preoccupied during the week with households and jobs, the lure of the mall is simply more than most Americans can resist; another day in which to succumb to it can only be heaven.
But if people are going to spend Sundays in mall heaven, they ought to do themselves a favor and have a bit of fun while they're at it. One of the truly perplexing oddities of American life is that so few of those people doing "recreational shopping" seem to be enjoying themselves. You'll find as many glum faces in a mall today as you found in Sunday school a century ago. Maybe that's the point: In church or at the mall, on Sunday we pay for our sins. But now we use credit cards.