John Hearn is a teacher at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, N.Y., and co-author of “Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq.” He recently completed the novel “Boxboy’s Long and Frightful Journey Home.”
We shopped rarely and with forethought and together. Shopping was a social ritual, a group activity that followed a set procedure. After the tax refund check arrived, usually in late March, when the cold ocean winds still swept the hills south of Boston, my mother gathered the four of us for our biannual trek uptown. Each of her three boys would get a pair of trousers, summer sneakers and a Red Sox cap, all at least a size too big, to better accommodate growth spurts. She feared the prospect of a child who had outgrown clothes that could not be easily replaced. “Don’t be so full of yourself,” she would admonish, after I complained that the new pants bunched up or the inexpensive sneakers turned skyward at the toes. “Do you really think everyone is looking at you?”
She shopped differently for her daughter. Mary would get two dresses, one for Easter that would become her Sunday dress; the other to be worn to school. A pair of Easter shoes would supplement her summer sneakers. Frankie, Billy and I would grow impatient and fidget as Mary tried on one outfit after another. Despite the cold, we wore our sneakers home as our shoes, typically in deep disrepair, had usually been tossed into Mr. O’Malley’s trash can.
Mr. O’Malley, who had gone to Sacred Heart elementary school with my mother, worked in a small shoe store. He knew of our circumstances and never charged us full price. Once, when the soles had separated from Frankie’s shoes and my shoes and been taped up by my father, he charged us nothing at all. “He is a good soul,” my mother said as we walked home.
At Christmas, we received things we needed: socks and underwear, a sweater to grow into. When Frankie got a paper route and hired me as his helper, we would put aside money so we could buy gifts for our parents. The Friday before Christmas, after delivering the last of the newspapers, we’d walk by the shops, assuring each other that we’d find perfect presents, ones they needed and wanted too. But they needed everything, and what they may have wanted we couldn’t afford and they never would have mentioned anyway. We’d stroll to the top of South Main and cross the street, gazing through each window as we walked back down to Plourdes, the bakery that had made the wedding cake for John F. Kennedy and his bride, Jackie, and had a picture of it on their wall. Then we turned east toward home.
Last year I watched news coverage of Black Friday with only mild interest. I knew what to expect. I saw or heard about lines hundreds of people long. A man, alone in a tent outside a Best Buy for a week or so, explained that he wanted a flat-screen television. Women in a Pennsylvania Victoria’s Secret engaged in a physical fight over yoga pants. Police dispersed an unruly crowd in North Carolina using pepper spray. A man was stabbed during a fight outside a Virginia Macy’s. In South Carolina a customer collapsed, was ignored by shoppers who stepped over his body, and died. In California, a woman pepper-sprayed some 20 people, including children, apparently to give herself a competitive shopping advantage.
Individually, the shoppers surging through store doors reminded me of boxers just before the opening bell, throbbing with adrenalin, focused, goal-oriented, menacing. As a group they resembled a mob on a looting spree. When I considered that most Americans are spending money we haven’t earned, money we borrow, money our grandchildren will have to repay, it occurred to me that these determined consumers were, in a sense, looting the coffers of their descendents.
I hated shopping. It was an activity filled with anxiety and embarrassment and guilt. It required that I deny myself: that I sit down, don’t fidget, listen, stop complaining, say thank you, shut up, don’t interrupt, stop staring at my brother, walk in the freezing cold and subdue the desire stimulated by the new and shiny to the modest reality defined by my meager paper-route profits. As an adult, though, I understand that neither the quantity nor the quality of the gifts really mattered. It was those social rituals I reluctantly shared with my family that remain a fundamental source of meaning. Shopping was all about the social processes that, like a shared meal or religious service, reminded us that we were together, as a family and congregation and neighborhood. We were embedded in a web of interdependence, a reality greater than ourselves, one in which we had to sacrifice our individual whims and desires.