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The International Writers Magazine: Shopping

To Shop or Not
Don Bagley
Shopping is, for me, nerve wracking enough when everybody cooperates. The clerk announces the amount owed and the customer pulls out cash or zips an ATM card. I’m standing in a long line on the verge of a panic attack, and the guy at the front of the line is trying to pay for his groceries with a Blockbuster membership card.


He’s about eighty years old, stooped like a desk lamp, and slower than a DMV worker. He swipes the card three more times, and that’s after the cashier has informed him the card is wrong. Finally, the old man plucks the right card from his wallet, and he promptly drops it on the floor.

By this time I really need to take a leak. My nerves and my bladder are battling it out, each wanting to achieve discomfort dominance. I’m about to abandon my cart when the old guy finally finishes his thirteen item transaction. The line moves up. A wide little woman is next. She watches carefully as each item is rung up.

“Oh no,” she says. “Those are a dollar.”
“They ring up at $1.09,” says the cashier.
“Oh no.”

My hands pop free of the cart. The cart can take care of itself for all I care. It can move through the line like a toy boat pushed along by currents in a flooded gutter. I’m headed for my car. I’m going home to pee and mentally detox. The last thing I hear as I head out the supermarket door is the call for a manager price check.

For the nervous, there is no sanctuary like the modern living room. This protective box shelters one from the leering, sidelong glances of neighbors. With a television, you can watch everyone else, but they can’t see you. Of course you are still subjected to the violent entreaties of the phone and the doorbell. I put a “No Solicitors” sign on my door, and still they knock.

“Didn’t you see the sign?” I ask them.
“We’re not selling anything,” they say. “We’re here to spread the word of the Lord.”
“Does your church take tithing or collections?” I wonder.
“Get the hell off my porch.”

The phone calls are even worse. They try to trick you by asking a question that can only be answered with yes.

“Mr. Bagley, would you like to pay hundreds less for insurance?”
“Who wouldn’t?” I reply.
“Then let us send you the policy with an automatic sign up and cancellation of your old policy. If our insurance costs you more, you can call us within three days to cancel.”

The thought of trying to cancel while they put me on endless voice mail causes me to slam the phone down with such vigor that my blood pressure reaches levels unknown to Jackie Gleason.

The only thing that saves humanity from my total condemnation is that, once in awhile, people invent something really good. I’m a man so I’m biased toward a certain invention. No, it’s not the condom. A condom is something that sits in your wallet, week after week, and makes you feel like a loser. “Hey buddy,” says your condom. “I’ve been in here for weeks. Maybe you should try a gay bar. I might get to stretch a little.”

I’m talking about what guys really want. I’m talking about a big screen TV. God invented the living room with just enough space for a huge television set and a couch. Sometimes there’s a little extra space for a recliner or a fireplace. Those things are nice, but God bless the TV. I don’t even go to movie theaters any more. Why should I?

I refuse to pay eleven dollars a ticket to watch a movie about blue people who have mastered gravity, yet still use bows and arrows. And the popcorn is priced like filet mignon. A small Coke is $5.95. And when you have seated yourself in the claustrophobic confines of the multiplex theater room, you are subjected to thirty minutes of Toyota commercials. When I was young, they showed cartoons before the features. Now they advertise that you can rent the theater to have meetings and trick people into time share scams. So you can cheat others in the same venue where you were cheated.

Watching a movie at home includes beer. That alone should seal the deal for any man. Especially a nervous one. I’ve got a nearby video rental store that rents DVDs for a dollar a day. Microwave popcorn is about thirty cents a bag. Beer’s a dollar-fifty a bottle. Total cost of movie = five bucks. That’s less than the small Coke at the multiplex, and I’m including gas.

I hate to say this, but I love corner convenience stores. The reason I hate to say it is because they mark up everything to ridiculous levels. It’s expensive to buy things there. But you get in and out so fast, and the Arab guy is so pleasant, it’s a nervous man’s utopia. It’s like there’s a tax on stress-relief. You pay more to suffer less. I’m reminded of those wealthy people who travel to the airport in the back seat of a large car. When they get there, they are driven straight out onto the tarmac, where they step out of the car and directly board the plane. How wonderful is that? The closest thing I can experience to that is to purchase beer at a corner convenience store. Ding, ding, rings a bell, as I make my regal exit.

Air conditioning is another invention I really like. It allows us to live in places that are so hot, a camel wouldn’t linger there. California has a pleasant climate. By pleasant we mean no snow shoveling. The winters are merely rainy. We try not to admit that the summers are brutal. Triple digit temperatures are common in the central valley. One summer was so hot that the power company declared a “heat storm.” They gave rebates to people who had paid over five hundred dollars a month to cool their houses. Honestly, what in the hell is a “heat storm?” Doesn’t it just mean that the weather was too damn hot for human habitation?

On those searing hot days, I like to stay in my living room and watch my big screen TV as the air conditioner wheezes. I may have a barbecue. If I do, I run out to flip the steaks, and then I run back inside to the cool. The side of meat that faces up from the grill is getting just about as much heat as the side facing the burning charcoal. Summer steaks cook fast. I generally turn them on commercial breaks.

Two things that I really hate about summer are cars with enormous, thumping subwoofers and Harley Davidson motorcycles with exhausts that have been modified to produce noises that resemble a series of shotgun blasts. For some reason, the miscreants who operate these monstrous devices only bring them out in warm weather. It’s as if they’ve been sent by a petty god to compensate for the dry day.  “You’re gonna have some misery, no matter what,” says the petty god.

In summer I shake my little fist at the heavens.

I have learned, mostly by watching “Cops,” that most crime could be eliminated if people no longer lived in trailers.  In one episode, an officer responded to a domestic violence call. When he arrived at the park, a woman walked out of her mobile home, bleeding about the head and shoulders. It turned out that she and her husband banged up each other’s faces with empty beer bottles. “Why’d you want to do that?” the cop asked. “Look around,” said the bloodied woman. “It’s a trailer park.”  In another episode, two men who shared one of those tiny, rounded trailers beat each other up so badly, they were unrecognizable. The reason? They ran out of beer.

“No beer? I’ll kill your ass!”

While I understand that running out of beer is a problem, it should not result in violence. There are many, many houses with refrigerators that don’t contain a single beer, and yet no one in the house is bleeding from his ears. I have to blame the trailer. People should live in homes that can’t be picked up and wrung out like a dish sponge by a minor tornado. We should live in homes that don’t bounce when you walk, or sway when you stumble. An off balance load in the washing machine shouldn’t shake the place like a Chilean earthquake.

Travel trailers are probably even more egregious. People who own these things tend to live in perfectly respectable houses, large ones, in fact. From time to time I suppose they feel stressed out by their pampered lives in McMansions. They find it necessary to pile their families into their RVs and seek out a life on the road, as it were. They park in an RV park, hook up their sewage and water and cable TV and internet and phone line, and they “rough it.” Ah, to be one with nature. They don’t run out of beer because they never had any to begin with. No, they’re well stocked with Chardonnay and Pinot.

Personally I find travel to be most disagreeable. Nasty disturbing thing, travel. I still recall the symptoms from my younger years. It begins with someone else’s idea. “Oh let’s don’t,” I would say. But a relative insisted that if we were to depart from Sacramento by car at, say, three a.m. or so, we would reach Disneyland by one o’clock in the afternoon. And what could be more reasonable than that? It was assumed that somehow we would arrive refreshed, chipper, and ready to embrace the magic kingdom with gusto. The plan was perfection itself.

When the bedside alarm rang out, my arm swung over to cold cock it, knocking it to the floor, where it warbled in protest. The wife and I had packed the bags the night before, and we had simply to carry our four year old son to the car.  I took a cursory shower, my head hanging like a prisoner’s during de-lousing. Once we were in the car, we looked around with bloodshot eyes to make sure that our son and belongings were in there. It was darker than an economic forecast outside. We drove to my brother’s house to meet up with his sleep-deprived family. Our two cars began the long journey south.

The sun rose grudgingly on our east side as we barreled southward on Interstate 5. We stopped for coffee, which made my stomach pucker painfully, and then continued. At one point we stopped at a highway rest stop that was infested with violent mockingbirds, one of which attacked and permanently traumatized my wife. She broke the strap off her purse while trying to beat the bird to death.

A couple of black feathers fluttered to the sidewalk.

We pressed on, ever southward, as we approached L.A. Los Angeles is the largest sprawl on the west coast. It has no beginning or end. It is the Alpha and Omega of California. You have to come to terms with it at some point. You drive down out of the Grapevine, and you notice the giant concrete shrouded pipes that feed water into the basin, water stolen from other parts of the state. The city stretches out like a mirage to the horizon and beyond. You can’t see all of it, because the air is too thick.

The traffic thickened up too. Soon we were going about five miles an hour. By the time we got to Anaheim, I was delirious with travel dementia. We found our hotel, and we later went to Disneyland. They tell me it was nice.

As I spend a lot of time at home, I rely on news programs to give me an eye on the world. Unfortunately, the programs refuse to cooperate. CNN would rather show me videos of Tiger Woods apologizing about his affairs. MSNBC is obsessed with value-added stock buy-downs. And FOX news has a blond chick who gushes about Bill O’Reilly. I thought TV was supposed to be an eye to the world. It’s really just an eye to TV.

I know way too much about Brittney Spears and Madonna. Why won’t they go away? I’d like a little more footage from Africa and the Middle East. Those are places where stuff happens. Those places are poor and disenfranchised. That’s where violent change occurs. You don’t want to live there, but somehow you are enthralled by the action and the struggle. Someday those people will do better. England was once a slave colony for Rome.

Thinking of Rome makes me extra nervous. There was no other empire on the planet that could challenge Rome. Yet Rome collapsed to barbarians. The United States is under threat of Islamic barbarians. Their victories include the 9/11 attack, and various airplane threats that have caused us to whimper and over-regulate air flight in our own country. I believe that these “wanna-be” terrorists have won great victories in forcing us to surrender our freedom to travel.

Fortunately for me, I don’t like travel anyway. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel for folks who travel a lot. Their lives have been made harder, and that bothers me.

So I switch channels. That’s the answer now to whatever ails you. Change the channel. Try National Geographic or Discovery. They might have a silverback ape or a killer whale eating sea lions. Try the Spike channel; you might catch the world’s dumbest accident victims.

Sometimes you can see Martha Stewart making sandwiches out of wallpaper glue. Or Jerry Springer interviewing lesbian polygamists. Jack van Impe predicting that Jesus will whip Obama with a hand towel. You might find a channel that tells you how to get rich with foreclosures. Maybe you’ll find a Mexican channel with a hot Latina girl dancing and swiveling like a turnstile.

That’s the United States; it’s a country of choices. And when Glenn Beck says that some agitators want to put it down, well, that sort of sticks in my craw. If I had a craw, which I’m not sure I do.

But I want to use my powers of discernment for good. I am not the kind of man who can go forth and put an end to murder. I have always relied on the kindness of stranglers. We, who exist to serve, serve, though we merely stand and wait for entitlements.

My nervousity, if you will, is so advanced that I receive disability compensation for it. I have days that are so bad I don’t leave the house. On those days it seems as though a grizzly has nudged up against the side of my house for a long nap. If I dare to open the door, sharp claws will rake my face. The out of doors merits no more than a peep through the mini blinds.

Truly, this is no world for a nervous man. It’s not surprising that a lot of my shaky comrades are ensconced in institutions. The institutions are full, in fact. That’s why many, like me, receive disability to stay home. We are a silent minority, standing behind closed blinds in dark living rooms. The backs of our heads may be seen through windows, surrounded with a halo of TV light. Nervous, flickering light.
© Don Bagley April 15th 2010

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