This year, my wife and I planned a Thanksgiving dinner for 13 people: our five family members, plus eight guests.
On the day before Thanksgiving, I realized that we had only four dining chairs. A conclusion that should speak for itself, but here goes: Where would the other nine people sit?
Before I address that, we should ponder why a family of five has only four dining chairs. One could also add onto that, Why does a family of five also have a dining table actually intended for only four? What message is being sent here? About 25 years ago, I wrote a play called “Uncle Hem” in which a dysfunctional family of five has only four chairs, with one clearly and tyrannically reserved for the domineering female head of the household; throughout the play, the other four are constantly jockeying for a place to sit (or be) in that family. At the time, I had no idea just how prescient this play would be, although in the play it seems intentional, while in my family’s case, at some point my wife and I bought a four-person dining set and then never got a new one as our family grew. This seems to have served us well enough, especially when our eldest was off at college or living elsewhere, and when we’ve had a guest or two, we’ve added a padded folding chair. But eight more people? Unless they wanted to sit outside on patio furniture for their Thanksgiving meal — an idea my wife floated! — we’d need more chairs.
Which is how I came to join Costco last month.
First, on that day before Thanksgiving, I called around at party rental houses seeking rental chairs. When I told them that I needed them for Thanksgiving, I was laughed at. Evidently, one reserves party rental chairs much further in advance during a heavy party-rental-chair season. So it became clear that I’d need to buy them — which was fine. We entertain frequently and hey, perhaps people might like to sit down now and then. I texted my 13-year-old and offered him lunch of his choice if he’d accompany me to Costco. He agreed, I drove home to pick him up in my wife’s minivan, and off we were.
After 20 minutes of circling the Costco parking lot like a carrion bird waiting for someone to die in the desert, we got lucky as a spot was vacated by an Asian couple screaming at their children in a shrill and unrecognizable language. Inside, Costco proved to be just what I’d feared: an overwhelming, overstuffed, impossibly impassable hive of shopping frenzy. I thought, This is like a pyramid in Ben Carson’s mind, but instead of being stuffed with grain preserved for millennia, it’s stuffed with people elbowing each other out of the way for goods. But, yep, I found what we needed right away — padded folding chairs that readily passed my personal comfort testing — and so after joining Costco on the spot, I commandeered a long sleigh-like cart, loaded up the chairs, and carefully steered the sleigh through narrow lanes, edging around crowded display pits and huddled masses of shoppers. Much like the 1970 Ford Country Squire station wagon, the sleigh proved impossible to see over; whatever lay ahead of that extended hood and, gracious, down by the wheels, was most definitely terra incognito. Nearing the register, a robust frazzle-haired middle-aged woman wheeled around and shrieked at me, “STOP HITTING ME WITH YOUR CART! THAT’S THE SECOND TIME YOU HIT ME!” I apologized, and then said, “If you’d said something the first time, maybe I wouldn’t have done it the second time.” Which just added to her visible frenzy. I paid for our purchase — cash or Amex only!, the ways of Costco being arcane to us — and we headed home to unload.
Since then, I’ve returned to Costco twice and both times have been unable to park. I suppose I could ride a bicycle there, but given that the entire point of Costco is to overburden yourself with purchases, how would I get any of it home? The “enterprise” membership to Costco cost $110, meaning that those $14.99 chairs thus far have actually cost me $28.74. I hope to be able to park at Costco some time again in the next year so that I can buy other things just to lower the per-item cost of those chairs.
Yesterday, my wife and daughter and I went grocery shopping. I floated the idea of going to Costco. My wife, who had been excited when I joined Costco, said, “You want to go to Costco? NOW? You’ll never find parking! There’s nowhere to park!” My daughter, who went with me on one of those fruitless trawlings of the Costco parking lot, grimaced at the thought. “NO!” she said, “NO! I don’t want to go!” The previous time I had been headed to Costco, my youngest had insisted that I pull over at the next corner, immediately, and drop him off so that he could walk one mile home instead of going to Costco. Idea for updating Dante: There’s the 7th Circle of Hell, and below that, there’s the Costco Parking Lot.
So, yesterday, my daughter and I went to Target instead. Target (or “tar-shay”) is the other approved shopping destination of blue staters. Yes, we are stereotypes. We will never get caught dead in Walmart or Kmart, and Sears remains iffy, but Costco and Target are approved, acceptable alternatives. At Target, we loaded up on La Croix. La Croix is the approved beverage of blue staters. Twenty-five years ago, when I worked at 20th Century Fox, I learned about Perrier and Pellegrino, which, at the time, I couldn’t imagine drinking. Now my family is deeply into La Croix sparkling waters, and especially the abstruse flavors such as pamplemousse and, newly discovered yesterday!, mure-pepino (a.k.a. blackberry-cucumber). This may all be filtered with radioactive waste, for all I know, and it definitely gives me gas, but it’s a thrill to sample it blindly over ice and try to figure out what faint flavor this overpriced carbonated water contains. It deeply thrills me in some way that when I was back in southern New Jersey in November, my sons and I discovered that not only did local supermarkets not carry La Croix, no one had heard of it. This seemed like a victory for our sophisticated tastes and a reminder that I’d been right to leave provincial South Jersey behind decades before. (These self-congratulatory feelings, however fleeting, explain the triumph of upscale branding, in which it’s better to say a drink has the flavor of “pomme-baya” rather than “apple-berry” and also why our house is filled with Apple products. You’re welcome, Apple shareholders.)
After piling 10 cases of La Croix into our cart, we headed for the kitchen section to review griddles, my having thrown away our griddle that morning when I noticed its surface coating shredding off into my eggs. I found a perfect new griddle hanging on display at the price of $29.99, and then did something I don’t believe I’ve ever done before — I fired up my Amazon app to see what the same thing would cost if ordered online that very moment. Amazon claimed that the griddle is “normally” $45, “normal” being some time period that I don’t believe ever existed, but that it was available right that moment for $20.99. Which meant that I was going to pay a 33% premium if I wanted it right now. I thought about this and decided two things: 1) I didn’t want to wait 1-2 days to have a griddle, this being an instant-gratification culture and therefore a delay in purchasing seeming frankly un-American; and 2) it seemed deeply “unfair” to shop at Target, which is assuming all those brick-and-mortar costs, so that I could buy at Amazon. (Leaving aside whether or not it’s “unfair” for Target to try to charge me more.) So I bought it, feeling very blue-state-good about doing the right thing. Never mind that one of the reasons we went to Target is because at our local Ralphs supermarket La Croix is $4.29 a box, which seems unreasonable to me and would therefore limit my enjoyment of kiwi-sandia and other flavors, and at Target it’s $3.69, and so, yes, we’d made this trip to save $6, and we’d just overspent on something else by $9. Proving once again that price may be important, but branding is paramount.
Emma and I checked out with our purchases and started to wheel our heavily laden shopping cart outside when we noticed it was raining. This is newsworthy around here. Not just raining — pouring. Well, not to worry. We’d just wheel the cart to our car, which I’d parked to the extreme west, past Lowe’s and Staples, so as to avoid the Costco-like infuriating parking lot of misery and death that fronts Target. We got oh, about half a block away, just to the edge of Lowe’s, and were not yet soaked through, when we came upon a post-apocalyptic collection of abandoned shopping carts, a sight right out of “The Walking Dead.” Now I had a sinking feeling. “Um… I hope our cart is going to make it past here,” I offered. Because at some shopping centers, carts have sensors that prohibit their moving too far away and getting stolen. “I don’t think so,” Emma said. And, sure enough, we then ground to a halt. We couldn’t move the cart one micron. It was like trying to plow a field by shoving a Kenmore dishwasher ahead of you. So Emma pulled up the hood on her sweatshirt and waited while I ran off into the rain to retrieve my car. When I got back, the closest I could park was 30 feet away, so there we were, shuttling cases of La Croix and that griddle in the downpour.
When I hear some people excitedly offer up plans to “let’s go shopping!” I can’t figure out their enthusiasm. And I don’t think that’s going to change.