This is not a political blog. I have no desire to rant and rattle on about my political views and why you should or should not vote for this one, that one, or the third one who really shouldn't even be running because he's just mucking up the chances of the second one. There are plenty of blogs exactly like that, though, so if that's the horse you want to ride, well, do a search and saddle up, cowboy.
This is not a blog about the short-comings of the American education system or the stupidity of the next ( or any) generation. If you think the school system failed you and you can still read this, then congratulations,Kilroy! You managed to rise above it. Kudos to you.
This is absolutely not an anti-American blog. I may have named it "Stupid America", but as corny as it sounds, I really do love this country. I will, however, admit I am often embarrassed by it. I just don't understand how a country that once gave us Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Sojourner Truth and Walt Whitman could now be serving up Real Housewives, teen vampires, info-mercials, Humvee limousines and all things Kardashian. Where, exactly, did we go off-script? This blog is my journal of musings on American culture and mores as I try to find some answers.
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Dark Black Friday Of My Soul
Black Friday. The very words make me shudder. In America, Black Friday refers to the Friday after Thanksgiving, the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season. Every year, after their Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie, thousands upon thousands of Americans get in the car and drive to their local malls to stand in line outside various retail outlets, waiting for them to open ridiculously early in the morning so that they may get "amazing deals!" on "a huge selection of fantastic merchandise!". During the past decade or so, Black Friday shopping has been elevated to something more resembling a contact sport than a day at the mall. Retailers who traditionally opened at some time around 7am the day after Thanksgiving first started opening at 6, then 5, and now they open at 3 or 4 in the morning, with some opening at midnight, and others just not bothering to close at all or opening late on Thanksgiving night. This year, many stores opted to stay open on Thanksgiving day as well. They figured, what better way to get a jump on competitors than to start the sales on Thursday, turkey and family be damned?! I'm not talking about supermarkets, whose services are often necessary on big food-centric holidays, and I'm not talking about small businesses that cater to neighborhood crowds. These are major retailers like Walmart, Toys R Us, Old Navy and even Sears. Seriously, how much more money does Walmart really need that they couldn't see fit to give their employees a nice Thanksgiving Day off?
And how badly does anyone need an iPod or flat screen TV that they sacrifice one of the only major holidays everyone in the country celebrates ( the other being Independence Day, of course) to join the huddled masses like an immigrant at Ellis Island, waiting beside the "Golden Door" of......K-Mart? Why would you want to ruin the holiday by bundling up ( well, maybe not in Florida or Louisiana, but definitely here in the Northeast) and standing for hours in the cold pre-dawn November darkness to go shopping? Is saving that extra 15% really worth it? Yes, I know there are plenty of people who cannot stand to be around their families, either nuclear or extended, for more than a few hours at a time. And yes, Thanksgiving is a day famously full of family strife and foibles. Thanksgiving is one of those extra-sensitive days when an argument about canned vs. fresh cranberry sauce can result in someone getting cut out of the will. But if we didn't have these special family moments, think of all the therapists who would be out of business, not to mention what it would do to stand-up comedy. Family strife creates jobs, people! Keep it up.
Retailers should be ashamed, and so should every single person who is reading this blog on the laptop they got at Best Buy as a Black Friday Doorbuster at 4 AM. There is almost no one day we can all agree upon to celebrate our, um, "American-ness". Independence Day should be the big one, but most people call it "4th of July" and treat it as a summer three day weekend. We display flags and wear Old Navy tank tops with patriotic designs on our way to cookouts or to the Hamptons or Cape Cod or Tahoe or wherever people in any particular part of the country go to celebrate a three day summer weekend holiday. Sure, we realize what the hoopla is about, and we set off fireworks or watch the big displays on TV, but it's almost more of a summer bank holiday than a celebration of our national identity. Thanksgiving, for some reason, seems to be more in that vein. It's the start of the Holiday season, it's family and food centered, it's a celebration of the bounty of the land and of the country.
Not that a celebration like that is unique to America. Almost every culture has some sort of harvest feast day. In Ghana they have a three day festival called Homowo, during which they eat yams mashed together with hard boiled eggs. For three days. That should make you see your leftover turkey in a new light. In Bali they celebrate Nyepi, a sort of harvest fest/New Years' celebration that just seems like a lot of work. Three days before Nyepi, all effigies of the gods must be taken and ceremonially washed in the river (or other handy body of water, I suppose) to cleanse them anew. The day before Nyepi, a mass exorcism is performed, which could be fun, I don't know. Then, on the day of Nyepi, you do absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. No work, no cooking, nothing. You sit and reflect. And no sex either, so don't even try it. In Northern India they celebrate Lohri, during which kids go door to door soliciting treats and throwing red powder and water on people. Then they have a huge bonfire and save the ashes, which are considered to bring luck. And Martinmas is widely celebrated as a harvest fest in Europe and Latin America. They eat special meat pies and pastries, and often there is a procession of kids dressed up and parading through the streets with paper lanterns. This provides ample photo opportunities for parents so they can mortify their teens in years to come.
Yeah, we may not be the only country with a harvest party, but ours is the only one that comes with hand-outline turkeys and pilgrim hats and Squanto. Come on, folks! The first settlers of Plymouth Colony survive that long, cold arduous winter of 1620-21 with the help of the Native Americans, and then have a bountiful harvest ( also with help, lots of help, from the Native Americans). They celebrate with a three day feast and invite all their Wampanoag friends to the party, saying nothing of their future plans for "manifest destiny". Then, 242 years later, President Lincoln declares, "Hey! It's Thanksgiving!"( it was celebrated during those 242 years, but Lincoln is the guy who made it official on the final Thursday on the final full week of November each year). We're supposed to celebrate this day by actually giving thanks- for food, shelter, friends and family, whatever it is for which we are thankful. And hopefully, we take a look around and realize that even in lean times, we are better off than some, and maybe we reach into our pockets and give a little to those less fortunate. There is absolutely no way that Walmart or Banana Republic fit into that category.
The people who drew the shortest stick in all of this are the intrepid retail employees. For these poor souls, there is no option. If they are scheduled to work, they work. If they don't, very often they can get into serious trouble and sometimes even lose their jobs. This past weekend, I heard one retail employee interviewed on the local news say, "well, in this economy, I'm just happy I have a job". OK. I get that. But wouldn't you be even happier if you didn't have to leave your family gathering early so you could try to get some sleep, before waking( if you get to sleep at all) at 3 AM, maybe earlier, to make sure you look nice and presentable while you cater to the rampaging hordes of cranky people who have made a choice to shop at 4 AM? Of course you would. I've worked retail, and I've worked on Black Friday, and I will say this: no one who works on Black Friday really wants to be there. Not a one. And if you're one of the rampaging horde, make no mistake. They may be smiling but they are looking at you and thinking, "idiot".
The real culprits, the ones who started all this mess, are the retail executives. Not the store managers or ASM's, but the ones at the top of the food chain. The ones with the corner offices and expense accounts, who, I guarantee you, are spending every Thanksgiving holiday enjoying four consecutive days off, celebrating with their loved ones, watching the game on TV, getting 18 holes in at Hilton Head, or more likely, Poipu Bay golf club on Oahu. What do they care if thousands of employees who are chronically underpaid and receive minuscule raises each year ( we're talking as low as a 15 cent per hour raise) if they even get a raise, have to cut their holiday short? It's all about the bottom line. The bigger the profit, the better their bonuses at the end of the year.
There is a popular theory that Black Friday is so named because it is the day when retailers who supposedly operate at a loss much of the year, show profit, and go from being "in the red" to "in the black", from the traditional accounting practice of using black ink to denote assets, red for losses. Yeah. This is a total fabrication. Do you honestly think a stores could stay in business if it was operating at that much of a loss for most of the year? Not a chance. But even some retail managers don't seem to realize this.
I remember our Ops Manager at my place of employment ( a big, high-end New York based retailer) reciting this exact story to her bored captive audience at a rally meeting one year. "This is why it is so important for you to get here on time this Friday and really do the best you can to make sure we get those sales!", she whined in her sing-song Minnie Mouse voice. I think she was honestly trying to make us believe that if we were even five minutes late for work,or if we did not smile big enough or get enough sales, the stock market would crash and we'd all be modern-day Tom Joads in no time. Not that she'd have any idea who Tom Joad was. I think her tastes ran more to Harlequin romances than Steinbeck. Thing is, she was just as much a victim as the rest of us. She hailed from the Midwest and would have loved the chance to have a nice Thanksgiving with her family there. It wasn't her fault we were all miserable and angry about having to work crazy hours on the day after Thanksgiving.
Some people think Black Friday is the day the stock market really did crash back in 1929, setting the stage for the Great Depression, but this was actually Black Thursday. Black Friday was used to refer to the Fisk/Gould scandal of 1869. And yes, I did have to look that up. In the 1970's cops in Philadelphia began referring to the day after Thanksgiving as "Black Friday", due to the massive amount of traffic and incidents on that day. The name slowly spread, until today there are actually Black Friday shopping tip sites on the internet, and, like I said, it's become something of a national obsession. One which I do not share. I understand that Friday after Thanksgiving marks the start of the Christmas shopping season. Why else would Macy's dish out all that dough to escort Santa down to Herald Square each year? And when you work in retail, you expect to have to work on some days you'd rather not. But stores should open at normal times, not in the middle of the night, or even on Thanksgiving. And people shouldn't mob the doors and trample anyone in their way on their quest for a cheaper Coach bag or a hard-to-get toy. It's your special Holiday, people. You should enjoy it. And you should give everyone else the chance to enjoy it, too.