When I send my mental archivist for some good ol’ Christmas memories from my childhood, she brings me back not caroling or egg nog or chestnuts warming on a hot plate that we picked up from QVC for three easy payments of $19.95, but rather images of long lines at Macy’s and Sears and a store called “A&S,” which I think stood for Aimless & Shameless.
My mother would drag my brother and I throughout the mall for the annual drag-a-thon, lugging a 30-gallon paper shopping bag with twisted rope handles that held our winter coats. All that shopping, and the only shopping bag I remember is the bag with the coats.
And even more than waiting in line, I remember the carpets of those legendary department stores, beige and not too rough when you lay your face upon it, being mindful of the fallen staples and people walking around with sugar plum fairies and God knows what else dancing in their heads. For following your mother around while she did her Christmas shopping was exhausting, particularly when we were not being energized by our usual line-up of televised cartoons and sit-coms.
One of the perks of being a kid is that you can lay down on the carpet of a department store and no one calls the security guard. But it’s only department stores that seem to share this understanding. The Metropolitan Museum of Art…not so much.
But waiting in long mega-lines that wrap around Saturn is, of course, part of my memories of shopping in physical stores with my physical legs and physical wallet. I remember arriving at Macy’s one time with the intention of getting only a gift-card. It was late afternoon and the tension level was at least a Code Orange. I asked a security guard where the gift cards were, and he pointed to the register. The gift cards were indeed at the register, and leading up to the register was one of the aforementioned mega-lines. I asked the same security guard if it was really okay that I just step in front of all these people who had been waiting not-so-patiently, and he again pointed at the register, which I interpreted as a “yes.”
So I walked up to the register and grabbed a card, and started to address the cashier, and the man at the front of the line, holding four very large shopping bags bursting at the seams, said something to me that I cannot print here.
“No, it’s okay,” I said, waiving him off, “I’m just getting a gift card.”
When I got out the hospital I decided that it was perhaps time to do my shopping online.
My early forays into online consumerism were not success stories. I ordered a black faux-leather swivel desk chair so I could pretend I was Dr. Evil. But they sent me a burgundy chair instead. I’m doubt you’ve tried it, but it is very hard to look evil in a burgundy chair. So I called up the online merchant and they said to put the chair outside my apartment and that it would be picked-up and replaced with the chair I ordered.
I did what they said and they sent me a new chair. Unfortunately, the new chair was burgundy, too, and they had forgotten to pick up the old one. So now I had had two burgundy chairs in my apartment, neither one of which I could use. It looked like I was running a furniture store.
I’ve become much more adept and sophisticated since then. Last year, I ordered for my wife a digital camera. I typed in “digital camera” and the search engine returned so many results that I had to order more RAM for my computer to hold all the results. Luckily for me, that too was available online.
When I was finally able to view the results I saw that I didn’t know very much about digital cameras. Before I started my online search, I had thought that the only choice I had to make was the color. Apparently the color is the last choice you have to make.
The choices come in layers. First, what kind of a camera did I want? There was a “Point & Shoot,” a “Compact System,” and a “Digital SLR.” I looked around for a “Takes Pictures” kind of digital camera but I guess they had that one on backorder.
The second layer of choice is whether you want a standard, long-zoom, touch-screen, or waterproof camera. I was hoping to find one that could be dropped from the viewing gallery of any of the world’s great museums and still work…but again that option was not listed.
Then the third and, at least for me and my eyeballs, final layer of choices were the specifications. Megapixels, optical zoom, digital zoom, auto flash. There was even something called “burst shooting” which I had thought was available only with machine guns.
I downloaded all of the specifications of the different cameras into a spreadsheet and compared them. For days and nights I pored over the spreadsheets like an economist, trying to find the digital camera that would give my beloved the most Pareto-efficient picture possible along with a cute carrying case. Most of the data fit neatly into linear models, except for the option that allowed a photograph to be directly uploaded to Facebook without exercise of judgment.
Soon it was December 20, the last day for guaranteed Christmas Eve delivery while still getting the Super Savings shipping discount. My hands were shaking too much to type so I called up the store directly. And when I was I asked what I wanted to buy, I said, “A digital camera.”
“Oh, great, sir. We have plenty of those. What kind of digital camera would you like?”
This was it. The moment of truth. The moment when I put to use the superior knowledge that could be gained only from online shopping. I took a deep breath.
“Um, a pink one,” I said.
Happy Online Shopping, Everyone!