Big Box, Bigger Disappointment

Major chain stores have always smacked of a certain defeat to me.

Inside the big box bookstore, Glen Beck’s new novel is displayed rather prominently, but there is nothing for a counterpoint, nothing in the “Radical Progressive” category, laid out in neat stacks on nearby tables. I put down the two books I have picked up in the last half hour and have a little debate in my head, weighing the merits of buying the books I have chosen for my mother’s birthday present. The Plus? I can buy them and wrap them tonight and mail them tomorrow and it won’t look entirely last-minute. The Minus? I have to buy them from this heinous chain store, with its whole sections on vampire lit, which is right past the stand of teen magazines, all of which feature Justin Beiber on their covers. I put the books back in their stacks and make a vow to visit my local bookstore tomorrow on my way home from work.

At the big box electronics store, the fiance mistakes my foot dragging and grumbling under my breath for not wanting to “nerd shop” with him. I consider this for a moment, that gadgets in general do nothing for me unless they had limited usefulness and were rendered obsolete by incumbent technology and were generally patented in between 1865 and 1985. No, I tell him, it’s not that I mind shopping for nerd stuff with you. It’s that we’re here. For effect, I fan my arm out to take in the scene before us.

A man is holding an iPad no less than 3 centimeters from his face and clutching and unclutching his fist at regular intervals at chest level. I presume he is legally blind, but after he does not move (save for his hand) for a few uncomfortable minutes even as the family of five children around him go absolutely apeshit over the iPads THEY are holding, I am convinced that perhaps his fillings have interacted with the iPad’s inner workings and that he either believes he is receiving messages from outer space, or he has become simultaneously magnetically suctioned to it and repulsed by it, a la Superman to Kyrptonite, and is acting out a very dramatic tussle with it, but all the effort of holding the iPad with one hand and clutching his fist with the other has left him with no energy to work his jaw into saying “Please help me. I need help”.

Somewhere, symphony music dripping with that the-underdog-is-running-his-field-goal-in-right-now-and-the-crowd-is-jumping-to-their-feet-in-slow-motion feeling is playing over a stereo system’s speakers. Indeed, right around the corner, in the TV section, a live football game is being broadcast and it works, with eerie coincidence, really, really well, with the music. This, of course, clashes with the sound of Uzis emptying their clips and tanks rumbling over ravaged landscapes in the video games department. Occasionally, a sonic boom rattles the atmosphere as an RPG meets its target. I don’t know which is more unnerving: the sound of the war scene being broadcast to everyone within earshot (including children) or the fact that I am actually considering the melodramatic music to be more offending to my eardrums.

The cash registers are noted by giant lighted cartoonish “price tags”; the place has all the charm and style points of a rodeo-sized arcade, which, it sort of is. There are buttons to press, plugs to pull, and screens to squint at. It’s all here: Guns, sports, machinery, and the occasional flash of exuberant yellow logo to remind you that you are still in a retail environment, and not, say, a twelve year old boy’s version of Heaven.

In the Wireless Devices Department, an overweight middle aged male employee looks absently ahead, then down at his cell phone, then up again, then down again. As far as I can tell, this is what he does for exactly eight hours a day every day here in the Wireless Devices Department. The fiance emerges from around a corner and says to me: Did you find what you were looking for? But, with my eyes transfixed on the carpet pattern (because the overhead fluorescent tube lights are making me nauseous) I mistake his good-natured inquisitiveness for the scripted lines of a sales associate and I am about to grumble FUCK OFF when I look up and realize it is my beloved. Oh, I say. Hey. No, I didn’t. Can you find it for me? I’m tired of looking.

The truth is that I haven’t really been looking so much as just passing my eyes over the rows and rows of protective glass and silicone condoms for cellular devices. They are all packaged in black boxes, and, were I illiterate, I might be forgiven for thinking they were boxes of or steroids, or bull semen, or nuclear waste or something so potent and volatile, the manufacturers had to package them with no less than three multipointed, starred warnings and five exclamation points each. One brand claims to have been developed and used by the US military and promises a lifetime guarantee against scratches, which is pictorially exemplified on the back of the box with a photo of a key being held to the screen of a phone. It’s as if the marketing people didn’t think the consumer would believe the words “SCRATCH RESISTANT BARRIER” or “LIFETIME GUARANTEE” but would once he saw the key on the back. “I didn’t think you could make such a material, but here you have shown me this picture of a key being held up against the glass and NOOOO! Oh. Wait. I forgot it’s protected with your space age technology! WHEW!”

It’s not that I am anti-technology. Quite the opposite. I couldn’t do half of what I enjoy in life without it: taking pictures, writing on a computer, talking to my brother every day on the phone. And overall, I am quite taken with it all. It is endlessly fascinating how it all works, and all works together. I can use my phone as wireless hotspot in places where none exist. I can take pictures with my phone, then upload them to another device that will store them infinitely, and then I can make copies and either print them, via a trip to the drug store with a storage device the size of a hair barrette, or post them to my blog. It’s all so beautiful and synergistic, a ballet of a million pirouettes going faster than light.

It’s the peripherals that I could do without. And the people who sell them. When I put my question, earlier in the night, to the sales associate at the store where I bought my phone, about whether or not they sold a wired headset to work with my phone, I am answered with a self conscious shake of shaggy hair out of eyes (only to have it fall back in, it IS the style, after all), and a mumbled Um… I don’t have one right now. So, they make one, you just don’t have one, right now, I clarify. And he answers in Finnish. Or Welsh. It’s something I can’t make out and there is more hair tousling and eye contact has been broken and I am left there, a thirty something unable to communicate with someone who is only, no doubt, a mere seven or eight years younger than me. A deep yawning divide has opened between us. On one side is me with perfect diction and forthrightness. And on the other side: a young man who has styled his hair to fall into his line of vision and who has lost the ability to focus on anything further away than the length of his arms.

Eventually the fiance calls over a sales associate and asks if they make a wired headset for my type of phone. Bluetooth devices seem so incredibly obnoxious to me and I have had, on more than one occasion, to turn my head and point to the pulsing blue light sticking out of my ear canal to kind strangers who simply want to know if I have signed this petition they are carrying clamped to a clipboard. My flagrant pointing says: Umm… Not now? Okay? Dummy? Can’t you see I’m on the phone?

And their raised, apologetic eyebrows and mouthed “Oo! Sorry’s” say: No, lady. Being ON THE PHONE would imply you have a phone to be on. What you have is a wireless signal being shot through your optic nerve and out your nose holes to your phone, which is in your coat pocket, which will then be shot into space and to another person’s phone, probably in another time zone, how’s that for a mind fuck, thank you very much? So, you are not ON the phone, now are you? If you were, I’d be able to see it, and I probably wouldn’t have bothered you. But I guess “I’m receiving a satellite signal which I can hear in my one inch ear slug” doesn’t have the same, shall we say, ring to it, now does it?

I’m opting for the wired headset because my hearing is pretty bad these days and two ears plugged (instead of one, Bluetoothed) just seems like it will provide more volume. I’m going for more square footage here. The sales girl points the fiance to a section of more black boxed and neon highlighted packages containing earbuds and wires. Which one for the Evo? he asks, mentioning my brand of phone by name. She fans her arm out to a small section of boxes and proclaims, “Any one of these”. The fiance thanks her and we both crouch down to get a better look. I feel like I am moving in slow motion. Suddenly, I am overcome with the urge to lay down on their swirling blue carpet and take a nap. I am so. Utterly. Bored.

So, how do you like your new Evo?, she asks the fiance. I finally look directly at her. From my crouched position, I shoot her eye-daggers that say “ I am the one with the phone, lady. Just because we’re in this overlit rabbits warren of Chinese manufactured doodads doesn’t mean there isn’t something in here for us romantic types who just who are more interested in your carpet patterns than your merchandise!”

Oh, I really love it”, I tell her. And I smile wickedly.