Active Bottoms. Buy one. Get one free.
“What kind of sign is that?” asked my friend Kees, who was on a visit from Holland. “Active bottoms… If I take 50 percent off my active bottom, I won’t be able to sit straight.”
“You’re right,” I replied. “But the world would be a quieter place!” Kees laughed. “By the way, I think TJ Maxx really means sweat pants.” “Really?” said Kees. People wear pants in a sauna?” “Well, you can take half off,” I said. This conversation was going downhill fast.
“Only in America,” said Kees. “Only in America.”
“Alright, my friend. Let’s go to the store next door,” I said as I was heading over to the parking lot. Kees didn’t understand. “Wait a minute….. That store is no more than twenty steps away. Where do you think you’re going?”
I quickly hid my car keys and remembered that I had responded exactly the same way when I first came to the States. “No wonder you gained some weight, man! You’ve gotten lazy. Getting any exercise lately?” “Lots,” I said. “That Wii thing is absolutely amazing. It’s unreal.” “You’re right about that,” Kees mumbled.
We entered the bookstore. “Is that coffee I smell?” asked my Dutch friend. “Coffee, in a bookstore?” “You’re right,” Kees. “But it gets even better. You can pick a couple of magazines, buy a calorie infused mocha-java shake with lava cake, grab a chair and trash whatever you’re reading. And when you’re done, you just leave your mess on the table.”
“No way,” said Kees. “Don’t you have to pay for that copy of ‘Good Housekeeping’ and the ‘Parenting Magazine’?” “Are you kidding me, Kees? Of course not. People even leave their kids here while they go visit the rest of the Mall. In fact, I just heard one of those hockey moms tell her daughter: ‘Here’s twenty bucks. Now get lost.’ Yes, Kees,” I smiled, “This country is big on family values. No child left behind.”
An elderly gentleman walked up to us in the music department. “Can I help you find something?,” he asked for the two hundred and forty fourth time that day. “Well,” said Kees, “If you tell me what you are looking for, perhaps I can find it for you. That way, you sir, can take a seat and rest your legs a little.”
“Oh no, I can’t do that,” said the man nervously. “I work here.” “He must be in his late sixties,” whispered Kees in my ear.”Don’t people retire?”
Meanwhile, I looked around. Something was missing. “What happened to all your classical CD’s?,” I asked the music seller. “The only things I see are bargain DVD’s.”
“We have a few CD’s left,” said the clerk, pointing apologetically at two or three rows of ‘Music for the Millions’. “I used to be a music professor,” he sighed.”My wife and I loved coming here. There was Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Bartok. Look at it now.
We have Andrea Boccelli and that Dutch fiddler, Andre Rieu. People don’t know what they’re missing. I just had a customer ask for the theme of ‘The Lone Ranger’. I said to her: ‘I can order the William Tell overture for you.’ ‘No’, she said. ‘I want ‘The Lone Ranger’. Didn’t you hear me the first time?'”
“Let me see if I understand you correctly,” I said to the seller. “You have to order a CD of popular overtures, but you can sell me the unrated set of ‘Saw’ on brilliant Blue Ray?”
“That’s right,” answered the clerk. “Teenagers love it. Saw, Hostel 1, 2 and 3 and that Twilight stuff. And it’s not exactly cheap either.”
Two high school kids walked in, drinks in hand. “Hey Pops,” shouted one of them. “Any good deals on Black Friday?”
“What’s Black Friday? Something African-American?,” Kees wanted to know. He was puzzled because there’s no such thing in Holland. “It’s the day after Thanksgiving,” I explained. “The busiest shopping day of the year. People get up at the crack of dawn. They wait in line in front of their local Wal-Mart, and when the doors finally open, they crush the doorman to death so they can be the first one to walk away with a flat screen TV. That’s all. No White Christmas without a Black Friday. Only in America. The land of the killer deal.”
“You’ve become quite the cynic, after you became a citizen,” observed Kees. “And stop sorting those CD’s”. “I can’t help myself,” I said. “I used to work here a few years ago. It’s the curse of retail. But let me tell you something. Most people who work at this chain have two things in common. They’re overqualified and underpaid.”
“So, why do they do it? It can’t be fun to stand on your feet for eight hours selling rap, rock and horror when you’re nearly seventy,” Kees asked. “Benefits, my friend. Benefits,” I replied. “This country suffers from a major preexisting condition. There’s no such thing as universal health care over here. Not yet. But on a more positive note: we just discovered that there’s definitely water on the moon!”
We walked out empty-handed. “And you know what?,” I continued, “More than a third of what they call the ‘working poor’ have jobs in retail. When I used to work here, most of my colleagues had a second job to make ends meet.
The average department store “associate” only makes about 18 thousand dollars per year. So, single moms were counting on their parents to take care of the kids, while they worked another shift at the International House of Fruitcakes. And the next day, they would do it all over again. Not exactly the American dream, is it?
They used to say: if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. Well, these people are doing just that and they’re going absolutely nowhere.”
“Let’s change the subject,” said Kees. “This stuff is depressing. What do people like to do for fun over here? Do they ever take a break?”
“I hate generalizations,” I said, “but some say that most Europeans work to live and that most Americans live to work.
My neighbors still don’t believe that I used to take at least four weeks off during the summer.” “So what does the average American like to do or see while on vacation?” asked Kees. “The Grand Canyon? The National Mall? MoMA?”
“Funny you should ask,” I replied. “I just finished reading a book by Ellen Ruppel Shell. She’s a professor of journalism at Boston University. It’s called CHEAP, and according to her research, America’s number-one tourist destination is… the factory outlet.
Not only are factory outlets the fastest-growing segment of the retail industry, but also of the travel industry. But as you can tell, even ordinary shopping centers are immensely popular. I read in the New York Times that the Mall of America in Minneapolis attracts more visitors per year than Disney World, Graceland and the Grand Canyon combined.”
“I thought you guys were in a recession,” said Kees. He continued, “I must admit one thing though…. Things like clothes are dirt cheap over here. I mean… take those active bottoms. Perhaps we should go back and get a pair.”
I had to interrupt, “Believe it or not Kees, I am convinced that there’s a link between the price of those sweat pants, the sweat shops where they were made, and the recession we’re in. This whole bargain basement outlet culture is one of the reasons why people aren’t earning wages that would enable them to keep their heads above water without maxing out their credit cards.
Speaking of credit cards… before we go home, I need to hit one more store today. My wife needs a new bra for her car and we’re not going to find it at Victoria’s Secret.”
Kees’ mouth fell open. “A bra. For a car? You must be joking!” “Haven’t you ever heard of a Car Bra?” I asked. “It protects the paint on the front of your car from things like bugs, flying rocks, and suicidal retail associates.”
“Only in America,” said Kees. “Only in America.”