Saturday, April 24, 2010

Concentrated Capitalism

We arrived around three o’clock—about an hour and a half later. Dark clouds largely blocked out the rapidly lessening daylight.
In my time in England, I had forgotten just how big parking lots could be. Opry Mills in Nashville, for example, has a parking lot that, when seen along with the mall itself, is the size of an amusement park—which made sense, since the mall took the place of an amusement park. The last thing I expected to see was a parking lot that size in the country I had come to think of as a modest place. It was a mammoth field of black asphalt and white paint. I flashed back to a trip to Opry Mills, when a friend and I spent longer looking for a spot than we did outside.
As we approached I noticed that “village” wasn’t a misnomer. The place had been built to resemble a small English country village. “At least, it looks pleasant,” I thought.
We finally found a spot after ten minutes of circling—the Germans basically frothing at the mouth the full time. In a split second, the girls were out of the car, running towards the village like they were in a marathon. Confused, we men stayed put, overwhelmed by the speed of their mad dash. Other women dashed likewise through the parking lot. Occasionally, we’d see a shellshocked man stumbling around, looking at parked cars as if they were the mutilated bodies of fellow soldiers on a gruesome battlefield. “Okay,” said The Traveler, after a few minutes of staring at the spectacle. “Okay.”
“Okay,” said The Student.
“Welp,” The Drunkard said. He cracked his knuckles. “I’m going to the pub.”
I looked around. Though the area was set out to look like an English village, I saw no signs that there was a pub—which, really, was an atrocious oversight on the part of whoever planned this place. (I don’t mean to seem to be clinging desperately to ages-old stereotypes, but it is quite true that women shop more than men, and a man facing neverending racks of dresses, shoes, and stores that sell the same things would rather be drinking. Honestly, it just makes business sense for there to be a watering hole in every mall, strip mall, and—the term is starting to grate on me—retail village.) “I don’t see a pub,” I said.
The Drunkard jerked his thumb to my left. I looked and, across the street, there was a large stand-alone pub called The Green Elk. It was the size of two houses put together, brick red with a green roof. “Ah,” I said. “Good call.”
“Told ya: my pubdar is second to none.”
The Traveler and The Student opened their doors and stepped out of the car. The Drunkard and I followed, stretching and cracking our backs. “I think,” said The Traveler, “that at least two of us should go supervise the girls. Lena was saying that she had a couple of grand in her bank account, and someone needs to remind her that we don’t have that much room in the car.”
“Good call,” said The Student. “I’ll come with you.”
“I’ll go,” I said.
The Drunkard snorted. “What? Why? You’re not getting any.”
“Fuck off,” I said.
The Drunkard shrugged. “Whatever.” Then The Drunkard turned, made his way across the parking lot, sauntered across the street and walked into the pub. (This maneuver caused at least ten cars to slam on their brakes and blare their horns—from where I stood, I could hear The Drunkard shout back, “I’m walkin here!”)
“Let’s go,” said The Traveler. He turned and walked towards the retail village.
The Student shook his head, still looking at the piled-up cars on the street. “How’d he live?”
“The sheer will to drink, my friend. Sheer fucking willpower.”
The two of us followed The Traveler.

I do not consider myself an overtly political man. Of course, I have ideas about politics. However, I’ve made sure that I don’t turn into a person whose life is run by them. (My grandmothe, for example, was one of those people. In Tennessee, we had four TVs downstairs. For twelve hours—from nine to nine—every one of those TVs would be turned, full blast, to CNN. When I was downstairs, I’d hear the eighty year-old woman screaming abuse at whatever Republican happened to be talking on-air.)
I believe that it is a citizen’s duty to stay informed about the politics of his or her country, and, as such, I read news aggregate websites from time to time. And, by virtue of having a working brain, I have developed opinions. Some are more informed than others, but they are all opinions. From time to time, my ideas cause friction between myself and others (such as my idea about running for office on a platform called “Culling The Herd”), but, for the most part, they have always been valuable assets and have never really intruded in on my life.
And then I saw this retail village and saw red. Not the red of rage, but the red of Communism. The Traveler, The Student, and I went through the entrance, past the map detailing where every outlet store was placed in its own especial building—yet intrinsically linked together, as if holding hands and mocking the poor of the world—past the coffee shop that peddled a shot of espresso for £2.30, and then got a full look at the retail village. It looked like a sterilized and homogonized version of Canterbury’s High Street. The buildings were a uniform light blue, with white trimmings and black shingle roofs. Occasionally, there would be a few benches, maybe a sculpture in a roped-off grass area. (One of these was a sculpture of two black bears. These were supposedly the mascots of the place, but I saw them as Humanity mocking Nature. “Yes,” we said, “you once had a place of beauty, but now, where your den was, there is now a GAP. Read em and weep.”)
This place of concentrated capitalism, this testament to the free market system, was where a pair of jeans on sale for £90 was seen as a bargain. I fumed. I sputtered. Beside me, The Student twitched. The Traveler gave a little sigh and briefly shook his head. “Oh well,” he said, “no worse than a mall in the States.”
A few people turned to look, but, judging from the shouts of “Where?” and “Buy them! Buy them now!”, a lot of people just assumed that I had found a great deal. “Woah,” said The Traveler. “Calm down, man.”
I spun on him, my jacket flying behind me. In my imagination, I saw it to be a giant red flag, and I was waving it at the head of a vast mob. “Are you mad, man? We are in the den of the beast. These things cost two pounds to make, and they are marketing them at ninety pounds. How can you remain calm in the face of such a thing?”
The Traveler grinned. “You’ve never been in Brookstone, have you?”
“Why would I go to that disgusting hive of the bourgeoisie, where cheap electronics are sold at extre—”
“You own a Mac, don’t you?”
“Er,” I said. In my head, the mob dissipated, muttering among themselves. “Yeah. Well. Kind of.”
“Do you have a Mac in your possession?” The Traveler asked.
“Well. Yes. But my dad bought it for me. A while ago.”
“You’re still guilty by virtue of owning the thing. If you were really serious about taking down the capitalist pig-dogs, then you’d be looking for a responsible computer company, and not one that works with sweatshops in China. Look,” he said. (I remembered a recent conversation I had where someone tried to say that maybe sweatshops weren’t so bad, and I despaired.) The Traveler’s face took on a sympathetic appearance, instead of a cross-examiner’s. “I’m not saying that you should abandon all your principles. You should never do that.” He took a leaflet from a roving person. It announced the latest sale at the Levi Jeans outlet—two pairs of relaxed fit jeans for £145.99.
“It’s just,” he said, “well, you have to realize that you have to act like you give a damn. Parading around shouting about the injustices of the free market while wearing Nikes and clothes made in Indonesia is a bit hypocritical.”
“Okay,” said The Student, gesturing with his finger. “What would you have us do?”
“If you believe something, then act on it. Buy fair trade.”
“But it’s expensive,” I said.
The Traveler slapped his face with his hand and dragged it down, leaving a red imprint on his skin. “Are you serious? You can’t be that stupid.”
I stared at him.
“That’s the cost of actually acting on your beliefs. He held his hands palm up, as if begging, “Look, you can do other things: Campaign for increased goods production in the United States. Buy from farmer’s markets. Do something other than continue on shopping in the supermarket where your food comes from God-Knows-Where.” He checked his watch. “I’m going to go wander around. Narrator, I like you, but you gotta think about self-awareness some more, man.” He walked off along the High Street.
“Well,” said The Student.
“I just got owned, didn’t I?” I asked.
The Student nodded. “Along with what remains of the middle class in America. Now, I think there’s a book store somewhere along here. You want to come with?”
“Nah,” I said. “I’m going to have a think.”
The Student put a hand on my shoulder and put on a very concerned face. “Don’t strain yourself,” he said.
I didn’t take offense. Being told that you’ve lived your life as a hypocrite is a pretty humbling thing, especially when you realize that it’s true. I had my own little stroll through the retail village, dodging running children, their running parents, and masses of shoppers laden with bags. Eventually, I got tired of looking into shops and thinking about the inherent guilt of profiting off of others’ suffering and decided to go to the pub.
I’ve told some people about my solution to problems—i.e., going to the pub—and the reaction has been varied. Some have viewed me as an alcoholic. Some see me as a person who likes to have a good time. I, however, like to cite a recent Woody Allen movie, where the protagonist delievers a spiel to the audience. Part of it goes like this: “My father commited suicide because the headlines were depressing. Can you blame him? What can do you do?” The answer is whatever works. “Whatever joy or grace you can squeeze or filch. Whatever works.” For me, a pint of Guinness works.

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