There comes in the life of every person a time when, casting aside all lethargy, he or she must make a dash towards achieving greatness. For Americans this time comes on the last Friday of November every year, a day commonly known as Black Friday.
And to say that they make use of this opportunity would be an understatement like saying Spartans disapproved of Paris abducting Helen. On this day Americans display a zeal that can only be described as reminiscent of the Neanderthals’ enthusiasm in bringing down a well-rounded woolly mammoth in times when food was hard to come by. Only, since woolly mammoths are not so readily available these days, the current specimens of Homo sapiens Americana (who are often well-rounded themselves) display that energy and vigour in shopping.
Now to be fair, even on ordinary days, Americans never shirk shopping. The greatest critics of the American people and the “resident aliens” will have to concede that the Americans are second to none on earth in this field, and shopping is quickly developing into the national pastime. Give a thing a name and a price tag and you will find a half-mile queue of people with shopping carts waiting to buy it. But even the greatest of men need their quiet hour in front of the television and it is only natural that these shopping duties would be performed as mere duties; a thirty minute stop at Wal-Mart on the way back from work will suffice for the whole week. On Black Friday, however, the situation is completely different. All stores worth going to announce discounts on that day and people rush in and grab whatever they can lay their hands on (as opposed to whatever they need). And since the stores open in the wee hours of dawn, many people drive there the previous night and camp out on the parking lot in near freezing temperatures, thus displaying a spirit hitherto only seen among pilgrims going for a holy dip at the Kumbh Mela, so that they can be among the first people entering the store the next morning. In some ways, they are even more no-nonsense about attaining their goal than the average Kumbh Mela pilgrim as demonstrated by the fact that last year a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death in New York when he was unfortunate enough to come in front of the stampeding herd of shoppers entering the store – something that hasn’t happened at the Kumbh Mela in the last half a century. And they have every reason to be so, for while the early bathers don’t take the river Ganga away with them, the early shoppers do take things as they forage through the shelves and a few minutes may mean all the difference between showing off an amazing buy to one’s neighbor and staring blankly at a “Sold out” sign.
After reading this far, if the reader gets the impression that I am criticizing the Americans’ enthusiastic Black Friday shopping spree, then the joke is entirely on me as I could be observed entering the nearest shopping mall before sunrise this Black Friday.
When a friend told me in school on Tuesday that she was going to the Jersey Gardens mall, I said without thinking that I would accompany her. For the last couple of months, any mention of shopping perks me up like the word “bone” perks up a dog. There is a reason for this: I am going to India for the first time since coming here and I have been buying American (read “Made in China”) gifts for friends and relatives back home. Prior experience tells me that women have a knack for sniffing out deals where a man would feel lost and so I could not let go of this opportunity of accompanying my friend to the mall on Black Friday. However, no sooner had the words left my lips when I realized my mistake. My friend told me she was delighted to have me as a companion and I should meet her bus at the Newark Penn Station at 6:30 a.m. on Friday. This meant I would have to leave my bed at 4:00 a.m. on a holiday – a blasphemous deed if ever there was one, and then reach the bus stop three miles from my home after walking fifteen minutes and taking a subway ride on a morning when the wind-chill was four and the sun was expected to rise at 7:00. But Banerjis are chivalrous people and they would readily embrace death rather than backing out of a promise made to a lady and so there I was trudging across a soggy field at 5:40 a.m. on Friday in the dark, wishing all muggers of Newark a sweet undisturbed sleep through chattering teeth.
The bus was surprisingly full despite the weather and time of the day, and when we arrived at the mall, shopping was already underway for a few hours. Over the next six hours I, along with fellow humans, rummaged through mountains of clothes, shoes, crockery, cutlery, jewelry, accessories, toys and other things that I don’t know which category to put into and managed to find three bagsful of absolutely essential stuff that I didn’t even know that I needed before I went shopping. I was the small fish in the pond, of course. All around the mall the common roosting areas were occupied by groups of people who were sleeping surrounded by shopping bags while their less fortunate companions kept an eye on them. If there was an award for most prolific shopper, I would personally recommend one man whom I saw sitting on the floor with twelve full size bags around him and an expression on his face that could only be described as ecstatic. All stores had serpentine queues at the check-out counters and it was easy to see that he must have started shopping around 3:00 in the morning to have amassed so much of the loot. Of course, I have no idea if he achieved it alone or he was accompanied by early birds of the same feather, but in any case, he presented an impressive sight.
When I came out of the shopping mall eventually, I was an impressive sight too. I was carrying only three bags, but I had become so lost in the excitement of shopping in the hot mall that I had totally forgotten there was a real world outside where the temperature had fallen further and the wind was virtually a storm now. As a consequence, I had taken off my down jacket and ordered iced coffee at Starbucks. Only when my fingers started turning blue did I notice that I was holding a glass that was virtually full of ice, and holding my jacket in my other hand. People were ogling at me probably thinking I was a dark-skinned Eskimo enjoying the summer breeze. It felt good to know that I can make women turn around and look at me even with “50% OFF” signs all over the place.
My shopping wasn’t over with Black Friday, of course. As a matter of fact, it isn’t over even now. Over the last month or two I have become an authority on the prices of everything from cosmetics to cuddly bears in the New York- New Jersey area, not to mention the best online prices for a variety of things which are arriving at my house everyday now in large parcels. But going to the Jersey Gardens Mall on Black Friday gave me the kind of thrill Bengalis typically feel during the “Choitro Sale” in Kolkata, and it is this very thrill which made me realize how American I have become. Probably Bengalis and Americans are not so different after all, especially when it comes to shopping.