The holiday bait and switch

by Brian Clarey

I didn’t go all humbug until I saw the tents — not the ones pitched by Occupy protestors in public and private parks in cities across our nation, I kind of like those because, even though I am not in lock-step with all of the movement’s goals,

I am way down with the sentiment that corporate America is coming for us, and they’ve stacked the deck heavily in their favor.

No, my annual grumbling set in around the same time it usually does: just after Thanksgiving, when the moneyed interests unleash a full blitzkrieg on our weaker impulses with the goal of stripping us of more money that we want to spend. The trigger was a piece on the television news, a spot report issued the day before Thanksgiving from the front lines of the battle on our bank accounts.

The reporter was stationed outside a Walmart, interviewing prospective shoppers who had camped out at the store a full 36 hours before the madness that has come to be known as Black Friday began. The subject of the interview, a manic fool peeking from the opening of her tent, gushed about her love of shopping and the surfeit of holiday deals at this, the nation’s largest retailer and employer, whose biggest contribution to American business is the discovery that employees can be paid so little for 40-hour work weeks that they still qualify for government assistance — that, and the theory that if you slap a NASCAR logo on anything, anything at all, someone will buy it.

At no point in the segment did the reporter or the anchor note the irony presented by the tent and the instance of public camping — astounding, because only days before had police torn down similar pieces of gear in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in the middle of the night, swarmed the Occupy Oakland encampment like an invading force and basted a group of UC Davis students with a glistening coat of pepper spray in a militaristic action coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security.

It’s different, you see, when you’re gathering in public to support corporations than it is when you’re trying to hold them accountable for their role in destroying our economy and hijacking our political process. Americans all, the former are treated by the TV news with the reverence normally saved for the local groundhog on Feb. 2, while the latter endures the kind of derision generally reserved for panhandlers and registered sex offenders.

My kids don’t understand any of this, of course — born to an age when content of character takes a back seat to the evaluation of people by how much stuff they have with little or no analysis of what they had to do to get it, when greed is looked upon as a virtue and human suffering is merely the price of doing business.

I’ve got two of them in the car with me when Black Friday rolls around, the boys, ages 9 and 11, still hopped up from all the pie and soda the day before. Our mission is to get a bite on the interminable Christmas list, a register of errands, chores, appointments and to-dos that promises to swell with each passing day until the tree gets taken down and the last of the egg nog has been consumed.

One of the items on this list, which must be crossed off before the holiday arrives, is to tell my youngest son the truth about Christmas, which includes my lecture about crass commercialism and the provenance of the gifts that appear under our tree each year.

But before I burst the kid’s bubble, I take the boys away from the consumption vortexes of strip malls and shopping centers, into the Glenwood neighborhood for the Really, Really Free Market, a swap meet held each year on this day as a rejoinder to all the spending we’re being convinced to do.

The pickings are slim this year, mostly women’s clothes, a few books and the sort of knick-knackery in which not even young boys are interested. The youngest espies a computer there on the ground and proclaims it the best of the lot. I remind him that we already have computers, and that, in the spirit of the season, this one is best left to someone who does not.

A crew hanging n the periphery of the market aggravates the lesson in greed and grace by swarming the cars that pull in, examining the goods before they are set in the market and pulling out the best bits, adding them to a growing pile by their car. Even the 9-year-old is disgusted.

And later that day, when I pull him into my office, sit him down in the chair facing my desk like he’s about to be fired and tell him that there is no such thing as Santa Claus, his face registers not an iota of shock or surprise. He acts like he’s known for years.