image: black friday darkness

Black Friday

Black Friday.  Biggest US shopping day of the year, treated like a holiday.  Stores open up in the middle of the night and offer sales.  People stream in from their homes, some never touching their beds, packing tote bags full of circled ads, hand-held television sets, and a will as strong as any athlete to win.

Only on Black Friday winning is about grabbing the sale items before anyone else.  Each year, at least one person is trampled to death somewhere in the United States on this corporate holiday, by other shoppers more eager to get their deals than respect the lives of shoppers with less of an iron will than theirs.

A group of 4 or 5 friends grabbed a video camera, a still camera, and a voice recorder and stayed up ’till dawn in order to interview these people while they waited in lines at the Malls and big stores for Black Friday.

We thought it would be revealing to talk to these folks and find out what motivated them to wait in lines all night long just to shop.  We shared a sort of fascination for uncovering the intriguing reasons behind the popular support for this consumer holiday.

I have never particularly enjoyed shopping myself.  I do it more because I occasionally need something from a store.  So I expected to be disgusted, but what our little group found surprised even me.
We started at the Lloyd Center Mall.  One woman waiting at the front of a line for Old Navy in the mall wore a pink sweatshirt and carried her own personal television to watch while waiting to shop.  I can’t imagine what was on at that hour of the night, infomercials maybe?  I haven’t owned or watched a television in over a decade, unless you count that one time I met a date in a sports bar, where something like 15 T.V.s guaranteed that any direction I looked in kept me up to date on the basketball game.

Strangely drawn to her pill pink coat, we made our way over and talked to her first.  Her family, she proudly told us, had come to Black Friday for the past 25 years.  We asked her why she had a television along, and she explained that she used it to keep up with what was going on.  I held my tongue, because I didn’t have anything nice to say.

Another woman in the line had brought along a tote bag that she had stocked with an organized 4″ thick pile of ads she’d carefully removed from newspapers in anticipation of the night.  I was more surprised at the way she showed these to us as if nothing was at all wrong with any of it than I was by the pile of ads on the edge of careening forth from the bag at any moment.

My team of compatriots loosely interviewed and interacted with those waiting in line.  Not carrying a recording device, I was free to roam, observe, and converse, some of which was caught on tape and some recorded for posterity in my memory.  From what I could tell, people in the lines were blissfully engaged with the event.  They didn’t question the situation in the least, and they actually reacted defensively when questioned in some cases.  One grade-school teacher gave our cameraman an earful after he engaged her in a playful dialogue about American consumer culture.
Later in the night, we discovered a tired line stretching the equivalent of two city blocks creating a pseudo-social scene in front of Best Buy out by the airport.  Moisture from a light rain reflected from the dark pavement and created small puddles in the low points of the asphalt landscape.  At the front of this line, a gaggle of about 6 twenty-something kids giddily shared with us their plan for buying as many laptops as possible and reselling them for a profit.  They had eaten their Thanksgiving dinners in line.
I was struck by my observation that a number of people I talked with displayed an almost humorous attitude towards what they were doing, as if they were aware on some low level how F-ed up it was to stand in line for three days and nights to buy electronic gadgets.  To me, their upturned lips were a thin veil hanging between their decision to be there and their full sensory awareness.
Despite how close some of the Best Buy line seemed to admitting their craziness, all of these folks stood their ground, like I might at any time seek to pull them out of their place in line.  The energy of the scene felt dysfunctional, disturbing, akin to that of a factory farm or other place where you know things aren’t right.
Everyone on my team agreed that the richest material by far of the night came from Wal-Mart.  At first not being allowed to enter with recording devices seemed indicative that something going on inside was officially being hidden from scrutiny.  After about fifteen minutes of useless haggling, we actually got past security due to a more pressing issue suddenly needing the attention of the security staff.
When we got inside, all of us were simply blown away.  Everywhere, people pushed shopping carts loaded higher than their shoulders with crap.  They drove the carts in all directions, and so it was simply mayhem inside the store.  The strong lights, the muzak, and the drone of urgent voices (oxymoronic perhaps, but true) all combined to make me have to physically and psychically shut down my natural flight responses.
I witnessed one young man narrowly miss tripping an elderly person walking gingerly with the aid of a cane, after which he unaffectedly ran onward toward whatever product special was calling his name.  It was like watching ice-skating championships – I held my breath and then let it out only after the elderly man carried on in an upright position.
One of the most bizarre elements of the scene was the effect created because shoppers were made to wait in lines filling the store from wall to wall until 5 a.m., when check stands opened.  My team of hobby investigative journalists couldn’t break through the lines inside the store and had to walk around to the ends of them to exit the building.  I felt like I had a numberof years ago when the bus I was on sat in traffic for an hour in an attempt to leave New York City one weekday evening a few years ago, utterly trapped.
Our still-photographer began pushing a cart filled for display with all of the store’s supply of GPS for automobiles.  This one act carried much weight, as many people proceeded to glare at her or check out the stack of green boxes as if shopping in her cart.  That’s when I first noticed the eyes of Black Friday shoppers.  Each person’s attention seemed to dart around jaggedly, no one made eye contact, and all body language was slumped and shuffling.
I realized that people had to slip inside a kind of zone to blend in and get into what was occurring in that unnatural place.  People couldn’t unfurl their senses there, or they’d all be burnt off, singed beyond later functionality in the real world outside by a deadening combination of atmosphere, program, and a landscape that bred disconnectedness.
It seemed an agreement made silently within each individual person, some mixture of observation and feeling that when set produced a sort of zombie stance that stuck to the program of buying and milling about, getting excited about gadgets, distracted and lured by packaging.
After we went home, exhausted and simultaneously awakened by what we had witnessed first-hand, I was lucky to speak to a former employee of three stores regularly participating in Black Friday.  She unabashedly told me that people shopping seemed like they had an uncontrollable illness, a need for a bargain so deep that they didn’t realize anything that was going on around them.
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