It is 9:59 on a weekday morning. I find myself grasping a supersized shopping cart that I instinctively use as protection to remain separated from a large group of people. They surround unopened double doors like sinners with attention deficit disorder, awaiting entrance to a confession they can only articulate via unintelligible babble. They grip similar carts to my own, only theirs contain children who pierce the morning air via lungs capable of sounds no human ear should be forced to withstand. The doors open and the masses huddle in to hand over money via the collection plate of multiple cash registers.
It is 10 AM and I am in front of a Costco at opening time. What the Hell happened to my life?
This is hardly the first time I have entered this tribute to merchandise sold in bulk quantity; I’m usually here with my wife Charger Gal, just so I have someone to cling to as I work my way through the horrors within. But I was off and wanted to be the good husband so I volunteered to go it alone. Of course the 54th regiment volunteered at the end of Glory and look how it turned out for them. So with deep breaths normally reserved for the practice of tantric sex, I move forward.
The first thing I always notice is how it is mandatory I have my membership card out upon entrance, yet nobody ever wants to look at it. I admit it’s not the best picture I’ve ever had taken of myself, but it’s not Lindsay Lohan after an all-night bender either. Yet there’s the greeter (normally old and bored or young and full of ADD) looking every which way but toward my black and white, half-smiling visage while stating a pleasant “Good morning” to nobody in particular. I shake off the hurt from the rejection of my pearly black and white and move into the store, passing the registers manned by employees and managers who smirk at this initial sea of humanity like Tom Hanks waving his cap while cursing fans under his breath in A League Of Their Own.
I can’t blame them. My friend Mr. Incredible (named for his striking resemblance to the lead character from my favorite Pixar film) works for Costco and has told stories of self-absorption that would make the Housewives of Beverly Hills blush. People walking in with half-eaten pies and demanding a refund under the assertion the pastry didn’t taste very good...then sticking their hand out in expectation. People throwing titanic temper tantrums over false claims of price differentials that wouldn’t cover the cost of 10 minute parking in downtown LA…in the 70’s. There’s nobody I know who has lost more faith in his fellow man during the course of his 30’s due to job experiences than I have…but if I’m playing amateur psychologist (and not even staying at a Holiday Inn last night to do so), I’d bet Mr. Incredible isn’t too far behind me.
Of course, you don’t need to have a friend working the inside to notice the insane tunnel vision of Costco customers. I’ve long maintained that the greatest NBA defensive team in history roams their aisles. If you’ve ever been in one, you’ve seen them. Their carts are always stopped long ways; their arms are forever extended as if eagerly anticipating measurement on their wingspan. They directly block the front of the freezer door containing the chicken breasts you wish to purchase, uncertain if this is the brand they want even though it’s only brand there. They wander around the liquor section asking no one in particular if the white wine bottle in their hand is a good red. They ogle you with an unnerving Stepford Wife stare that illustrates the lights aren’t on and nobody was ever home. And of course, they partake in free samples.
Free samples are to Costco what Adam Sandler’s attempts at drama are to his box office record; they seem like good ideas in theory, but ultimately lower the success of a body of work that really wasn’t all that great to begin with. I have seen people become so exasperated by the human artery clogs that are the free sample hubs they abandon their half-filled carts and walk out. On the bright side, these people are replaced by individuals who have no other purpose but to peruse and indulge upon said hubs. (Because paying customers replaced by freeloaders is always a combo for business success) My BFF Cowboy Jelly proudly states that the Costco free samples are the cornerstone of a healthy, nutritious weekend lunch – He’s also heavy set and cheap, so take that pronouncement for what it’s worth.
The newest part of this cherry on top of the warehouse shopping sundae is that sample servers now call out to every person that passes by like a carnival barker. They used to catatonically stand like the living mannequins on Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade and much like those performers only moved when money was presented to them, samplers only moved when customers partook of their treats. Now they’re PT Barnum and every single person that passes by is their next sucker born every minute.
In the end, I weather the malaise, reach the register and exchange an emphatic glance with the checker that really doubles as a chance for me to silently plea “I’m not them!” (She wasn’t buying, I couldn’t hold it against her.), make my way to the attendant who delivers a scan of my purchase and marks my receipt with a long pink line that indicates I’m not a crook, and I am free. I move toward my car and breathe in the air of freedom. Free of the people hopelessly attached to large quantities at fair prices. Then it hits me… I’ve got a ton of photos to develop.
Take a guess who has the best prices?
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