The Baron and I met through Match.com. I imagined him to be a sporty guy who often left town on the weekend for an adventure because his online photos had him on snow-capped mountains in ski gear. A rugged outdoorsman was just the alpha male I was interested in at the time.

Continued from my first TNB post one year ago, “In Search of the Man Chair; or, Was That Billy Corgan?: Part I

TJ MAXX IS A STORE I DESPISE with all my heart and soul yet I find myself here, walking through the automatic doors with my wife at least once per month. Ding. That is the sound the entrance makes once you step foot into the land of no return. It’s the sound of a married man being castrated, his balls clipped and left to dangle on a rack beside a pair of discounted Bill Blass dark denim blue jeans. My mom loves Bill Blass dark denim blue jeans.

A monthly venture into this discount store was in our vows two Junes ago:

“Do you solemnly swear,” the preacher began, “to accompany your wife to TJ Maxx, Marshalls, or Goody’s at least once per month for as long as you shall live?”

Gulp.

There was no turning back. The women in the congregation stared at me waiting for my reply.

“I do.”

I see my dangling eggs on the same rack each time I enter. They are starting to shrivel now like sun-dried apricots; but they are not quite the color of sun-dried apricots. Those are not my balls. Those belong to John Boehner. My balls have a better and more natural tan. A brass color. PMS 7503 on the Pantone color swatch chart used by commercial print vendors. All credit is due on the color of my eggs to my Native American forefathers, particularly Charlie Meron, the 6’7” gentle giant.

But I digress…

My wife and I are here for a purpose. To buy crap we do not need at half the original price. A Rolling Stones lamp. A framed photo of a pop art Marilyn Monroe. A bronze rooster made of metal and concrete playing a saxophone. A glass jar of imported spaghetti noodles.

No, no, I fib. Someone else will be buying those items—except for the bronze rooster made of metal and concrete playing a saxophone. I bought that three years ago.

We’re here to buy new bras.

HOORAY! for pregnancy!

We walk toward the bra aisle and I suddenly feel uncomfortable. Breasts of all shapes and sizes and colors stare back at me from the dangling tags. I avert my eyes and do not want my wife noticing me stare at the perky, lifted breasts of strangers. I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable but I do. It’s sort of like buying my own underwear. A strange man’s package is in my face with a slight chub perfectly timed for the flash.

“Do these tighty whiteys make my penis look okay?”

“Don’t let your wife see those other guys’ weenie outlines,” Jason says, “she’ll start to compare.”

“My wife isn’t that shallow,” I tell Jason.

“Don’t think she isn’t looking.”

“Don’t make me take an extra 10mg of my medicine,” I reply, “I’ll make you vanish you son-of-a-bitch.”

“What do you think of this one?” my wife says, holding up a speckled pink and black bra.

“That’s nice,” I say.

“I really don’t want to get a bra this big,” she returns.

“It’s okay,” I say, consoling my wife.

She grabs two more bras, a white one and a black one, and we walk toward the dressing room.

There it is, in all its glory, the TJ MAXX man chair.

“Back in a minute,” my wife says.

There is a 10-to-12-year-old boy sitting across from me. He wears a white hoody that is slightly pointed at its peak, and is playing a PSP, that lucky bastard. I twiddle my thumbs. I took text messaging off my phone about eight months ago so I can’t pretend I’m checking my text messages. Actually, I can because none of these people would know any different, but I will know, so I don’t. I’ve grown to hate people who walk around with their phone in their face and in their hands at every turn.

“He looks like a little Klansman,” Jason whispers in my ear, referring to the boy. “All he needs is a Celtic cross sewn onto the breast.”

Jason’s right. He does look like a little Klansman sitting there. I imagine him in the middle of a field sitting atop a horse with a burning cross at his back and other Republicans sitting atop horses with a burning cross at their backs.

“Is Sandra coming to relieve me or not?” the slightly overweight, young black woman behind the counter says to a slightly overweight, older, redheaded white woman wearing a Santa cap. “And why do it smell like Chinese food up in here?”

It does smell like Chinese food. Day old Chinese food actually. That’s been re-heated. Broccoli and chicken and shrimp fried rice. Nothing smells worse than day old Chinese food reheated in the microwave. Not even day old Mexican.

Ironically, two Asian girls come jetting down the aisle. They are playing hide-and-go seek from their mother, I presume. They are much too old to be playing hide-and-go seek in a discount store. One looks to be about 14 and the other 12. The little Klansman never lifts his head.

“She’ll be in at 11,” the slightly overweight, older, redheaded white woman wearing a Santa cap says to the slightly overweight, young black woman behind the counter.

My wife comes out of the dressing room. “I like these,” she says, “but not this one,” holding up the black bra. “The straps sort of dig into my back.”

We walk back to the bra aisle and I say farewell to strange breasts I will see in another month or so when we go on another TJ MAXX bra-shopping venture. We make our way to checkout. The woman in front of us, with her husband in tow, picks up a pair of cheap sunglasses, tries them on, and looks at herself in the tiny mirror on the revolving rack. I see a bag of Jelly Belly jellybeans.

“I love Jelly Belly jellybeans,” Jason says.

“So did Ronald Reagan,” I tell him.

“You just had to ruin the moment for me, didn’t you?” he replies.

My wife and I exit and I hear the ding. I look back and bid my balls adieu which hang from a 50% off sales rack as “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” by Gayla Peevey begins to play.


Like most people who majored in Medieval Studies, I’ve spent a lot of time working in retail.  I’ve sold books, sporting goods, hardware, ice cream, coffee, and clothing, but my longest stretch was two years working at a Crate and Barrel outlet, the place where the housewares giant unloads its mildly discolored linens and slightly fractured furniture.

What Medieval Studies and retail have in common is that both endeavors require the apprehension and application of powerful governing mythologies. I spent my undergraduate years reading and translating Beowulf, Sir Gawain, and other medieval epics (my email address can be found below, if you’d like to hire me for something).  What these sagas have in common—besides iron breastplates—is the heroic quest, what mythologist, philosopher, and sometimes-crackpot Joseph Campbell dubbed the monomyth.  This quest can be broken into a series of archetypal episodes, each of which is familiar to anyone who has ever slain a dragon or tried to find six matching reindeer mugs from last year’s discontinued Christmas stock.

1. The Call to Adventure

Our hero, the customer, is called to quest – now is the time to register for flatware! This otherworldly summons can appear at any time: early Sunday morning, Tuesday during lunch hour, or five minutes before the store is closing and once the cash registers are all already turned off and the doors are locked.  One may hear the Call at the most inopportune moment, like the woman who decided to buy an entire suite of dining room furniture on her way to the airport to catch a plane.  Or the Call may come in the form of a gift certificate to the Pottery Barn, a store that does not, in fact, have any sort of reciprocal arrangement with Crate and Barrel.  The Call is also regularly heard around the times of Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is all the more curious since both holidays occur every year at the same time and neither is a surprise, yet every December 24 we welcome again the hostess who has suddenly realized that her life’s happiness depends on having a gravy boat on Christmas Day.

2. Supernatural Aid

Here is where the salesperson comes in.  In the retail quest, the salesperson plays a central and contradictory role, a combination god and slave.  As your salesperson I am inferior, because I am the one making minimum wage to double-wrap your stemware.  And yet I am superior, too, because I am the one standing between you and the last case of slightly irregular margarita glasses.  Like Athena, I inspire you; like Obi-Wan, I guide you; like Morpheus, I wear a stupid uniform.

Some shoppers come to browse, to stroll trippingly through the aisles of cherry pitters and fish forks, and happen upon the perfect cheese dome like Aladdin upon last year’s lamp.  But others embark on their quest with a plan.  They seek their El Dorado, their Fountain of Youth, their Shangri-la.  They seek the discontinued dining chair that matches the partial set they found at a flea market three years ago.  It is often my sad duty to inform them that the item they seek is no longer in stock, is discontinued, is only sold by Restoration Hardware.

But the questing shopper is not one to be so easily dissuaded.  Now enters The Myth of the Magical Back.  No matter how impossible the odds, the daring customer is always ready to ask, “Do you have one in the back?”

For the Back is the repository of a customer’s fondest wishes and his wildest dreams.

“Do you have it in red?”

“Do you have it in large?”

“Do you have one like this, only not this?”

“Are you sure?  Can you look in the back?”

Now I work here.  I know what’s back there.  But I also know that nothing will pacify the customer except walking back there to take a look.  I am the gatekeeper of the Back, and so I occupy a powerful, liminal role not unlike that of a priest or sage.  So I stride resolutely into the Back, spend four to six minutes making fun of the customer’s haircut with the stock guys, and then return to deliver my report like the Pythia from Delphi. 

3. The Road of Trials

But fear not! The dining room chairs may be long gone, but our transaction is not at an end.  The customer is there to buy, and buy he will!  During a rainy winter, more than one customer attempted to buy the filthy plastic bucket we used to catch the leak in our ceiling.  The customer will have his boon.

On his way, he will doubtless encounter an escalating series of obstacles.  Sometimes these are trials of raw strength, like the customer who snapped a silver picture frame in half in his trembling hands while shouting, “I want a horizontal one, not vertical! Hor-i-zon-tal!” then fled before we could explain that all rectangular picture frames can be hung either horizontally or vertically.

Sometimes they are trials of patience and courage, like the woman I told to wait one moment while I helped the customer ahead of her, at which point she threw her armload of potholders to the floor in disgust and shouted, “Fine! I’m leaving! And you can pick this up!”

And sometimes they are riddles, trials of the intellect.  One such customer became very upset because a certain two foot by three foot rug was priced at $15.95 while another rug of the same pattern, this one four feet by six, was $52.95.  He demanded that a salesperson explain the apparent price discrepancy.

“So, why exactly is this rug $52.95 when this other one is only $15.95?  It’s twice as big!  It should be twice the price!”

I explained, “A four by six rug is not twice as big as a two by three rug.  It’s four times as big.”

The customer persisted in his ignorance.

“A four by six rug is 24 square feet.  A two by three rug is only six square feet.”

Silence.

“It takes four two by three rugs to make a four by six rug.”

“This rug is half the size of this one!” he insisted.  But somewhere, there was a crack in his breastplate.

“I can show you if you like.”

I set two 2’x3′ rugs on the floor.  “You can see they aren’t as big as a four by six, only half as big.  It would take four of these rugs to make a four by six. And since each two by three rug is $16, and four would be $64, you can see that you actually save money by buying a four by six.”

Slowly he set the smaller rug back on the shelf and left to quest another day.

4. The Winning of the Boon

And what does our hero do when he has found his light of lights, his one true and perfect prize, his horizontal picture frame?

He bargains.

You can always tell these people because they march in, feeling all inspired and indignant, because some financial advisor on “Good Morning America” told them to never settle for retail price.  What they don’t seem to understand is that a major national corporation is not a Ukrainian fruit stall.  I am a lowly employee, one of thousands, and I have no more authority to change prices than I do to turn off this looping “Jazzy Christmas” CD.  I don’t own this store, and if I did, would I make myself wear this apron? 

5. The Return to the Ordinary World and the Application of the Boon

The hero has won his goods! And perhaps also paid for them.  Now this prize must be transported back to the workaday world whence our hero came.  But first we’re going to have to have a talk about shipping and delivery.

THE VOICE WAS UNMISTAKABLE. Sharp and high-pitched as it pushed its way from the ceiling down to the floor. I listened more attentively trying to peg the voice. Then it hit me.

“Is that that Billy Corgan?” I asked my wife.  We were walking into a popular clothing store.

“Sure sounds like it,” she said.

“Did he make a Christmas album?”

“I do believe those are jingle bells.”

“Cow bells also. And a xylophone,” I said.

A young man, roughly twenty years of age, approached us as we entered in full. He wore a bright smile and headset. A mic was positioned just at his mouth. He looked like a telephone operator.

Gaydar had spotted him some twenty feet back. Less Red October. More Pink November. He wore a light blue button down oxford. The sleeves were pushed up to his elbows. Like the Brawny Man. Or Chuck Norris when he’s cracking skulls. Or the Brawny Man in earlier photos because the Brawny Man in earlier photos looks like Chuck Norris wearing flannel when he is about to crack skulls with his sidekick, Trevett.

“Good afternoon,” the retail clerk said.  Beaming.  Slightly effeminate voice.  Looking in my wife’s direction. “If I can be of any assistance, please let me know. And one last thing: May I direct your attention to our new line of jeans that just came in this morning?”

Just came in from a Chinese sweatshop, I thought to myself. How many knuckles of overworked child laborers bled over this curvy fit, dark denim?

‘Stop being cynical,’ the internal narrator of my life, whom I call Jason, countered. ‘Your clothes were probably sewn together in an Indonesian sweat shop by a woman eight months pregnant who is enceinte for the sole reason that she was raped by her sweatshop boss. Really, there is no use in fighting it. You could tiptoe through life all you wanted and you would never escape the effects of globalization. Even if you wore a garbage bag as clothing you’d never escape. Do you know how many garbage bags are imported from India each year?’

I had no idea how many garbage bags were imported from India each year.

“Oh I like these,” my wife said to me. “Now help me find a top.”

She had not dragged me along. I volunteered to help her clothes shop. I can’t dress myself for shit but do have a considerable eye for what looks good on the ladies. I am the white reincarnation of Leon Phelps and usually stop off for a fish sandwich sometime after my time spent as a heterosexual fashionista.

Being a fashionista is oftentimes exhausting work and requires a reboosting of blood glucose levels. Glucose is a fancy way of saying “sugar.” 1 in 3 American children will be diagnosed with diabetes in their lifetime and 1 in 3 are already considered overweight or obese partially because of jacked up glucose levels from most everything they eat containing high fructose corn syrup.

“If we’d drop the damn embargo against Cuba and bring in some real sugar cane to this country we wouldn’t have this problem,” my old college roommate Kelly McDowell-McCormick used to say. He’s Irish. In case you couldn’t tell by the name. “You ever drink any Old English 800? That’s good shit.”

He used to always fill the top row of our apartment’s refrigerator with OE800; that, and Chinese take-out. He spent a summer in China and came back with a bootlegged copy of Thank You for Smoking and was so inspired by the Chinese culture he took a job as a rickshaw driver when he got back to the States.

The two of us scoured the store high and low in what was becoming a somewhat futile attempt at piecing together a single outfit.

“What about this,” my wife asked holding up a thin, long-sleeved pink shirt that appeared to be made of spandex with a ruffled front.

Spandex, or elastane, is more durable than rubber and can be stretched up to 500% from its original size and still retain its original form. Because of this statement alone, “more durable than rubber,” spandex should never be worn as an outer layer of clothing.

Because of the second half of this statement (“can be stretched up to 500% from its original size and still retain its original form”), spandex should never be worn as an outer layer of clothing.

Unless you are Heidi Klum. Or Eva Green from the film The Dreamers.

“Their selection is sort of eh,” my wife said. Her face turned sour. “What about this?”

“It’s okay but, I mean, it won’t exactly keep you warm either. Winter is fast approaching and it’s already cold as balls out. And balls are pretty cold, usually 1-2 degrees cooler than normal body temperature. It’s the only way the male species can produce viable sperm and continue the human race. How about this sweater,” I finished.

Inquisitively she responded, “With the buttons on the shoulder?”

“Yep. It’s different. I know.”

“No, I like it actually. I just didn’t think you’d go for something like that.”

“That sweater is hot like Tex Pecante,” I said.

“What,” she said.

She grabbed the two items, paused, found the “Fitting Room” sign and proceeded in that trajectory. I stayed close by her side as if a small puppy with its owner.

I began searching for the man chair but only found, the closer we walked toward the fitting room, another man standing. His hands were in his pockets. He rocked back and forth on the balls and pads of his feet. He wore somewhat dirty and scuffed Adidas running sneakers, a black cap with orange and red flames, which is truly the type of hat that should never be worn in public and why firing squads still exist in Somalia, and had unkempt facial hair.

“Back in a minute,” my wife said smiling walking toward the fitting room. The man with the unkempt facial hair pulled out his cell phone and acted like he was checking for missed calls or text messages but he wasn’t. He wasn’t because I was getting ready to pull out my cell phone to see if I had any missed calls or new text messages. Because that’s what you do when you can’t find the man chair.

Black Friday, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the Friday after Thanksgiving here in the States, and traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year.  Stores have sales on that day only, and people trample each other to get into the Walmart first, to make sure they score a [insert name of this year’s equivalent of Tickle Me Elmo here] before supplies run out.

The name derives from the world of the bookkeepers, who denote losses with red ink and profits with black.  Retail outlets tend to run red all year, and only go into the black — that is, turn a profit — on the day after Thanksgiving.  Hence, Black Friday.  (It has nothing to do with race.  It might have something to do with Stendhal, but it has nothing to do with race).

I’ve been thinking about Black Friday because it’s the day after tomorrow, but also because Our Fearless Leader got this letter from one of our favorite readers:

Hey Brad,

Is there a central list somewhere of all the TNB folks who have books? I like to give books as Christmas gifts, and this year I thought it’d be cool if I could try to give mostly books by TNB’ers or other people I know.

Corner Store Wars

By Amy Shearn

Essay

When I am describing (or defending, depending on the attitude of questioner) my choice to live in the yuppie stronghold of Park Slope, I often list chief among its charms convenience, “since after all,” I add, hoping to be contradicted, “I am extremely lazy.”

I guess I can forgive people for not contradicting me. It’s pretty true, at least in terms of food preparation. When my husband and I “cook” it involves things like applying heat to a pan of refried beans. We rarely conjure the organization or gumption for a big grocery shop. Instead, we are spectacularly undiscplined, considering what to eat for dinner approximately ten minutes before we plan to be actually eating it. But it’s not our fault.  Our neighborhood has lulled us into this state. It’s just too convenient.

In fact, on our block alone there are two decent restaurants, one bar, a Chinese takeout place, a bakery, and three –yes, three– corner stores.

While the three corner stores are certainly a boon, the situation does have its pitfalls. There have been plenty of nights when I’ve strolled blithely out of the more-ghetto-but-ever-so-slightly-closer store, bag of Utz in my hot little hand, straight into the disappointed glare of the corner store proprietor across the street. And I deserve this from Bassam, the kind-hearted, hard-working Palestinian father of four who runs Junior’s, who knows everyone’s name, who always has a word of wisdom and an unnervingly positive attitude. On a sweltering summer day when his store tops out at 150 degrees, he’ll answer a “Hot enough for you” with a smiling, “It’s summer! This is beautiful!” During Ramadan he toasts our bagels with a  haunted gaze, telling us how delicious the day-long fast makes dinner. In a perfect world, we would always support Bassam.

But then there’s the other store, which recently reopened as a slightly overpriced gourmet market. As much as I love Bassam, he doesn’t offer organic avocados or local hormone-free milk at 11pm. So okay, in a perfect perfect world, I guess I’d go to the organic market for emergency veg runs, and then Bassam for your everyday average sparkling water situation.

But then there’s that first, more ghetto store, which actually also has a rather charming employee –- a larger-than-life fellow called Rolls, who recently found out I wrote a book and who now greets me at the top of his lungs, “Hey, Jane Austen!” Now, I think most writers would probably travel across town to encourage a nickname like this. Lately he’s been mixing it up, too, including other literary luminaries. Who, I ask, could resist this?

So I compromise. Some days, I admit that I end up visiting all three. And in the end, there is enough of divergence in each shop’s stock that I’ve come to feel that three corner stores is really just barely enough. Each is as necessary and beloved as, say, one of three children. Parents can’t pick one favorite! Why should I?! Honestly, when I face the thought of someday leaving our neighborhood (as will likely have to happen at some point as rents go up and we continue to not hit the jackpot on the Lotto tickets we always buy from Bassam) I shudder to think of a life with fewer corner stores. In the meantime, I stop at the ghetto store on my way home from work, greeted by Rolls’ exuberant “Why the long face, Willa Cather?”

To which I respond, a bit accusingly, “You don’t have Pirate Booty!” — slinking to the next corner store in search of the elusive puffs.