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A Black Friday journey into the heart of consumer America’s darkness

A Black Friday journey into the heart of consumer America's darkness 2012 Holiday Gift Guide

The poet John Donne asked and answered the question, “For whom the bell tolls.” It tolls for me. It tolls beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep and I stare at the digital numbers staring at me. 3:30, they say, writ large with a smaller “Friday, November 23” underneath. 3:30 AM is a cursed hour. If a man is awake and out at 3:30 it means he is doing something he will regret in the very near future. He has his nose in a pile of cocaine. Or he is going home with a woman he would not be going home with at, say, 11:00 PM. Or he has a gun in his mouth. 3:30 AM is a suicidal hour and that is how it always feels to me, like I want to commit suicide, but I resist the urge because John Donne also wrote that no man is an island and each is a piece of a continent. I am not an island and the rest of the continent is going shopping.

Black Friday has become an iconic and uniquely American adventure and it is such a total adventure, involving city street camping, obsessive paranoia about line cutters, psychosis about price accuracy and a diet consisting entirely of AM/PM hotdogs. But the payoff, oooooooh the payoff, is totally worth it yeah? Back it 2001 I went to BestBuy at, like, 5AM, three hours before opening, and got a Sega Dreamcast for $40. $40! I bought Crazy Taxi 2, too, and pictured years of fun ahead. Just me playing some Crazy Taxi 2 or maybe something super sick like 18 Wheeler: American Pro Trucker and eating Cheetos and killing it. Unfortunately I did not read the tech trades. I did not realize that Sega had stopped producing the Dreamcast that year and I would be stuck with Crazy Taxi 2 on forever loop. It was horrible. I had been outflanked. I sunk into a decade long tech depression.

And I did not partake in another Black Friday adventure until last week. It was time to let bygones be bygones. It was time to forgive. So I set my alarm for 3:30 AM and rose, feeling suicidal but pushing through knowing that I was partaking in a uniquely American adventure and knowing that I was properly armed. Yes, I had read the tech trades. I had, in fact, learned from the Consumer Electronics Association that 37 percent of Americans go shopping on Black Friday and 60 percent go shopping between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. I had learned that retail sales are expected to grow 11 percent this year with an average of $842 being spent, per person, on Christmas gifts $252 of which will be on electronics. I had learned that Apple is not going to stop producing the iPhone and had just released the iPhone 5, which I desperately need. My iPhone 4S is soooo last year.

I rise and drive to my nearest BestBuy expecting long lines but I also expect to be able to charm my way to the front. Everyone loves a writer. Pulling into the parking lot I see a giant SWAT sniper nest being held aloft by a crane but there is no line. No snaking human chain shoving AM/PM hotdogs into famished but excited mouths. There is just a normal, fully lit, sliding door. I walk through it confused.

Inside college-age boys peruse printed advertisements and move from aisle to aisle. Chunky women, clutching Target bags, pick through RocketFish iPad cases for $7.99 normally $29.99. It is a good deal but I dislike, and don’t use, the two iPads I already have and don’t care to protect them. I find an employee and ask him, “What is happening? Where is the wild?” He looks at me and says, “We opened at midnight. There was a line, maybe a quarter mile long, that had been camping for four days.” What? I am incredulous. 3:30 suicide hour is not early enough? He guffaws, “Psssshhh. No.” I ask him what the best deal in the store is and he tells me that they had sold 40-inch Toshiba LED televisions for $199 and 50-inch ones for $399. They sold out of their stock in three minutes. What? What? How? I ask him to describe the sorts who had camped for four days and bought 40 inches of Toshiba for $199 and he responds, straight faced, “Totally f–king insane.” I still want my iPhone so I ask for help with it and he tells me, straight faced, I should get a Samsung Galaxy III instead. It is my turn to guffaw. “Psssshhh. I’m a writer, a creative, not a software engineer.”

I leave BestBuy even more confused and go to Target, looking at empty racks that used to carry Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Vizio televisions on sale for $269 from $299. I leave Target and go to Walmart, looking at 16 gig iPad 3s on sale for $449 from $499. I leave Walmart and go to the Shell gas station, looking at a sign that reads, “Free 12oz coffee with $50 of gas purchased.” Is that a good deal? I have completely lost my bearings on what constitutes value but I still know what I want. I want an iPhone 5. Its screen is bigger, I hear, but somehow it is smaller. I drive to the Apple store.

Again, I expect wild, but, again, I am met with strange. There is nobody in the parking lot. It is instead mostly cut off by a giant square of yellow caution tape and the lights inside the store are off. It is closed. I hop over the caution and press my nose against its window trying to see if those iPhone 5s are on sale and knowing if they are I will be the first in line. While I am peering, I suddenly smell sour whiskey. Turning to my left I see a bum, a literal bum, standing in my personal space. “I dunno why they’re closed” he slurs. He is wearing dirty khaki pants, dirty tennis shoes and a dirty tweed jacket. “What’re you hopping to get?” he slurs. His eyes are beet red. I tell him I want an iPhone 5 and he fishes in his dirty tweed jacket pocket and pulls out his own sparkling fresh white iPhone 5, slurring, “I juss got mine in the mail. It works pretttty goood. Whattdya have?” I pull out my chipped black 4S and he looks disappointed. I have been outflanked again. I should have committed suicide. I go to AM/PM and get a hotdog instead.