Sunday, June 6, 2021

Flashback 2005: "Ghost in the machine."



     There's something awe-inspiring, reverent, almost holy, about our first encounters with hugely successful corporations. Maybe an innocence, the berry-smeared tribesman, looking up from the rainforest at the first thwack of helicopter blades cutting the air. I remember thinking it was silly to name an online book store "Amazon." What do books have to do with a Brazilian River?
      Do you remember your first visit to Costco? I didn't, but then ran across this.


     For thousands of years, mankind struggled to get enough stuff—food, clothing, a few rude utensils.
     Now, abundance overwhelms us; another of life's little jokes. Every month, the news features another enormous meal-in-a-sandwich, some greasy, dripping, 1,500-calorie horror, and our reaction is half revulsion, half "gimme!"
     Then, there's Costco, the bulk discount club. I had never been to a Costco. "It'll be fun!" chirped my wife, urging me to join the family on a Saturday morning outing. Grumblingly, I went.
     It was worse than I could have imagined—an enormous space, staggeringly high ceiling, all white light and crisscrossing beams. So big it was like being outside. Wide aisles crammed with crates of food, unnatural double boxes of Cheerios, ketchup by the gallon, massed shoppers inching giant carts past one another, the carts so laden that shoppers had to lean really hard against them before slowly they began to roll. My face set in a kind of numbness that deepened as my wife happily shopped and my children ran from table to table, scarfing free samples: flavored water and power bars and chunks of cooked salmon.
     I was revolted to my core. It was too big, the juxtapositions too odd -- dinghies next to DVD players next to soda pop next to girls' dresses. The world unmoored, the proper order jumbled, dogs and cats lying together breeding unnatural horrors. I glared at my wife. All her fault.
     "I hate you," I wanted to say, "for being excited about this, for thrilling to giant packages of 18 rolls of paper towels."
     But that seemed, oh, hostile, and would have put a damper on the weekend. What I actually did say was, "Perhaps if I were in a different frame of mind I would appreciate this as much as you do."
     And then my perspective shifted. In a moment. The boys ran to me—they need permission to take each sample, I suppose to avoid lawsuits. One table offered packs of gum, and as I approached to give my nod, I saw what was being promoted was not gum, but Steven H. Jesser, Attorney at Law. He was a middle-aged man in a blue suit, hair thinning, Thomas Dewey mustache going gray. Jesser was handing out business cards and gum, offering "full-service business legal representation" right there, in the Costco, next to the wind chimes, birdbaths and potted peonies. An initial telephone consultation was available without charge.
     I introduced myself, and observed that lawyers are by nature proud, and some might feel a chill at the idea of drumming up business in a suburban Costco.
     "I have no shame in coming here," he said. "If people think it's demeaning, so be it."
     I shared my view of the place.
     "I like Costco," said Jesser, a Chicago-Kent College of Law alumni. "I've shopped in the finest stores, and it has a nice atmosphere—I've run into judges here. It's enjoyable to come here. I am not too proud to shop here because the prices are sensational, and everybody loves a bargain."
     That they do. Like a good lawyer, he had made his case, and I walked away impressed, my spirits lifted. Although I wasn't sure if it was because I had witnessed a quirky manifestation of the human spirit defying the deadening effect of materialism in bulk, or merely because I had found a way to get work done, and working makes me happy.
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 6, 2005

9 comments:

  1. Don't think I've ever been in a Costco. I don't know if there's any point in shopping there, much less paying a fee to do so, if you're shopping just for yourself.

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    1. Probably depends on how often you would shop there. And, you do get free snacks 🙂

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    2. If one isn't familiar with Costco, it's easy to think it's not for them. Which is fine. I truly regret shilling for a big corporation again. But...

      It's more than packs of paper towels so large that you need to park them in your garage. My wife and I would never save enough on daily stuff to make it worth our while. But we recently bought a desk chair that, comparing prices to "suggested retail," saved us at least 3 times what the membership fee is. There's insurance, a pharmacy, eye care, etc., etc., etc., which is how a single person could still save plenty. And then, you also can pick up a 30 oz. bag of chips and a container of minced garlic large enough to ward off an army of vampires. ;) End of advertisement.

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    3. You can buy tires at Costco, and even get deals on new cars if you're a member. My wife got her hearing aids there, and they will fix them and replace the batteries.

      She likes Costco, even though the nearest one is at least fifteen miles away. I can take it or leave it. I do like schnorring the free snacks, though. A schnorrer is the Yiddish word for a beggar. Or a moocher, sponger, or scrounger. But I guess they don't care how much you schnorr, unless you start getting really greedy.

      The big outfit that I cannot stand is Walmart. My wife sometimes goes to the one that's a few miles away, but I won't even go into their parking lot. I call them The Octopus. Or China Mart. I have a long list of reasons for hating them, but all of that noise can be made some other time.

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    4. I'm sure I've never been to Costco . if every purchase you make is based on price it puts guys like me out of business. I build furniture. though long ago I came to understand not chairs, never chairs. chairs are made in multiples of 10,000, or you can't make a decent wage building them. oh sorry never mind , chairs are made in sweatshops half way around the world by people barely better off than the enslaved. as are so many things.

      I remember several people asking me to price some kinda piece of crap they had considered buying from IKEA. they had the notion I might be able to make it CHEAPER. I can't buy the materials for the price IKEA charges for the finished item. kitchen cabinets same same. the little guy don't stand a chance against the landfill furniture. cause thats where it'll be in 4-5 years . Crappy Crap For Less is what they should call the store

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    5. Man, a 4th comment from me on this post seems over-the-top, but I feel like your comment warrants a reply, FME.

      Am I supposed to feel guilty every time I sit in the chair? 'Cause I could consider that option!

      The chair I was referring to is from the HON furniture company. List price close to $500, so it's not the cheapest thing we could find. Wikipedia says HON is headqauartered in Muscatine, Iowa, with factories in Iowa and Georgia. Doesn't mention the one in Taiwan, where this chair evidently came from. Don't know how I'm to evaluate whether that one's a sweatshop, or not, but you're correct that it's halfway around the world.

      I don't believe, though, that the workers who built it would be any better off if we paid the list price, rather than the price we paid Costco. Nor would it have had any effect on you or the "Crappy Crap For Less" Corporation, whatsoever.

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  2. You could have chatted with the attorney, or you could have indulged in a giant hot dog and all the Coke you wanted for $1.50. Either would have lifted your spirits. ; )

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    1. No more Coke at Costco for several years. Now it's Pepsi.

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    2. D'oh! I took a chance! Thanks for the info, Clark St. It's been more than several years since I've had any pop. But I used to...

      Switching to Pepsi sounds kinda like a Sam's Clubbish move to me!

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