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