“The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.”
― Jiddu Krishnamurti
I stopped at a local store on the way home from a thanksgiving party one year. I didnʼt want to, but I really needed some groceries. I thought it was awful that the store was open on Thanksgiving. I thought that the employees should have the day off, that Americans were addicted to comsumerism, and that we were all losers for shopping on a holiday. To top it off, I noticed a line for the neighboring electronics store, with people camping and sitting in chairs, bundled up against the cold. I took pictures with my phone and texted them to a friend. He and I shared some cynical comments.
What kind of losers stand in line on Thanksgiving?
Iʼm a writer. I enjoy writing about the relationships formed between people and money. The experience of people camping out in a store parking lot at 10 PM on Black Friday Eve was perfect fodder for my writing.
I texted my friend that I was going out as a self assigned journalist, to interview the people in line, and drove back to that parking lot. The line was twice as long as before. Some people had pup tents. I recalled a Facebook post:
“Let’s all dress up as bears and rip down the tents of the people in line on Thanksgiving.” I had liked it, laughing at the idea.
I took a deep breath, got out of my car and walked right past the line, straight into the store I was in before. I was nervous. I had no idea what I’d say. I had to walk around in a store for a few minutes and gather my courage.
When I was ready, I walked up to a man in line and told him I was a writer.
“I write about people and money and I am just fascinated by this and wondering, can you tell me what brings you here?”
He smiled at me, showing straight white teeth. “ Iʼm here for the TV, for my kids.”
“The TV? Can you tell me about that?”
“Yep, 200 bucks for a 42 inch TV. Itʼs like 400 dollars off. Big deal.”
“Oh, so you planned for this? “
He nodded. “Iʼve been saving, yep. I hope they have enough of ʻem. The papers said there were only 10 at each store.”
I smiled and shook my head. We both looked at the 50 people in front of him in the line.
He looked down at the ground, kicked his foot along, and sighed. He raised his eyebrows as he looked at me,
“Well, Iʼm just hopinʼ, you know? Itʼs the only way I can get it for the family this year. Been a tough one.”
“Ya, I know.” And I do know. Every day then, in my job as a mortgage banker, at least one person in financial crisis called me, crying and losing hope.
I breathed out. One down.
“Well, Good luck to you.”
I walked further up the line and stopped at a woman leaning up against a cement support pillar, shivering in the cold, next to a girl who was talking on her cell phone.
I breathed in, and smiled. The woman had long messy hair and a big smile in an unmade up, wrinkled face.
“Hi, Iʼm a writer and Iʼm curious, what are you doing here tonight?”
“Iʼve been here every year for about 5 years. I didnʼt wanna come this year, but my daughter, sheʼs been wanting a TV now for awhile and I didnʼt want her standin’ out here alone, you know?”
Her daughter hung up her cell phone and looked at me, eyes squinted with suspicion. She was very pretty. She stood up a little straighter and backed away, creating more space between us.
I directed my question to her anyway. “ So, did you save to buy this TV?”
One word answers were familiar to me. I lived with a 16 year old. “Well, why are you buying it tonight?”
“Iʼm saving like 400 dollars.”
I looked back at the mom.
We were all silent for a beat and then the mom joked about the idea that you save money by buying a TV.
“I’m a saver. I wish I could convince her.”
I would not have thought of the people in the line as conscious parents, or savers, or people who were responsible with their money.
I said thank you so much and good luck and left them, a mom and her daughter, talking with the now friendly group behind them about the questions I was asking. Everyone was starting to chat.
I walked further up the line and stopped at a group of people who seemed to be in their twenties, sitting in folding chairs wrapped up in blankets. I was growing more comfortable as I practiced being a journalist.
I directed my first question to a girl, sitting in her chair, holding her hood tight underneath her chin.
“Hi, Iʼm a writer. Can I ask you why youʼre here?”
Four people answered me, interrupting each other. They wanted to talk.
“ A TV, a tablet, a laptop, a great sale.”
Everyone was talking at once. I smiled bigger, and shook my head a little.
“ Well, let me start with you,” I said, looking at the girl I initially asked. “Youʼre buying a laptop, ri-”
The young man next to her cut me off.
“With this economy, you gotta take advantage, ya know?”
“Yep, I do. So, what are you buying?”
“A tablet. Itʼs pretty awesome.”
“ And thatʼll help you? In this economy?”
“Well, I mean the savings will. I can only get it this cheap if I wait in this line, you know?”
“Yep, I know.” I turned back to the girl.
“ How much does the laptop cost?”
“ Well, itʼs like 500 dollars cheaper than it would be normally. 500 bucks.”
“ Thatʼs a pretty big deal.”
“Yea, Iʼm pretty excited. And my friend here is getting that TV deal.”
Her friend, a young man sitting next to her on my left, chimed in. “ Yeah, I heard they only have like 20.”
I addressed him. “Someone a little further back told me they only had 10.”
A man in front of him turned around.
“No, thatʼs not right. The ad said that each store had a minimum of twenty. A minimum, not a maximum. “
His two friends turned around too.
“The employees come out at like 11 and they give you numbers.”
I looked at them and took a few steps closer.
“Do you think theyʼre afraid of some kind of mob thing, when the doors open?” The man who was buying the tablet talked next.
“You mean like that stuff at WalMart, where that guy was killed?”
A girl, a few people back, talked next. “God, I forgot about that. Remember, that guy was trampled, when they opened the doors? What was it that was on sale?”
Someone spoke behind her. “It was this toy, that, um, you know, that doll”
Nobody could remember the name of the toy. I did.
Tickle me, Elmo.
The man who told us about the 20 TV minimum said that he was at Target last year and he got pretty banged up when the doors opened.
His friend grinned, “ Yeah, you gotta have a plan. See, we mapped it out tonight.
We know exactly where the TVs are, in the back on the right. We run back there as fast as we can when the doors open, Iʼll tell ya, and it works. Ya gotta know where youʼre goin.”
The girl who was buying the laptop spoke up, suddenly animated. “Heʼs right, ya know, ya gotta have a plan for real. Two years ago, my girlfriend and I waited for a whole night outside and it was freezing! Remember that weather two years ago? That big freeze? “
Someone answered her, “Oh yeah, God that was a cold night!”
The girls started to talk again. “ Well, my girlfriend sprained her finger in the crush of people tryin to get in the store and weʼd never done this before, so we didnʼt even know where we were going! We didnʼt even get anything! God!”
I asked her if she was planning on doing this every year, and the tablet buying guy answered,
“Of course! Donʼt you see? Itʼs kind of like tailgating, itʼs fun!” He laughed.
I stood there, a witness to their battle with the prices of things, to their sense of community, to their willingness to help each other.
“Thanks so much- Good luck with all of this,” I said. There was a crowd now, saying good bye to me, wishing me luck with my writing.
I turned to walk away. The man who was buying the tablet, shouted out to me, “ Donʼt forget my name! Remember to mention me! Where should I look?”
I mentioned a local paper and walked back to my car, shaking my head a little, trying to process all that happened.
I was moved. The dad standing in the hopeless reality of ten TVs with 50 others, the mom committed to protecting her daughter, the young man who wanted his name in the paper, all reminded me to be less judgmental and more compassionate.
We all wage battle with consumerism, each in our own way. We’re connected all the time. The people in the line at Best Buy are just like you and me, humans bumping into each other, doing their best to take care of themselves and their families.
And no matter whether we are stuffing ourselves at a thanksgiving table, helping at a homeless shelter, or standing in line at Best Buy, we can do our best to practice acceptance and love. Then we get to see. People are good, so beautiful they can blind you, especially when you least expect it.
Loving kindness. The challenge of a lifetime.
This thanksgiving I am grateful for the people, places and experiences that remind me of the need for practice.