Sunday, December 30, 2007

COLUMN: Retail Hell

I tried, people. I really did.

I gave it my best shot to NOT write another "bah humbug" column about Christmas this year. In fact, this week's column was to be my annual list of the best music of the year. That'll have to wait, because I need to document the soul-sucking Grinching I received this past week. I don't even care that, by the time you read this, Christmas will have come and gone. You'll have to indulge me, because I need a proper (albeit belated) holiday whine.

Despite what you may think, I'm not an entirely cynical human being. There's a spark in me that yearns for white Christmases, roasting chestnuts, and goodwill towards men. I'm all for the warm fuzzies that fill your heart at the holidays. This year, though, I think the warm fuzzies went on strike with the Hollywood writers.

As usual, I waited 'til the last minute to get my Christmas shopping done. First up was my dad. If you were to ever meet the man, you'd think he was the mildest, friendliest guy out there (which he is.) But the guy's got some weird hobbies. Chief among them, my dad likes cannons. I can't tell you how many childhood vacations involved stops to look at some kind of antique artillery. Dad, with a gleam in his eye, would try his best to tell me the history and importance of Civil War munitions; I would nod appropriately while wondering if the town had a record store and whether our hotel had free HBO.

Dad's new project is to build a replica Mountain Howitzer cannon from scratch. How one does this is beyond me -- just know that the next time you're planning on robbing a house, you might want to skip my folks'. When I asked my dad what he wanted for Christmas this year, he rapidly replied, "I'd love a 12 lb. shot put." I knew right away this was not a sudden interest in track and field. That's right, a 12 lb. iron shot put makes a spiffy cannonball.

So I scoured the Quad Cities in search of a shot put, and came up empty-handed. As you may have guessed, Shotputs-R-Us doesn't have a local branch, and I couldn't find a sporting goods store that stocked the things. My best hope was ordering online, where I discovered that if you have a 12 lb. ball of iron and you paint it red, you can get away with charging $130 + shipping for the thing.

I decided to cross off the shot put and go for the next item on his list -- something called an "air needle scaler." Dunno what it is, but it should come in handy the next time I need something scaled with air and needles. But Dad wanted it, and I found one easily enough. I celebrated with a post-shopping burrito at one of my favorite eateries. It was quite tasty, until I was leaving and glanced back to witness my bare-handed burrito maker in a full-on nose pick -- and not just a little innocent, my-nose-itches sort of manoever, no. This was a full-on nasal mining operation. Fa la la la la.

The next day was Mom. Not wanting to suffer alone, I invited my friend Linn along for the merriment. Chief on my mom's Christmas list was a new paring knife, and seeing as how I know cutlery almost as well as I know cannon-building, I summoned a clerk for help. Well, the front desk did, after I had to walk up twice and have one paged three times. Still, it was the holidays, so I let it slide.

Eventually a tired-looking clerk showed up and immediately went into sales mode, telling me that my mom deserved nothing but the best paring knife. The kind that are displayed behind glass in the store.

"Fancy," I said of the 3" paring knife being pitched our way. "What's this bad boy cost?"

"It's on sale," the clerk replied, "for only $74.99."

The look of open-mouthed horror on our faces said it all.

"Well," the clerk tried to explain, "this knife is made from only the finest German..."

"Finest German WHAT, for that price? BABIES?" Linn interjected incredulously. I was laughing so hard I couldn't breathe. The clerk was entirely unamused. But for 75 bucks, that knife had better prepare my meals, clean up after itself, AND read me a bedtime story. Eventually I settled on another nice knife (perhaps only made from sub-standard German babies,) and the clerk nodded and said she'd be back with the key.

TWENTY MINUTES LATER, she was. This was after having her re-paged twice and having two stockboys roaming the store looking for her. When she DID return, she acted put out and exasperated, offered no apologies, grabbed the knife, and walked it to the register with us. I now understand why they keep the sharp implements behind glass.

Look, I've worked retail before. I know the chaos that comes with the holidays. I know it can be stressful to wait on last-minute idiots like me. But even in my worst moments in retail, I knew how to be nice to people. I knew how to apologize for delays. I knew how to smile.

Despite my Christmas fantasies of fileting rude clerks with imported paring knives, I managed to complete my list with my sanity somewhat intact and my holiday spirit repairable. By the time you read this, you'll be full of Christmas leftovers, but as I write, it's still two days off. Despite what the world of retail wants to do to me, I still plan on having a fabulous holiday. I hope and entrust that your Christmas was bright and wish you all a happy new year -- even you, nose-picking burrito dude.

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