Back-to-school shopping maul


Journal of a back-to-school shopping trip:

11 a.m. -- Arrive at mall. It's Saturday; nearest parking space looks to be in New Jersey. Briefly wonder if impending bout with clinical depression qualifies me for handicapped space. Fifteen-month-old demands to be carried to mall entrance, signals gratitude for this by kicking me in the groin.

"It was an accident," my wife says as I collapse to pavement.

Yeah, sure. An accident.

11:10 -- Inside looks like opening scene in end-of-the-world epic "Soylent Green." Anxious mothers drag sullen children from store to store. Babies wail. Jittery men with that deer-in-the-headlights look sit smoking on benches. Disaffected teen-agers with shaved heads sing along to what sounds like "Best of Anthrax" tape in disjointed voices.

Snatches of conversation drift over the din:

Parent: "Now this is a nice jacket . . ."

Kid: "I hate that jacket.

Parent: " . . . that would go with that shirt."

Kid: "I hate that shirt."

Why is it only reptiles that eat their young? My wife is white-knuckling the baby stroller already. I stop at water fountain, hurriedly knock back two Tylenol, steel myself for the ordeal ahead.

11:25 -- The 10-year-old says he needs new backpack. He picks out one big enough for scaling north face of the Eiger. What do they keep in those things -- coffee pots, frying pans, Sterno? As price tag flutters into view, I feel my heart stop for a moment.

In next instant, I have a vision of my son 10 years from now, sitting on a folding chair in a church basement and sobbing to his support group: "The first time I sniffed glue? Probably that time my dad wouldn't buy me a backpack . . . "

11:50 -- The 6-year-old is picking up the essentials: Lisa Frank pens, Lisa Frank notebooks, Lisa Frank folders, etc. My question: Who's Lisa Frank? Someone tells me it's hot new company that designs colorful school supplies. Great. Is this some kind of cult thing designed to ensnare army of elementary school girls, only to have them robotically selling roses and incense at busy intersections 15 years from now?

12:10 p.m. -- The 10-year-old wants a loose-leaf binder decorated with photo of Slash from Guns N' Roses. Say, there's a real role model. Let's see, he's been in and out of rehab, charged with assault, arrested for public drunkenness . . . what's the matter, no pictures of Ted Bundy available for the cover?

12:20 -- Quickie update on this year's hot school look for girls: overalls with one shoulder strap unfastened, a kind of Drew Barrymore meets the Berenstain Bears look. Very hip. I guess.

12:30 -- Time for lunch. We head up to the food court, which has all the calm of a waterfront market in Hong Kong. Lines in front of burger joints are out of control, so I head over to Greek food place, where owner is snoozing on a cot and has to be roused with an ice cube to his head. Hey, Joe, business kinda slow?

12:42 -- Ugly incident ignited when 15-month-old hurls half-eaten hamburger at woman sitting at next table. Fearing another kick to the groin, I am reluctant to correct the boy, although we apologize profusely to the woman.

1:10 -- Ten-year-old wants pair of Reebok "Pumps." I look at price tag, tap salesman on shoulder and inform him tag has apparently been switched with one belonging to a 27-inch color TV.

No, he says, that's how much shoes cost. Mentally I make a note to get floor plans for local banks. I'll need at least three good holdups to pay for all this stuff.

1:35 -- We're in Gap-like clothing store when I say to 6-year-old: "How 'bout a nice white blouse and corduroy jumper?"

She looks at me like I suggested Big Bird T-shirt with Bert and Ernie overalls. With that she starts eyeballing Madonna-like lace leggings, apparently trying for that visiting-my-boyfriend-in-jail look.

That should go over real well in second grade. I might as well head home right now and wait for the principal's call.

1:50 -- Uh-oh, big mistake. I've wandered into neo-hip record store where something from "Nirvana" is screeching from speakers. Seventeen-year-old with whales-tooth earring is slam-dancing to the beat behind cash register.

This must be similar to a near-death experience, although without the shimmering light and warm feeling of calm said to accompany it.

2:00 -- It's time to leave. My wife has dark circles under her eyes. I . . . I think I might have blacked out for a second. We walk hurriedly out to the parking lot, breaking into a panicky sprint as we near the car.

Once inside, I lock all the doors and stomp on the accelerator as we go fishtailing out main exit.

Saigon is falling and the last chopper is lifting off.

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