After an hourlong Caldor expedition, Dee Dee Brown peered into her shopping cart and seemed perplexed, as if she didn't quite remember how all this merchandise got there: velour pants, cartoon stickers, sweat shirt, troll, telephones, a pair of little reindeer antlers for Rex, a Labrador retriever.
As the register rang $103.55 worth of stuff, Ms. Brown wondered aloud why she had purchased so much.
The answer is written on the calendar and stamped into the psyche, piped through ceiling speakers at the mall and jingled from the car radio. It is Christmas, it is time to buy much stuff, it is time to dress the dog as a reindeer.
OC So, to finger the acquisitive pulse of the season, here are dis
patches from the front lines in the waning days of the shopping campaign, wherein three sets of shoppers find more than one way to stuff a stocking.
Dee Dee Brown and Sherri McKeever, both of Crofton, hit the aisles at Caldor in Severna Park Mall at 10:30 a.m. with a mission to gather an assortment of items for an array of children, husbands and husbands' co-workers. They had been Christmas shopping since just after Election Day and now, in the week before the day, they were tying up loose ends.
"Isn't this cute?" said Ms. McKeever, lifting a fat, plastic baseball bat off a high shelf. It was a coin bank, an item that appeared on no one's list. But she balked at the price, on holiday sale for $7.50, and opted instead for a $5 box of crayons.
"You have to get lots of little things," said Ms. McKeever, whose four children range in age from 2 to 11. This is a 30-something mother who sees the presents not tucked under the tree but cascading from it as fresh produce from a cornucopia. The "little things" at Caldor would come to $99.
"When they come downstairs and see the tree you just want their faces to light up and them to go 'WOW,' " Ms. McKeever said. She and her husband, who runs a trash-hauling business, plan on spending $1,500 to $2,000 on Christmas shopping. Ms. Brown said her budget comes to about $1,000.
Ms. McKeever had the "WOW" factor in mind when she picked up $199 worth of big toys from the layaway window at Caldor, and when she bought the other two special presents some weeks ago that came to about $350 and later forked over $163 at Toys R Us.
"Santa always gets credit for the good stuff," said Ms. McKeever, adding that big presents come from Santa and must remain secret.
Ms. Brown has two daughters, 11 and 9. The elder, Lesley, is fast moving out of the Santa phase into the territory of rap music. Not even on Christmas will her mother indulge this fancy.
"If I don't like the music, I don't buy it," said Ms. Brown, passing a display of the latest from Ice Cube, LL Kool J and Ice-T. Instead she searched for a troll sweat shirt in her daughter's size -- and couldn't find it. As a result, she pronounced the Caldor trip a medium success.
An hour after they arrived, they loaded the stuff into Ms. Brown's Plymouth Voyager and headed for lunch before venturing to Toys R Us in Annapolis, setting a pace to singlehandedly pump the GNP.
They put Bryan and Nancy Chaney to shame. Imagine, on Thursday night the week before Christmas in the Columbia Mall, with the place jammed and pulsing with the spirit of Christmas presents, this young Carroll County couple ambled around for four hours and walked out with the following: a sweater, a shirt, a tree ornament, one compact disc and a nose-hair clipper.
Such are the vagaries of personal fortune. Two years ago, before Mr. Chaney left his sales job to start his own business, the couple sank a few grand into an engagement ring for her and a home computer for him. Now, in the first year of his new venture, the Bike MOBILE, a truck-borne bike shop, they would stick to a budget of about $500.
Ms. Chaney, a communications and marketing manager at Black & Decker in Hunt Valley, had the list. She checked it more than LTC twice. It was all there in her neat handwriting on lined paper: name of person, type of gift, suggested store.
Mr. Chaney's father, Dallas, would be a tough buy, said Mr. Chaney. "He doesn't have any major hobbies except golf or drinking beer. There were some years I got him a case of beer and he was happy as heck."
So how could Mr. Chaney resist stopping at the T-shirt kiosk when he caught sight of one carrying this saying: "I've Fallen and I Can't Reach My Beer"?
It was tempting, but Mr. Chaney could not find a shirt big enough to fit his 6-foot-4, size 18-neck poppa and walked off empty-handed.
The impromptu visit to Chesapeake Knife & Tool Co. was another story.
Chaney's eyes quickly settled on an alarming cardboard display: "Don't pull hair from nose. May cause fatal infection." So went the pitch for the Klipette, a $9.99 nose and ear-hair trimmer. The clerk noted a more deluxe version for $19.99, but Mr. Chaney remembered the budget and went for the economy model.
He made the purchase with little outside consultation, a kind of controlled impulse buy.
It was more difficult to settle on the proper music choice for Bike MOBILE's service manager, a 20-year-old named Christian Albright, who, Ms. Chaney said, is "into surfing, he's very cool."
Fortunately, among the customers at Sam Goody was a 17-year-old Columbia youth named Adam Kolb. He wore his baseball cap backward; Mr. Chaney figured he must know something.
Mr. Kolb recommended a CD by Rave. Sold.
They left the mall as store managers pulled the grates down for the night, having dropped about $100, a rate of $25 an hour.
L "Hey, that's more than I thought we'd get," said Mr. Chaney.
Their pace was frenetic compared to Raymond Atkins, Lutherville lawyer. The way he moseyed through the Owings Mills Mall with two of his three children, you'd never know it was the Sunday before Christmas, a time when the remainder of the shopping season is measured in hours.
"I don't usually like to shop at all," said Mr. Atkins, whose pregnant wife, Janet, was not feeling well and remained home with their 18-month-old daughter, Carolyn. "It's, like, the last thing I want to do."
It was his fourth shopping trip this season with gifts yet to buy for his wife, his mother and his brother. Working without a list, without even a specific budget, he strolled the mall for four hours looking for inspiration.
"The best kind of shopping is done with no intent at all," said Mr. Atkins, a former state prosecutor.
"Ambling, grazing," he called it.
He looked at jewelry, leather goods, furniture and electronic gizmos of every description:
"Dad, look at this phone, this is so awesome," said 5-year-old Katie, admiring a neon-lighted desk model.
Finally, with the agreement of Katie and 7-year-old, Raymond III, the barrister reached a verdict: a $200 electric foot massager for his wife.
"I could spend $200 elsewhere," said Mr. Atkins, but "with her being pregnant, this will be deeply appreciated."
He had spent little, but he would be back.
"Probably Tuesday or Wednesday," he said, stepping out into the parking lot at 5 p.m., supplying the day's first hint of urgency. "We're closing in on it."