Five more days and it's history


Journal of a Christmas shopping trip:

Saturday, 11 a.m. -- Arrive at mall. Parking garage is crowded so I keep going up and up. I'm waiting for the car to de-pressurize and oxygen masks to drop from the roof. I end up on, like, the 67th level. Judging by late-model Jeeps and Camaros, blaring boomboxes and shaky-looking characters all around, this must be complimentary parking for crack gangs.

11:10 -- Good God, the place is packed! Babies wail, children scream, teen-agers jabber away at each other, hollow-eyed husbands laden with packages trail listlessly behind their wives. It's like the opening street scenes in "Soylent Green."

What possesses me to do this on a Saturday? Why not just set myself on fire -- it would be less painful.

11:30 -- For giggles, I stop by to see Santa. Ninety minutes into his shift, he's practically catatonic. The line of frenzied kids and weary parents waiting to see him stretches into West Virginia. An excited little boy is perched on Santa's lap, alternately kicking him in the groin and reading from a list longer than the Magna Carta. Santa's face is deathly pale. His eyes stare vacantly.

Hoo, boy. I move on. Don't want to be around when Santa snaps and backhands a few of these kids and they have to wrestle him into an ambulance.

11:50 -- I buy a knit shirt for my oldest kid in the jeans store. Ringing it up is a scowling, would-be performance artist who apparently can't believe she's fallen so far as to actually be straightening shelves of Levi's for a living.

Yeah, we all got problems, sweetie. Hell, look at me. I'm the next Norman Mailer and they got me working at a newspaper.

12:30 -- Time for lunch. The food court looks like Rio during Carnival. Curiously, there are only a few people in line at this one Creole-Swiss-Polynesian joint, so I head there.

We're probably the only ones who don't know the food is laced with Strontium-90. Two hours from now the paramedics will be packing us in ice.

12:50 -- This is the moment I've been dreading. I take a couple of deep breaths and bull my way into the toy store. It's wall-to-wall kids. The noise level is incredible -- are my ears bleeding? One little brat jacked up on Tootsie Rolls rams a Big Wheels into my bad knee and laughs as my face drains of color.

I'm looking for a hot new game called, ahem, Loopin' Louie, where a player with a stunt plane -- stay with me here -- tries to knock the other players' chickens off their roosts. It sells for 20 bucks. And you wonder why the Japanese kids seem so much better prepared for life.

1:15 -- I stop by this lingerie store for my wife's present, but everything here looks like it's out of the Heidi Fleiss Winter '94 Catalog. Lingerie stores make me nervous. The sales people all look at me like I'm wearing a grubby raincoat and have a layer of spittle around my lips.

1:35 -- I buy a poster for my daughter in the record and tape store. Skulking through the aisles is the usual Night-of-the-Living-Dead crowd: the pierced-nose-and-belly-button set, gangster wannabes in long dark coats and baggy pants, edgy heavy-metal junkies, beered-up frat boys, etc. It reminds me of the old "Star Wars" scene where Harrison Ford is drinking in some intergalactic bar seemingly with every three-eyed, antennae-bearing freak in the solar system.

If somebody opens a 200-bed rehab clinic next door, they'll make a killing.

1:50 -- I check back to see how Santa's doing. The answer: Not so good. Santa's face is very red now. Blood pressure seems out of control. He hasn't wigged out yet, but it's just a matter of time before mall security has to scramble.

A cute little girl is asking Santa for the new McDonald's Happy Meal Magic Deluxe Playset.

I don't know . . . is this something we want to encourage? Once upon a time kids aspired to be policemen, doctors, nurses, schoolteachers. Now they evidently want to emulate sweaty, pimply-faced minimum wage workers poised over a deep fryer.

Then again, the way newspapers are going, maybe I ought to pick up a Happy Meals Playset myself, see how they do things. Get ready for the big career change.

2:00 -- Finally find a nice sweater for my wife. I ask the sales clerk if he has a box to put it in. He says no, new boxes won't be in 'til next Sunday.

Gently, I point out that next Sunday is the day after Christmas, at which time the box would do me absolutely no good unless I

poke holes in it, toss in a few blades of grass and use it to keep an iguana.

It's definitely time to go home.

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