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Hard lessons of back- to-school

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHRONICLE OF a back-to-school shopping trip:

11 a.m. -- Arrive at mall. Nearest parking spot appears to be in Utah. At the mall entrance, we pass usual gaggle of smokers getting their "Panic in Needle Park"-like fixes.

It's an all-ages Nicotine Nation out here: Skateboard rats with bleached hair and nose rings puff alongside nervous 40-something housewives and crew-cut Korean War vets.

With three kids in tow, I'll probably be out there with them before this whole thing is over with.

11: 15 -- A cursory glance in clothing stores reveals this year's hot fashion looks.

For boys: preppy, button-down cotton shirts over outsized T-shirts and baggy khakis, a sort of John F. Kennedy Jr.-meets-the- cast-of-"In The House" look.

For girls: flare-bottomed jeans with striped tops in garish "Cat in the Hat" colors (hot pink, electric blue, neon green, etc.).

And we wonder why Japanese schoolchildren are designing super-computers by 10th grade, while our kids have trouble opening a Snickers bar.

11: 35 -- The 15-year-old asks if he can go off shopping on his own for a few hours. Suddenly, I have a vision. In this vision, the 15-year-old leaves with my credit cards and returns looking like an extra in "Escape From New York."

"No, you stay with us," my wife tells him.

She must be having the same vision.

11: 55 -- Uh-oh. This is it. The 11-year-old wants to go in the Gap. Every time I walk in the Gap, I feel about 110 years old. Like I should be sitting in a rocker with a shawl around my shoulders.

An overly friendly young woman with the voice of someone peddling a time-share condo in Bermuda greets us. She helps the 11-year-old score some jeans and some tops that are not too "Cat in the Hat"-like while I stand there looking as hip as Buddy Ebsen.

12: 20 p.m. -- We're in front of Foot Locker. The 15-year-old is

eyeing a pair of $120 Nike Air Maxes.

"Forget it," I tell him. "I spent less than that on my first car."

Of course, the car lasted about a week before the transmission dropped out and scattered across the driveway like a bag of marbles.

He settles for Nike Air Contrails, which are about half the price of the Air Maxes, but still cause me to clutch my chest when they're rung up on the register.

12: 40 -- Time for lunch. The food court looks like a Tiger Woods gallery. The kids go off for burgers and fries. I go off for Szechwan.

Because here is my philosophy: The place with the shortest line gets my business.

I don't care if there was an E. coli bacteria scare there an hour ago. I don't care if they have skinned muskrats hanging over the cash register.

You got a short line, I'm your customer.

1: 10 -- We're in Payless Shoes. Now this is my kind of place, baby! The prices are so good, I feel like pulling out a $100 bill and telling the other customers: "Put your money away, the shoes are on me."

Somehow, though, I resist the urge and we quietly buy a pair of sneakers for the 6-year-old.

1: 22 -- Here is the beauty of going into first grade: zero fashion pressure. Your mom and dad could send you off to school in an old shower curtain and you wouldn't care. At least that's what I thought.

But now we're in Hecht's and the 6-year-old is making noise about wanting a Tommy Hilfiger windbreaker.

Forget it, kid. Believe me, if there was a place called Payless Windbreakers, we'd be there now.

1: 36 -- The 11-year-old stops at a T-shirt stand, where we run into that stock mall character: the employee with a bad attitude.

This is the person who knows in his heart he should be playing the lead in the next Francis Ford Coppola film, or beginning another day in Washington as Secretary of State, and simply can't believe he's fallen so low as to be working retail.

In this case, the conversation at the T-shirt stand goes like this:

Me: "You have that one in a medium?"

T-shirt guy shakes head no.

Me: "Getting any mediums in?"

T-shirt guy shakes head no.

Me: "Big run on mediums, huh?"

T-shirt guy goes back to reading magazine.

Me: "Nice talking to you."

1: 45 -- OK, last stop. We're in Rite Aid for pens, notebooks, looseleaf paper, ring binders, pencil cases, etc.

The damage comes to, I don't know, $400. Or maybe it just seems that way.

What I can't figure out is, why do the kids need all this stuff? Because whenever I ask what they did in school all day, they say: "Oh, nothing much."

And whenever I ask if they have any homework, they say no.

In that case, we should be renting a couple of Jim Carrey videos instead of wasting our money on this junk.

Pub Date: 8/21/97

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