Sunday, Dec. 17, 1:45 a.m.: I pull into the parking lot of the Target in Abingdon, haul a folding chair and sleeping bag from my car, and approach a few folks near the entrance. The chilly night air casts a fog around the sodium vapor lights on the nearly deserted lot. The store is due to open in about six hours.
"You here for the Wii?" someone asks. "You're too late."
Thousands of children will wake this morning, hearts racing, and dash to their living rooms to find ... cash or a gift card redeemable for the elusive Nintendo Wii or Sony PlayStation 3.
It won't be the stuff of screaming video scenes or Kodak moments. But the kids should know it wasn't for Santa's lack of trying. Rudolph's nose couldn't save the day again. No, this year presented a quandary more daunting than a Christmas Eve blizzard: a video game shortage.
At least I assume that will be the situation in many households, based on what occurred a week ago in the chilly pre-dawn at several Target stores in Harford County. And at Toys "R" Us. And at Best Buy.
1:55 a.m.: The folks outside the Abingdon Target told me they'd begun getting in line at 10 or so that Saturday night. The manager had appeared about 11 p.m. to announce that he'd received only 18 Wii machines in his latest shipment. Sometime after midnight, the 18th person had arrived in line and kindly informed all later arrivals that they'd be waiting for nothing. I got back in my car and weighed whether to return to my warm bed - or search for another store.
During the pre-dawn Dec. 17, roughly 200 people in Harford camped outside several of the major electronics and discount stores that expected fresh shipments of the Nintendo Wii. Those lines were repeated at stores throughout the region, so it's likely that 1,000 people in Greater Baltimore spent the night outdoors that weekend.
2:05 a.m.: I roll down my car window in front of the Bel Air Target.
"Anyone know how many machines have been delivered?" I ask the roughly 20 folks camped out in front. Nope, they reply. I park my car and unload my gear at the end of the line toward the dark side of the store. I add my name to the impromptu sign-up sheet that someone near the front of the line created, a wise move of self-interest and crowd control. I am No. 22.
These Bedouin villages of strip-mall suburbia formed on other nights, too, dating back to last month, when Nintendo released the Wii and Sony Corp. the PlayStation 3.
It was more of a tease than a release. Neither company produced enough. They didn't work out the bugs ahead of time. The machines were priced ridiculously high for child's play - at least $500 for the PlayStation, which made $250 for the Wii seem reasonable. Worst of all, they launched them so close to the holidays there was scant time to find one. There should be a law against that for the sake of parents. Maybe the new Congress can go to work on that.
3 a.m.: The crowd at the Target is not particularly young, certainly not like the kind seen camping for rock concert tickets or to be the first into some sci-fi epic. There are several twentysomethings toward the front, but the folks around me are in their 40s, 50s, perhaps even 60s, and some seem poorly dressed for the wait. People offer each other extra blankets, coats and chairs to make it through the night.
I didn't know much about the Wii except that it's pronounced "we," that it was one of only two things on my 12-year-old son Austin's holiday list, and that some folks who have it say they like it. It requires players to jump around and make the motions of the games they're playing, like bowling or baseball. The maker is replacing the handles that apparently detached too easily and caused some people to fling their controllers into the television by accident. I knew less about the PlayStation except that it costs $500 or $600, depending on the model, which is all I needed to know.
Like everything that's scarce, you can find either of these on eBay or other auction Web sites if you're willing to pay double or triple the price.
4 a.m.: It's mind-boggling - not that roughly seven newcomers an hour have been showing up and getting in line at this Target, or that they've reported similar lines at other chain stores across the highway and miles away in Aberdeen and White Marsh, according to family members they've reached by cell phone there.
No, what's amazing is that these people seem happy. So often this season seems more harried than joyous, and here we are, probably the biggest pawns of all this crass commerce, blaring Christmas music from car stereos, sharing conversation, asking whether anyone would like a cappuccino on the next coffee run?
According to the blog nintendo wiifanboy, a Swedish man's appendix burst while waiting in line for a Wii. After two days in the hospital, he returned to the front of the line. The manager of the store had reserved his place. There have been some nastier reports, too: an armed robbery of a line waiting for the PlayStation 3 in Connecticut, police pepper-spraying a crowd in Tysons Corner, Va.
5 a.m.: There have got to be 40 people in line now. Still, no one has any idea how many Wiis have been shipped to this store. Rumors drift like breath clouds in the 30-degree air. Someone heard by phone that the people waiting at Toys "R" Us believe our store has 60 Wiis. Someone else suspects 25. No. 30 then starts to panic, even though it's clear everyone's just wildly guessing. A garrulous fellow named Buzz - "Like Buzz Lightyear?" someone asks - but who seems more like Norm from the old TV sitcom Cheers leads a "group shout" across the highway to the Toys "R" Us enclave that they're "at the wrong store." The holler echoes off the big-box stores. His wife, in the line at Toys, phones him that they heard us.
Nintendo budgeted $200 million to advertise the Wii in commercials directed by Academy Award-winner Stephen Gaghan, whose work includes the critically acclaimed Traffic and Syriana. One question: Why did it bother?
6 a.m.: Despite its being a relatively still winter night and despite my wearing an Irish fishing sweater, a wool coat, two knit caps, ski socks and snow boots, and draped in a sleeping bag, the cold, clammy air has become piercing and uncomfortable after four hours. I keep seeing visions of Leonardo DiCaprio clinging to wreckage in the North Atlantic toward the end of Titanic and wonder whether I look blue like he did.
Nintendo and Sony combined shipped fewer than 1 million of their new machines to the U.S. About 40 million people ages 10 to 19 live in this country. There will be some long faces today.
6:18 a.m.: Channeling Kate Winslet now, from the same movie, I hear a murmur in the distance. A rescuer in a dinghy? No, it's a man in Target red, and the group circles him. He's the electronics manager who just tallied his night shipment: 15 Wiis. That is all, he apologizes. At least 40 people - including No. 22 - realize they will go home empty-handed. Then, a strange thing happens, like another movie scene, when the Whos keep singing even though the Grinch tried to sabotage Christmas.
The people seem disappointed, but in good spirits, shaking hands, hugging, discussing breakfast plans. Maybe they're all delusional from lack of sleep and warmth. Or maybe they share a sense they're unlikely to admit, that deep down they demonstrated to themselves how much they would do to please their child. Some said they didn't care much about the game and didn't expect their child to appreciate their attempts to get it, whether they succeeded or not.
But in a season said to be about love, in a dark lot on a December night, they found a measure of it.