Confessions from a Boxing Day Line

by Tom Ingram

This is ridiculous. I didn’t even want to be here. It wasn’t my idea. For God’s sake, I’m a classically-trained clarinetist and aspiring author. Surely, I should be above this sort of thing. Yet here I stand, at five-thirty in the morning, somewhere in the middle of a block-long Boxing Day line outside Best Buy.

God, I’m freezing. It’s -29 with the wind chill, according to the TV. The Best Buy employees are handing out free heat packs. Somehow I don’t think it’ll help. The only reason we’re still alive at all is that the mechanism that causes molecular movement to stop at a certain temperature seized up in the cold. And anyway, they have a nice warm store not far away.

Somehow I doubt that there’s all that much last-minute work they can get done in the half an hour remaining. Of course, if they open the doors a half-hour early, it’s not as tantalizing for the customers. When it comes down to a choice between basic human decency and being a coy bastard to trick us out of more money, Best Buy will choose the second option every time.

I want to be cynical, but that’s just vulgar. Nobody forced me to be out here. Everyone else is here through the abject trickery of the Best Buy lords, but I could easily go wait in the car. I don’t even have to go into the store at all. I just want them to open the doors because it’s more convenient for me.

I’m finding it hard to muster my usual Boxing Day contempt. I like H.L. Mencken as much as the next guy, but I’ve come to realize that the guy who tells you about the ills of humanity does it as a way of exempting himself from them–every cry of “people are stupid bastards” comes with an implied “except me”. Well, people are stupid bastards, including me–I’m in that line too–and I don’t get any points for realizing it.

We move up a little bit. Not because they let somebody in, but the people who have been here since midnight just packed up their lawn chairs. We’re now standing in front of the door to Ashley Furniture and Home Store. I wonder what their manager thinks about all this. But the store is closed and the lights are off. They don’t open till eight. Too bad for them, really. Their business plan could use a once-over from the Best Buy people.

You’d think there would be hundreds of greasy nerds descending on the store like a greasy nerd Mecca. There are, but there are also Winnipeggers of all stripes, drawn by the irresistible promise of slightly cheaper stuff. Behind me are a pair of upper-middle-aged women speaking in Ukrainian accents. I give one of them my heat pack. I am, in theory, young and vibrant, without the need for such things. A song comes up on my iPod, “2112” by Rush. It’s twenty minutes long and depressing as all hell and frankly, I don’t need that right now. I try to skip it, but with my frozen hands it’s no easy task.

I don’t even have my wallet here. It’s not my intention to buy anything. My brother asked me if I’d come along to keep him company. And he’s only here because he has to work all day, starting at nine, and won’t have a chance to come by at a decent hour. Since he was here anyway, might as well get in line and be entered into the draw for a $500 gift card. Why not?

I’m measuring the passing of time in songs. For some reason every song that pops up is at least five minutes. “Why Worry” and “Industrial Disease” by Dire Straits, “Sack o’ Woe” by Cannonball Adderley, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Fifteen minutes left and the fraternal issues set in. I have two brothers, one fourteen and one who is nineteen but has a precocious ability to act like a complete child. It’s a good thing I’m here after all, otherwise an actual fistfight could have started. I push myself between the two of them.

Looking in the furniture store again, I’m struck by how ugly everything is. Surely there are people who are excited about the sales at this store. They’re just older on average, and get up later. It gets me thinking. Not too long ago there was an explosion of newsprint: IKEA is coming to Winnipeg. You would not believe how big a story that is. I don’t get it–it’s just furniture. You sit on it. It’s pretty much invisible from there. A chair is a chair, and has been for centuries. I can understand getting excited about electronics–electronics are objectively exciting things. But who gets excited about furniture?

Finally, the doors open. On the way in, we pass a snowy, discarded blanket and a couple of cardboard boxes that appear to have been used as an impromptu shelter. At this point, I think Best Buy and their ilk have given up on money entirely and are now focusing on reducing the total amount of human dignity in the world. As we get inside, people run as if they have to chase down their laptops and club them to death by themselves. My younger brother and I get pushed into the aisle containing movies L-S by the tide of humanity and we both stay there. We’re not here to buy anything.

It’s kind of odd that nobody is buying movies. It’s all laptops and TVs. Fancy ways to watch things, but nothing new to watch. Or maybe they just don’t want to be here any longer than they need to to get whatever they want. For my part, I’m currently looking for a certain movie, but I can’t find it anywhere. It was an unlucky movie from 2004. It’s critical of a certain subculture that just happens to be culturally dominant in this rapidly-closing decade. As a result, it was universally praised by critics who matter (though it did get a fair share of bad reviews) but it’s impossible to find in any stores. I’m entirely unsurprised that it’s not here.

We push our way toward the back of the store, passing several unfortunate employees on the way. I feel for them. I used to work at Zellers. I wasn’t even there during a big sales event, but it was a miserable time. Which reminds me, I haven’t been in a Zellers in months. We’re not far from where I used to work. Maybe we should drop in, say hi, see if anyone I know is still working there and rub it in that they’re doing Boxing Day and I’m not.

Though I suppose I am doing Boxing Day, I’m just not getting paid for it. I guess that makes me the sucker. I step over a couple tote boxes that are in the middle of the floor and realize too late that they were supposed to demarcate a one-way path through the camera section. There are arrows on the floor with tape. It’s no use, though, because nobody is paying attention to them.

It’s the retailer’s best friend, really. Humans like to act in a certain way, and they get really uncomfortable if you don’t let them. You can take advantage of that to sell them stupid shit they don’t need. But signs and notices usually get ignored, especially if they tell you which way to walk. Somehow each individual human follows them but humanity as a whole does not, and they end up trampled.

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.

–Agent K, “Men in Black”

I see, independently, two of my musician friends from school. I’m briefly embarrassed at being here until I realize that they’re here too. But we can’t stay long; my brother found what he was looking for and now it’s time to go to Future Shop a block away.

Future Shop is the same as Best Buy. It’s owned by the same company and even laid out in roughly the same way. The only difference is that Future Shop is nominally Canadian, and Canadians are nothing if not insistent on trivial details. 5AM line notwithstanding, most of us are uncomfortable giving money to a giant American corporation but think nothing of giving money to a front for that same corporation, so long as its logo is red.

It’s actually a lot more restrained and less crowded here. There was a lineup just to get into the computer department at Best Buy, but here it’s virtually empty. I pick up a 4GB Kingston flash drive for $6.99 (plus PST and GST). The flash drive I’ve been using is 1GB, and it comes from the time where 1GB was the biggest size you could buy for a reasonable price. Since my wallet isn’t here, my older brother is paying for it and I’ll pay him back later. That means I don’t have to stand in line.

For that, at least, I’m grateful. The line stretches to the back of the store. It’s amazing how they manage to get people to do that. They’ve even got us sold on the idea of “Boxing Week” now, to the point where it hardly ever draws derision anymore, and now it looks like they’re starting to push “Boxing Day Preview” sales the week before Christmas. For some reason, any given person realizes that it’s all a cynical scam and the people buying cheap TVs are being had. However, people as a whole keep buying the cheap TVs and every year, Boxing Week/Day/Month is bigger. I really can’t hate them for it, because it works beautifully. I admire their craftsmanship.

They were also quite lucky that there was a holiday that no one cared about yet was perfectly situated. Everyone’s spirits are high after escaping Christmas dinner alive, and due to the bombardment of messages from It’s a Wonderful Life and the bi-annual churching-up, they’re not in a very thinky mood. Everyone’s just dropped a pile of cash on an increasingly expensive holiday, and the illusion of savings becomes even more attractive.

When we return to the car, there’s one last destination: Wal-Mart. My brother, for some unknown reason, wants to buy an Xbox 360 despite owning a PS3 and a Wii already. The Crossroads Station parking lot in Kildonan Place was laid out by a vicious sociopath, and all traffic comes through one chokepoint midway between Future Shop and Best Buy. We have to turn left to get to the back of the lot where Wal-Mart is, and the left turn signal is a little spotty in extreme temperatures.

Despite the world’s best efforts, we make it to Wal-Mart alive. The floors are filthy, covered in that brown Christmastime goop that is impossible to escape. A sign hangs near the entrance: 364 days till Christmas. It’s kind of funny that so many people get up in arms about the secularization of Christmas (or, more broadly, the secularization of December), and yet they have no trouble with the commercialization. Secularism is ultimately about inclusiveness, and a secular Christmas is a Christmas for everybody. The commercialization, however, is essentially companies co-opting the holiday and hoarding it to themselves. Personally, I’m not too concerned about either one, but if I had to be troubled about something I know what I’d choose.

Finally, my brother finishes and it’s time to go. We escape from the parking lot, soaring past the late-early morning traffic headed to Kildonan Place. It’s seven o’clock now, and we’ve spent two hours here–one in line. I crank up the music on the radio and look back with a half-hearted smile of derision. Sure, we’re out of here while everybody else continues to crawl over each other in search of deals. Somehow, though, I can’t seem to manage more than amused affection for everybody involved. Including me. After all, I was in that line too.