By Aaron Keck

Thursday, Black Thursday

By Aaron Keck Posted November 29, 2013 at 4:16 am

The apartment search is done and I’m now officially a Durhamite!

So what do Durham folks do?

I hear they drink beer, for one. And they root for Duke. And of course—how can I forget?—they spend Thanksgiving at the Southpoint Mall!

Well, when in Rome…

I pull into the parking lot around 10:30 p.m. It’s crowded, but not that crowded—you’ll see worse mall traffic on any Saturday in December.

I’ve been following the shopping-on-Thanksgiving debate on Facebook for two weeks now. I’m on the fence about it. Sure the stores are big ol’ meanies who make employees work on holidays, but it’s our own fault for showing up; workers want to spend Thanksgiving with family, but they also want the overtime, and besides, why are we even trying to speak on behalf of every Macy’s employee anyway? Who are we, the Macy’s Lorax? But at the same time we should care about the workers, because the opposite path is just as problematic. “Workers should just suck it up—life’s not fair,” said several of my Facebook friends…as if that automatically means we should give up, embrace the unfairness, and stop ever fighting for change. Uh, also no.

I love crazy cultural phenomena, so I wanted to see the Thanksgiving shopping crush for myself.  But I didn’t want to be part of the problem. So, a compromise: I’ll go to the mall, but not until after 10:00, when any theoretical Thanksgiving family dinners would’ve been long over anyway. And—most importantly!—I won’t buy anything. Not a thing. I am merely a casual observer.

(Besides, I had to work on Thursday too. So dagnabbit, I’m entitled.)

So here I am, walking into Macy’s at 10:30. It’s only the second time in my life I’ve ever been in a store on Black Friday. (Yes, it’s technically still Thursday. But if everyone else in the mall is calling it Black Friday, then so will I.) The other time was two years ago, when my friend Jeff agreed to accompany me to Southpoint so I could see Black Friday for myself firsthand. We started across the street, stood in line at Old Navy for half an hour until midnight—they still held off until midnight!—and got through Best Buy and the mall itself by the time 4:00 rolled around. It was nuts. At Belk we headed for the jewelry counter—I actually needed a new watch—and passed a shoe section that looked like a tornado had hit it. Boxes lay strewn about on the floor, unpaired shoes scattered on the ground, sheets of wrinkled, torn, balled-up paper being kicked up by anyone who walked by.

Ironically the shoes that caused all the ruckus were called “Rampage.” True story.

Rampage 1

If their slogan isn’t “They’re all the rage,” then something is very wrong with the world.

But that was two years ago.

This night was much more subdued.

And that’s by design, of course. While we’re bickering over holiday shopping hours, let’s remember why stores started opening earlier on Black Friday in the first place: too many high-profile deaths caused by folks trampling each other at 6 a.m. to get to the hottest toy, the latest doodad, the biggest sale.

None of that now. Now it’s become mundane.

Which isn’t to say there’s no craziness. The first thing I notice, first in Macy’s and then in every other store, is the disarray. Much more so than usual. Clothes hastily rifled through, then left in a big ball. Boxes knocked over and left on the floor. Nothing hung where it’s supposed to be. Piles of abandoned clothes in every fitting room.

(Yes, I did get as far as a fitting room. There was this one shirt—but no. I never tried it on. I literally couldn’t. Try as I might, for whatever reason, I couldn’t fit my head through the neck hole. I’m blaming the shirt, but it’s possible my ego’s just that far through the roof.)

But other than the greater-than-usual disarray, it feels like a regular busy day. Nobody fighting, nobody angry, nobody pushing past each other to get to the last item on the shelf. In fact quite the opposite: people are casual, relaxed, smiling. Even slow. (EXTREMELY slow, in fact. Why oh why do people insist on stopping right in the middle of the only available pathway from one part of a store to another? Sheesh.)

Same goes for the employees—many of them, at least. “It’s 11:30,” says one in JC Penney’s. “I’m not in work mode. I’m in chill mode.”

(“You think that’s bad,” says another. “I was up making dinner at 7 this morning.” Score one for Team We’re Exploiting People.)

I’m also struck by the other little detail that makes it feel like an ordinary day: even at midnight on Thanksgiving, most of the stores are actually open. All the press goes to the big retailers, Walmart and Target and mall anchors like Macy’s and Penney’s, but it’s not just the anchors anymore. Payless Shoe Source was open too. And American Eagle. Even the fro-yo place by Sears. (And it was doing business too. Who the hell stops for fro-yo at midnight on Thanksgiving? Was there no pie?) As recently as two years ago, it really was mostly just the anchors. Now, not so much. It’s not just that stores are opening earlier—more stores are opening as well. The insidious creep of shopping on Thanksgiving extends not just to time but also to place.

(Even the kiosk that sells those Christian-themed arrow shirts is open. Which got me thinking: is Black Friday the most sacrilegious day of the year? Or is it Halloween? I might be forgetting one, but I’m thinking it’s got to be one or the other.)

It’s after midnight and I’m almost all the way through the mall. Nordstrom’s is closed—they’re still resisting the Black Friday tide—so I’ve only got one big store left.

Belk.

I head up the escalator to the shoe section. Sure enough, Rampage is on sale yet again. They’ve got five, six long tables set up, each one piled high with boxes and boxes of Rampage, just waiting to be torn apart by frenzied shoppers.

But even here, it’s just a typical busy day. No frenzy. No chaos. Just the same level of disarray I saw everywhere else.

Rampage 2

Then again, they did have caution tape up around the jewelry counter and a Durham police officer standing guard by the shoes. Maybe I just missed it.

So how was my Black Friday experience? Humdrum. And maybe that’s good. The creep of Thanksgiving Day shopping means more and more people are having to work on holidays, and of course it also means we’re turning yet another once-sacred day into a materialistic feeding frenzy. But then again, it also means less concentrated chaos and possibly less danger—and let’s face it, Thanksgiving has always been a materialistic feeding frenzy. Now it’s just about products rather than food.

As for the experience, though, it’s definitely been dulled. And again, maybe that’s okay. The first time I ever went out on Thanksgiving was the year our extended family stopped getting together, so my immediate family decided to see a movie instead. The movie was “Bean,” the theater was so packed it was standing-room only, and halfway through the movie a guy standing behind us got faint and passed out right on top of my mother.

We never did see a movie on Thanksgiving again.

Was this trip to the mall as memorable as that trip to the theater? Nope. And thank goodness for that.

Now. Anyone else have this random craving for fro-yo?

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