It's 11:30. Normal folks are stirring from their post-Thanksgiving comas and maybe thinking about taking something for that hangover. A strange breed of early-early-ante-meridiem bargain-hunters, however, is surfing a warm accretionary haze, Sam's Club breakfasts and $99.99 tennis bracelets acquired.
Black Friday, so named because it is the day some stores actually enter the black for the year (or so every news article ever written about it claims), is happening all around us right now! Did you line up in a freezing cold Wal-Mart parking lot at 3 a.m. to buy a discounted coffee maker? Have you spent the last weeks compiling a spreadsheet to definitively analyze the relative value of Chain Hellscape A's "doorbusters" versus the "doorbusters" of Chain Hellscape B? Did you map your mall's discounts on your iPhone?
I'm not usually much of one to line up outside a department store at 4 a.m. in hopes of scoring some vaguely useful Thing for 40%, 50%, or up to 65% off (When You Apply For A Store Credit Card!). But I did, on December 26, 2005, find myself with my mother, two of my cousins, and my aunt, standing outside the largest mall in Indiana. That's not Black Friday, but it'll do for a story. It was 6:55 a.m.
I thought that armed with a large cup of hot tea and an inquisitive nature, I could handle it. I'd been living in the states for almost a year at that point, and I had by then almost stopped having that stereotypical OMG-there-areso-many-kinds-of-tooth-paste-here moment in the grocery store aisle. My aunt and cousins, dab hands at this post-holiday sales business, began canvassing the larger tenants — Macy's, L.S. Ayres, J.C. Penney, Talbot's, Sears, Von Maur, Lazarus, comparing advertised savings with actual, scanning racks, and fingering tags with three, four, five layers of price stickers, each layer adding to the thrill by betraying what some theoretical sucker actually paid for the thing. The aisles were crowded but my rellies moved deftly.
I had not then yet learned that if you care at all for tea in America, you should always travel with some nice loose Darjeeling or English Breakfast, and a small teapot and strainer if possible. So for the duration of my Christmas break, I'd been limited to such sundry bags of herbal "tea" (herbal tea is actually not a tea at all, but tisane) as had been available at my aunt's house, the least-bad of which had appeared to be an ancient Celestial Seasonings lemon zinger that developed into a russet-colored cup that smelled like Pine-O-Sol. So I was sucking down this reeking, puckeringly acidic concoction that was, by 8 a.m., quite cold, and I only had my own poor judgment to blame. (Of course I hadn't bothered with breakfast.)
My cousins shopped with a single-mindedness that was as impressive to behold as it was deeply wearying. We trekked from handbags to outerwear, from lingerie to shoes, from appliances to luggage, from specialty store to sporting goods store to shit like The Buckle. My mum was, surprisingly, kind of loving it — and I was starting to dry-heave. About a quarter past eight, the buzzing of the fluorescent lights was doing strange things in my ears, and the people jamming the aisles were making me feel ill. I swallowed my own spit over and over; it tasted like that infernal tea. My hands were clammy and Mum was asking me if I felt all right; I just shook my head. She immediately dropped the shoes she had been looking at and led me towards the exit.
We were within sight of the end of Macy's when we hit the perfume department. Shiny glass counters held a million bottles while ladies with perfect makeup and nametags asked if they could help anyone? J.Lo's latest oeuvre was mingling with Acqua di Giò and some Elizabeth Arden floral crap and the entirety of Kenzo's profit center, forming this hideous smell-cloud. The taste of my spit (which was like cold Celestial Seasonings Pine-O-Sol and saliva) was interacting with all the perfume I couldn't avoid inhaling, creating new and horrible volatile organic compounds in my nose and throat area. I retched. I made it to a black trash can next to a plastic plant and a black vinyl couch that contained someone's husband, and I threw up while my mum held back my hair. "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" was playing on the PA system and the resting husband shifted noticeably away from us. I have never gotten up before dawn to go a department store sale since.