Posted by jdg | Monday, February 05, 2007 |

It is -2 degrees Fahrenheit when Wood leaves for work this morning; it is the kind of day to crank the heat and let Juniper walk around all day without pants. On days like this I might not put any on either. Juniper, at least, has the excuse of a focused potty-training regimen. She only wears diapers at night and during her naps now. The rest of the day I am on constant duty, shuttling her ass to the toilet on a moment's notice.

Today could have been spent solely in such glorious pursuits, but despite the negative 20 degree wind chill I snap Juniper into her polyester winter exoskeleton, dust the snow off the salt-encrusted car, and leave the lazy comfort of our home. I have decided it is about time to fully acknowledge that we have left the brown hills of California and finally register our car here in Michigan. That means a trip to the DMV, located in a nondescript strip mall in a nearby suburb. The wait inside isn't bad, aside from the part where Juniper shouts, "Minnie go poo poo in the potty?" in front of everyone. I whisper in her ear that she can go in her diaper, but she screams and arches her back, insisting on the toilet. Begrudgingly accepting this as a good sign, I leave the line and remove her shoes and her pants and her leggings and her diaper only to sit face to face with her in front of a disgusting men's room toilet watching her release a mournful whistle of a fart and then ask me to tell her a story about "Hondo pooping." Who the fuck is Hondo? I think as I dress her. Then I remember: Hondo was a dog we met at the animal shelter the previous day whose cage was filled with enormous turds. Back in line, she resumes her demand to go poo poo on the potty. You can stew in it, I think, and say nothing.

When we get to the front of the line, the DMV employee looks at me as though I've slung a rotting goat carcass over my shoulder. She does not acknowledge my daughter, who does not stop talking throughout the transaction. Despite this, I am thrilled to learn that my BEA RTHUR vanity plate is available (DORTHY Z4NAK has too many letters). Rock on! We head out into the cold, looking into the wind hurtling along the floor-to-ceiling windows of the half-abandoned strip mall. Irish pub! Dollar store! Office Depot! Discount Party Supplies Plus! We stop in the party store to see what kind of decorations we could have had for Juniper's birthday last week if we'd had our shit together.

Inside, I'm shocked to find an entire wall of shimmering metallic balloons in the shape of every imaginable licensed character. "Elmo!" Juniper screams, and I quickly carry her towards the aisle marked "party favors." The store is huge, but I can't find a single anonymous party favor among the Spongebob Square pants twisty straws or the Disney/Pixar Cars Oil Can Squirts. I am horrified. I'm not really such a snob, but I just can't believe that we have so willingly allowed a handful of companies to completely hijack our children's imaginations. I don't look down on this stuff because it makes me feel better about myself. All it does is make me feel very sad.

Those feelings are heightened when, before we leave, an old man wearing some pretty sweet blublockers enters the store, walks right up to the cashier who is checking out another customer and asks her if she has any anniversary balloons. The girl at the register can't be bothered with him, so she yells out to a pimply kid behind another counter: "Jason, can you help this guy?" she shouts.

I watch the old fellow shuffle over while Juniper amuses herself with some out-of-season gewgaws in the clearance bin.

"Do you have any anniversary balloons?" he asks again.

"You want nylon or mylar?" Jason responds, hardly looking up at his customer.

"I'm looking for a sixtieth anniversary balloon. Today is my sixtieth wedding anniversary."

"I don't think we have any specific anniversaries," said Jason. "We got some nylon balloons that just say Happy Anniversary, or we've got these mylar ones. Wait, in the mylar we do have some specific ones. Twenty. Twenty-five. Thirty. Forty. That's it."

"Oh. We've been married sixty years today. She was my high school sweetheart, but she's in a nursing home now. You think they'd let me bring some of those into the nursing home?"

"I have no idea," says the kid. "Probably."

"Give me two that say happy thirtieth anniversary," he chuckles. "She won't know the difference." Jason just starts blowing up the balloons.

I watch the old man as he watches the kid blow up his happy anniversary balloons. I am not at all surprised by the lack of humanity in the service he has just received. That is something I am accustomed to. What shocks me is that he made any effort at all, that he hasn't yet been worn down to expect the transaction to be no more than the exchange of cash for a good. I imagine he remembers a time in his eighty-odd years when salespeople actually knew their customers, perhaps even cared about them. I look at Jason, who has finished pumping helium into the second heart-shaped balloon and is now twisting a tiny piece of plastic at its nape. It is not his fault. He is being paid virtually nothing. Someone in his position could have been nice, but he certainly isn't being paid for it. The paucity of his wages simply provides the affordability of the goods. That is all. Most of us have come to expect no more than indifference from the likes of him. I look around the interior of this store. A bird has escaped the weather and sits on a bare metal girder of the ceiling.

Once in awhile something happens that reminds me of why I feel the way I do about these chain stores beyond all the pedantry and elitism. Sometimes it feels like we have exchanged some of our humanity to save a few lousy dollars.

The kid rings up the old man. The old man hands over a ten dollar bill and gets some change. The kid hands over the balloons and says, "There you go. Have a nice day."

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