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The Boys on the Benches

If there was ever a doubt in my mind that man was not made to Christmas shop, it was erased this week on the front lines of the malls. I saw shoppers fall by the dozens from sheer exhaustion and from hair-raising encounters with others who pursued their goals with the relentless dedication of Marines on a foreign beach. If ever a monument to war is morally justified, then there ought to be one for those who fell while shopping, although there wouldn’t be enough room on a normal-sized edifice to include all the names.

I found this to be true in malls from Woodland Hills to Santa Monica during a week’s worth of Christmas shopping that still haunts me. I continue to suffer the aftereffects of the skirmishes even as I sit in my quiet room trying to write. I am jolted by intermittent flashes of gruesome scenes in household furnishings and can still hear the screams of the suffering in linens. I can’t even talk about what I witnessed in the costume jewelry department; it hurts so much.

What I dislike most about shopping, and what wears me out fastest, is waiting. I estimate that I have spent approximately 15.5 years of my life waiting and am no longer capable of just hanging around. Most of the waiting has been for my wife, although I have done a fair amount of it under other circumstances. I wait for her on street corners, in theater lobbies, at restaurants and in tour buses of various countries we visit. I hold the bus from taking off and leaving us stranded while she finishes taking just one more photograph of a cathedral. Sometimes I am cursed in foreign languages for not allowing the bus to move, but I don’t care. Cursing can sound almost melodic in Japanese.

Waiting seemed more difficult this year than most. I suspect it is because stores no longer furnish chairs in their women-oriented departments where men can sit and brood while waiting. In order to sit in the immediate vicinity of where the shopping is going on, you have to be in those sections that sell shoes and couches, but sooner or later they’re going to ask you to either buy or move. The bedding department is OK too, but how long can you test a mattress before a clerk begins to suspect she’s dealing with a pervert?

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Women’s wear is the toughest place for me to wait because it takes my wife longer to buy. She is a master at combining styles and colors, and masters cannot be rushed. When I complain, she says, “Go find a place to sit,” and when I say there is no place to sit, she says, “Next time I’ll find a women’s shop next to a bar.” I tried sitting on the floor once near the dressing rooms but got up when she said I looked like a wino.

I was waiting in the lingerie department when I finally decided I had better find a more suitable place to wait. I don’t mind hanging around women’s underwear, but I read the other day that lingerie is this year’s biggest shoplifting item and retail security forces are on the lookout for people who loiter around lingerie for no apparent reason. Designer undergarments made from suede and costing as much as $400 apiece are the latest favorites of thieves, and while I wasn’t certain there were any of these ultra-undies where I was waiting, I wandered away to avoid problems.

That’s when I discovered most malls have concrete benches somewhere near the major stores, and while the benches were uncomfortable as hell, they were at least a place to sit. All of them, of course, were occupied by men, some of whom were also waiting for their women to come for them, but others of whom I suspect were hoping for helicopters to drop from the sky and airlift them to safety. We all seemed in various stages of shopping-shock and tried to ease one another’s pain with small talk about cars and beer.

There was a kind of camaraderie among those of us who only sat and waited, and after a while we became good friends, exchanging stories about commando raids at the cut-rate tables. We laughed together and cried together and promised to meet someday after all of this was over. I especially enjoyed a guy from Glendale who said someday he wanted to own a little farm somewhere and forget there ever was a place like a mall. I told my wife about him, and she kissed me and said it was nice to have friends when chaos marred our lives. She’s right. They were days that will live in infamy. Shopping is hell.

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