Saturday, December 21, 2002
“Okay, so one day we’re driving, and we’re just about to get on the freeway, and I look up and the sign says, ‘Squaw Peak Freeway.’”
The Kid said that. Maybe eleven years old, tall and thin. Tousled brown hair and the most beautiful gray eyes I’ve ever seen. He was talking to the Mom, mid-forties, fair and tall. She had long brown hair and eyes of a gentle, laughing green.
She said, “That’s what the sign says.”
“But my whole life I thought it was called the Pipsqueak Freeway. That’s what Dad always called it. That’s what he still calls it.”
The Mom was laughing silently, trying very hard not to laugh out loud.
“It’s not funny! I asked him why he called it that and he said he named it after the mayor.”
The Mom was still trying not to laugh.
“Oh, sure. Very funny. Every day after school we used to stop at the Post Office, and I was seven or eight before I found out that it’s not really called the Edgar Allan Poe Stoffice. I didn’t even know who Edgar Allan Poe was.”
The Mom was stopped short by her laughter. She stood there behind her shopping cart trying to catch her breath.
“You think it’s funny. I think it’s funny sometimes, too. But I never know when he tells me the name of something if that’s the real name, or if it’s just something he made up.”
“You have a lot of room to talk,” said the Mom. “The other day I said I needed to get four quarters and you spent the rest of the day telling people that I want to put warts on forks.”
“The Fork Warters, semi-notorious villains from the nether reaches. Or maybe they’re just a really bad rock band.”
“You see? You sound just like him. Where is your father, anyway?”
“He took off. He said he had Santaclaustrophobia.”
The Mom said nothing, just smiled and pushed her cart along the aisle.
They were Christmas shopping at Costco, which used to be called The Price Club before some genius decided that made too much sense.
Do you know about Costco? It’s a warehouse-sized store that sells huge quantities of stuff at wholesale prices. There are other companies that exploit the same basic idea. Another big one is Sam’s Club, where the motto is, ‘When mere WalMart just isn’t enough.’ It’s like mainlining heroin for shoppers. You start out with a shopping cart that’s bigger than a dog’s kennel. You work your way up to a four-wheeled cart the size of a pick-up truck bed. And eventually you take home skid-loads of merchandise from the loading dock. Costco is absolutely the most American store that could ever exist.
Do you doubt this? If you go to an ordinary supermarket, you can buy a one-pound jar of peanut butter. Particularly peckish? Buy the two-pound size – there’s nothing bigger. But at Costco, the very smallest jar of peanut butter is two-and-a-half pounds, and you have to buy it as a two-pack. Five pounds of peanut butter, enough to feed a normal adult for a month and a boy the size of the Kid for at least half a day. And you can buy the whole case if you want, four two-packs, twenty pounds of peanut butter. Fill the shopping cart. Stack up cases on that four-wheeled cart. Take home a truckload of peanut butter if you want. Try that at an ordinary supermarket.
And people really do shop that way. They’ll leave the store with nothing but hundreds of cases of soda. Those guys who sell bottles of water outside the baseball stadium buy their water in huge bulk at Costco. Years ago, owners of ghetto markets would buy their stock at sales in suburban discount stores, because it was cheaper than the deals they could get wholesale. No more. Costco has that business now. A few years back I heard about some street guys who had become infant-formula entrepreneurs, buying pallet-loads at Costco in the suburbs and selling it by the can, below retail at a small profit, to inner-city mothers. The police thought they were selling hot milk, so to speak, but it was just the American tradition of John Jacob Astor – buy it where it’s cheap, sell it where it’s dear, pocket the difference – all made possible by Costco.
The Mom wasn’t that kind of shopper, though. Her cart was loaded with some food and a lot of gift items. The Kid was helping to load the cart by begging for every last thing that caught his eye.
As for me, I don’t buy anything at Costco. I never buy anything I’m not willing to carry. But I love to go there, just to watch all that stuff leaving the store. I had been tagging behind the Mom and the Kid for a while, enjoying their chatter.
The sound system was playing “Oh come all ye faithful” and behind us a man’s voice was singing the song in Latin. “Venite adoremus,” he sang, pronouncing the ‘V’ correctly – as a ‘W’ – which church-choir Latinists never get right. He said, in full voice and seemingly to no one, “Who can sing this slowly?” But he was right on the beat for the next “Venite adoremus.”
It was the Dad of the family, of course, and the Mom stopped and turned to wait for him. He was tall. Not as thin as he used to be. Not as fat as he’s going to be: Costco’s immense supply creates its own demand, after all. Brown hair peppered with gray and grass-green eyes ablaze with mirth. He said, “I love this song, but no one can sing it that slowly.”
The Mom ignored this entirely. She said, “Do you have any idea what you might want for Christmas?”
“A CD I just saw. The greatest hits of the Beatles performed by Zamfir on his magical pan flute.”
“What’s a pan flute?” the Kid asked.
“It’s a folk instrument from the Andes. It’s been completely ruined by Zamfir.”
“Can you please be serious?” The Mom said that.
“No. But what about a complete set of Chia heads? I was looking at them and thinking, ‘What about a Chia toupee?’ Wouldn’t that look cool? How about a Chia jacket? Or just a big fuzzy green Chia vest, like that vest Sonny Bono used to wear.”
“Who’s Sonny Bono?” the Kid asked.
“The talented half of Sonny and Cher. Cher had a big voice and big teeth and big hair and a big… personality, so she made more money. But Sonny Bono wrote ‘Needles and pins,’ so he got to go to heaven when he died.”
“What’s ‘Needles and pins?’”
“Pop tune. Ask me again when we get home. I have five or six versions of it.”
“Christmas present…?” the Mom said.
“What more could I want than the two of you?”
“He’s hustling us,” the Kid said. “Isn’t he?”
The Dad said, “Wouldn’t think of it.” Both the Mom and the Kid rolled their eyes.
“Your son wants to know why you’re always giving things comical names.”
“I never do that.”
“I never do that. I’m very serious about names. I want for everything to have the perfect name. Take you, for instance. I wanted to call you Anaximander.”
“Either that or Anaxagoras. Or both. Just think of all the junk mail lists you would have been left off of, had you been denominated Anaximander Anaxagoras.”
“What’s ‘denominated’ mean?”
“It means to be plastered numerically on currency. I’d much rather be drunk on love.”
“It means to be stuck with the lower berth in a fraction.”
“It means to be named, honey.” The Mom said that.
They were still wandering slowly through the aisles, but none of the three were shopping. The Mom said, “You love doing that, don’t you?”
“If I didn’t have me around to keep me amused, I would surely despair.”
The sound system had changed to a different song, a rock tune masquerading as a country tune.
“These lyrics make no sense,” the Dad complained. “‘What kind of name is Amadeus?’ What’s that doing there?”
The Kid said, “What kind of name is Amadeus?”
“Latin, of course. ‘Love god.’ Singular imperative. Kind of a mild order, but not really a command. Shakespeare has Benedick say, ‘Serve god, love me and mend.’ The form commends without actually commanding. Very different from the hortatory subjunctive: ‘Hoist the anchor!’ ‘Man the battlements!’ ‘Once more unto the breach!’ ‘Bell the ding-dong cat!’”
“Dad, what are you talking about?”
“Grammar. ‘Venite adoremus’ is similar. ‘Venite’ is plural imperative, ‘come, y’all.’ ‘Adoremus’ is first-person plural subjunctive, the jussive subjunctive, ‘let us adore,’ ‘may we adore.’ ‘Let’s bell the cat!’”
“What did he say?” the Mom asked.
“He told me to shut up, now. In the singular imperative voice.”
They walked along a little further, both the Dad and the Kid looking every which way at once. “This is too crazy,” the Dad said. “We should push Christmas off a few days.”
“What!?” the Kid demanded.
“Just to let the crowds clear. I mean, what’s our hurry? How about the Feast of the Epiphany?”
“Epiphany. The twelfth day of Christmas. January 6th, your first day back to school. You could go to school, come home, do your chores and your homework, then sometime after dinner we could open presents. What do you think?”
The Kid was aghast.
The Mom said, “No skin off my nose.”
“You don’t even have a nose!” the Kid insisted. This was true. The Mom had the kind of tiny Celtic nose that convinced the noble Romans that Britannia was theirs for the taking. To the Dad he said, “We’re having Christmas on Christmas. Early on Christmas.”
The Dad said nothing, just pulled the Kid under his arm.“Hey, baby,” the Mom sang along with the sound system, “see the future that we’re building.”
“Here we go,” the Dad said. “I think I’m about to find out what I want for Christmas.”
“Our love lives on,” she sang, “in the lives of our children.”
The Dad said to the Kid, “Now you know where little brothers come from.”
“I think we’ll name him Nebuchadnezzar. Or maybe Zamfir. Or both.”
The Mom dug her elbow into the Dad’s ribs. “And that’s something,” she sang. “Something worth leaving behind…”
The Dad smiled warmly. But he said, “Look at all this stuff! It doesn’t look like you left anything behind.”
The Mom smiled warmly in return. But she said, “Tace. Nunc.”