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SHEER THRILL OF THE HUNT FILLS STORES ON BLACK FRIDAY

The old lady rocked back and forth on the gum-stained carpet, cradling the carton in her arms like a recovered fumble. "I got one," she shouted with obvious pride.

"Good work, nana," said the young woman next to me, as she helped her grandmother back to her feet. Then the two of them happily walked over to the checkout.

Grandma showed a surprising amount of quickness for one so up in years. She sharply shouldered and elbowed her way to the front of the crowd, using her assumed fragility as a tidy weapon. Those who thought her a weak adversary soon regretted it.

There's nothing like shopping the day after Thanksgiving.

When I arrived at the Best Buy store that 6 a.m. and saw the size of the crowd, I knew I had little chance of getting any of the items the store claimed to have on sale.

The caffeine-induced chatter and the crumpled Tim Horton cups told me these shoppers had gotten there long before midnight. The confident faces pointed out the real sharpies: the ones who'd slipped a couple of bucks to a disgruntled employee and found out exactly where each sale item would be on Friday morning. An old trick maybe, but always effective.

Suddenly, with that look of fearful apprehension I'd grown to love, the store manager appeared. He fingered a set of keys, and then looked around to make sure he had an escape route. As he began to unlock the doors, the noise from the crowd rose to the roar you hear at a Bills kickoff. I surged forward, praying no one would get stuck in the doorway this year.

This was not my first experience with the herd. Not by any means. I'm drawn to stores on that day for the same reason other people run after fire engines or chase tornadoes: The sheer excitement of the hunt.

I was at a Sears store one year and saw a lady get conked on the head by an errant popcorn tin. Knocked out cold. And the ironic part was, it didn't even have the Currier & Ives print that she requested. I just thank God it wasn't a cheese tray.

Another time, at Sam's Club, a young girl one checkout line over from me suddenly burst into tears. I'd seen it happen before, she simply didn't have the stamina to be out on a day like this. The other shoppers shook their heads in pity. They knew they might succumb to the same battle fatigue by day's end, but they couldn't worry about it now. She managed to pull herself together by the time her turn came, but then her credit card wouldn't go through. Sometimes, I can still hear her screams.

Now that I'm older, with my own kids nearly grown, I mostly just observe, like a retired general watching another country's war games. But there was a time when I fought in the trenches. I participated in the Strawberry Shortcake Campaign in the late '70s, and I still have the scars on my forearm to prove it.

My right ankle throbs on rainy days because I tried to go from a crowded checkout 6 to a newly opened checkout 7, and I was just a bit too slow. Why, I once pulled a Cabbage Patch Doll right out of a woman's hand at Kmart when she bent down to give her baby a bottle. Am I proud of it now? Maybe not. But it was Christmas, and I was just filling orders.

So I'll be out there again this year, maybe not to buy, maybe just to observe the form of the other combatants. There's a rumor Wal-Mart's getting in some DVD players dirt-cheap. Sounds like fun.

MICHAEL FILIPINK is a local writer and guerrilla shopper.
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