Dead Mall: Vallco Mall Cupertino

I had to go to Cupertino last week for a work bowling party thing. I followed the GPS to a Bowlmor, parked in a garage, and realized it was actually an anchor to a large mall. I had a few minutes to do a quick lap, and suddenly realized I’d chanced upon the most elusive dead mall situation: a huge mall that was in it’s final moment of end-stage death.

I’m fascinated by malls. It’s always bugged the hell out of friends that I travel a thousand miles to some new place and want to go to a mall and not buy anything, but it’s an unfortunate illness of mine, and I can’t escape it. I grew up going to malls, then I worked in one as a teenager, and spent all my time in a Montgomery Ward, or wandering the concourses during breaks. Even on days off, I’d go to work just to hang out. Or I’d drive to any of the other malls, to see the competition, and people-watch. It was the 80s, and malls were the biggest part of our cultural zeitgeist. Even in the 90s, I would find it almost meditative to go to College Mall in Bloomington or Northgate in Seattle and walk the loop, look at consumerism in action, and maybe get a pretzel or a book.

This all slowed down in the 00s. First, my default mall in New York was destroyed back in 2001, when a combined 220 stories of skyscraper fell on it. But aside from that, malls across the country crumbled. People shopped online; commerce went to big box stores; and the mighty anchor tenants all started to die. It became a quicksand situation where people stopped going to malls because there were fewer stores, and more stores closed because fewer people were going to malls. The massive indoor palaces were no longer updated, and when the seventies and eighties decor got too aged and the land underneath became too valuable, they were all “de-malled” and bulldozed under, usually to build a series of disconnected big-box stores or strip malls lacking the character or presence of a singular building with common areas.

I’d never been to Vallco Mall in Cupertino, but its history is similar to most. The mall was built in 1976, then expanded during the big boom in 1988. At its peak, it had about 200 stores, including five anchors: JC Penney, Macy’s, Sears, AMC, and Bowlmor. At one time, it also had an ice skating rink, and there are/were a variety of food options, hotels, and condos around the complex. I don’t have the full chronology, other than scattered news articles and a poorly-written Wikipedia article, but it appears it went through the standard lifecycle of a mall, including a long slide in the 00s, owner bankruptcy and buyout in the late 00s, more additions and seismic refitting, and various legal battles about expansion and condo-ing.

And now, the de-malling will begin. After much complicated legal wrangling, the plan is to destroy everything and build The Hills at Vallco, a two-billion dollar fake city square mixed-use monstrosity, with a huge green roof, expensive condos, an organic farmer’s market, upscale retailers, vegan yoga classes, green energy, and whatever catch phrase you can throw in to pull a more affluent demo. The interesting thing about all of this is that Vallco is in an incredibly prime location. It’s right next to the Apple corporate campus, in the heart of the 11th-wealthiest city in the country. In the past, Vallco was one of the only malls in the South Bay. Now, there are several, plus malls are a dying thing. I rag on the new plans, but the renderings do look nice, and it probably fits in better with the character of the town.

When I walked around last week though, the mall was absolutely heartbreaking. Of the 200-some stores, there were maybe a dozen still operational. It looked as if the mall was not renewing old leases, and letting them time out as they ended, so most of the residents were now gone, but there were a few stragglers remaining. Bowlmor was still alive, and the JC Penney was still fully operational, but both Macy’s and Sears had bugged out, and were completely stripped and boarded shut. There was a huge food court with maybe three dozen stalls, all empty except for a single taco place. A role-playing game place and a comic store were still fully operational, but completely devoid of customers. There was an indoor slot car racing place going, which is an oddity in 2016. But there wasn’t much else.

The mall had such an eerie, haunting feeling to it, though. The bones of the mall, the concourses and hallways and escalators, were all completely normal, running, clean, and decorated. But the style of the mall was very much 1993. Most malls got some injection of life around that time, expansion and facelifting, and it looks like they did this here, and it was frozen at time in the early Clinton years. Nobody was there when I visited at lunch time; I think I saw two geriatric mall walkers, and nobody else. It reminded me of being in a mall when I worked there, at 6AM before even the security guards were present, when everything was shut and locked and powered down. It very much gave me the feeling I wasn’t supposed to be there as a civilian, that I’d accidentally stumbled through a locked door and at any moment, a security guard would show up and usher me out. But everything was completely open for business, lights on, main doors unlocked.

The stores were another matter. Some were completely gone, the interiors torn out, bare to studs, the fronts taped shut, wrapped in plastic. Others were cleared out of all merchandise, but signage and racks still remained abandoned. And others looked like they closed for the evening a year ago, the night gates padlocked, but the store collecting dust, like something out of Chernobyl.

The whole thing was nostalgic and bittersweet and horrible. I’ve had a terrible problem with nostalgia recently, spending far too much time thinking about my own past in the 80s and 90s – not wanting to go back to that, but wanting to somehow explore it or write about it. It’s a terrible waste of time and bandwidth, and it’s honestly very emotionally painful. It’s a symptom of The Crisis, which I keep hinting at but haven’t been fully able to write about or wrap my head around. I almost mourn the feeling of having these communal things in my life, now that they are gone and we’re forever compartmentalized into our web browsers and tightly isolated social networking communities. I saw these monstrous commercial communities run from the inside out, and then they all suddenly vanished.

And it was so strange to stumble across one, trapped in amber like this. It wasn’t like when I go to a random midwestern mall that’s been beaten and fucked, all the prime retailers gone and the places left to cash-for-gold and dollar stores that bring in nothing, because the entire town has shifted in location and moved to far suburbs, leaving the mall to go to seed. Those have a feeling of desperation and real deer-in-headlights failure. This was much more surreal. I mean, this was a mall where a 16-screen AMC multiplex was just built in 2009 – like since I’ve arrived here – and it’s about to get torn down. It was like looking at a very late model car that had been totaled, like when you see pictures of a Lamborghini Aventador that has been flipped eight times. Parts of it were trapped in time at that high point of mall culture, and parts were already gone. It was a really hard thing to reconcile.

Anyway, more photos here. If you’re a local and want to check it out, do it immediately, because the place probably only has a few weeks left.

 

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The Watch

I got an Apple Watch this week – it was an anniversary present from my wife. I’ve vaguely wanted one, but wasn’t sure. I’ve used it for a day now, and it’s interesting in the same way all new Apple products are interesting to me.

I’ve had two different experiences with new Apple products: either it is a complete game-changer, or it doesn’t seem to offer anything, and over time, it slowly becomes apparent why it is valuable. A clear example of the latter is the Apple TV. We had a Roku box, and replaced it with the Apple TV. And at first, all I thought was “okay, more of the same.” It didn’t run apps, didn’t do anything special, and was pretty much the same thing, with a different UI and slightly different lineup. But then its value became slowly more apparent as I realized I could stream anything from my Mac into the living room, and use AirPlay to mirror over video from an iOS device.

Other things hit it out of the park. Switching from a big tower PC with Linux to a little Mac Mini in 2005 was a complete game-changer. Moving from a MiniDisc player to an iPod with every piece of music I owned was a complete paradigm shift. The move from a crap Windows Mobile phone to an iPhone in 2009 was a huge thing. I think any time I replaced something with an Apple equivalent device, it was a major positive change, and usually added functionality that greatly helped my productivity. Or, in most cases, it removed distractions that gave me much more time to focus on other things.

The iPad was a weird example, though. It didn’t replace anything; it was an odd supplement. It did take over using an old laptop when I was sitting on the couch watching TV, and made the passive second-screen experience much more fluid. It also took over using my main laptop on planes or during travel. But it ping-ponged between being too big to be a phone and too small to be a laptop. I tried bringing only it on small trips, using it as a writing machine with an external keyboard, and it never really hacked it. I also used it as an ebook reading machine, before I largely gave up on reading ebooks, because they are horrible and you really should read everything on paper. I love the iPad, but it’s stuck in this chasm between what I need and what I want.

That brings us to the watch. First, like any other Apple product, it is immaculately designed and engineered. The display is incredibly crisp and radiant. The lines of the case are smooth and minimalist. The way it sits on the wrist is not overly “techie” looking like a Pebble watch or other smart watches. It’s very sleek and smaller than my last watch, a Timex Expedition.

I’ve always worn watches. I never don’t wear one, including at night and in the shower. Since high school, it has been a changing cast of plastic waterproof Timexes and Casios, ranging from the most basic drug-store cheapies to a few more expensive G-Shock and Ironman models. My only real requirement of a watch is that I don’t need to think about it, that it is ultimately waterproof, unobtrusive, and has a battery that lasts a long time. I don’t care about fashion or gold or leather or any of the fetishistic Rolex-esque collectible qualities. I dislike analog watches, and I don’t care for wind-up or mechanical watches. If I have to have features, I want a date function, maybe a multiple-timezone thing, a very readable display, and a light is key.

I’ve wandered into the world of smart watches only in the earliest ideas of it. I did have a solar-powered G-Shock with altimeter, barometer, and all that jazz. It was okay, but did not charge well indoors, and I never went outdoors. I did a few different iterations of the Timex DataLink, which was interesting, but ultimately flawed. I generally like the look and feel of Timex, but it always seems they don’t test the UX of their watches, or they generally have 80% of the features I want, and the other 20% is sheer stupidity. And then when they break a year later, you have no way to replace a weird-shaped proprietary band or get them repaired, so they are ultimately disposable.

There are obvious issues with my demands that an Apple Watch won’t meet. It needs to be charged daily. There are Apple apologists who say you can maybe get two days out of it if you turn everything off and don’t actually use it, but get real — you need to charge it every day, for about 45 minutes or so. You could do this at night, but I like to have a watch on at night so I can read the time when I wake up at 2:37, and I’m interested in tracking sleep. I also can’t really wear the Apple Watch in the shower. You can, but it’s “splash resistant” and not “water resistant 5M” or whatever. Washing hands with it on is fine. It’s probably best to keep your wrist clean and avoid irritation, too. So I will try to kill two birds here and put it on the charger in the morning while I am getting ready, and let it charge while I’m in the shower. That’s a change in workflow, and I’m super anal-retentive about getting ready in the morning and do everything in the same exact order like I’m on the spectrum or something, because if I don’t follow a Rainman-esque procedure, I end up putting on deodorant four times and then only shaving half my face. So I need to get used to the new procedure.

The interface to the watch is interesting. It’s a new paradigm. When the iPhone came out, it took a page from the Palm Pilot playbook and made itself a subset of the Mac from which it synced, so you took only your essential data and mirrored it to your phone, along with its own Apps. This is different than the way Windows Mobile and now some Android phones work, with a different methodology, in that the phone is a PC, and the data is partitioned or divided between the two in some hodge-podge manner just like if you had two completely different PCs in your house. My friends who believe in the phone-as-PC are dumbfounded by the phone-as-subset paradigm, and think it is an indicator that the iPhone is “stupid” or “cobbled” because it can’t do everything a PC could. I see it as the opposite; a phone masquerading as a PC usually can’t do everything as well. The input and output methods on a phone aren’t the same as a PC, so you need to tailor the UI of the phone differently, to expect a touchscreen and fat fingers and less viewing area. You also want to keep a phone lightweight, so it requires less CPU and uses less battery. (This is more apparent on the tablet-as-full-PC paradigm, like the Surface. When you transfer an entire PC to a tablet, you also bring over all the parasitic overhead of an OS that has to be backward-compatible 20 years, so you have a disaster of a registry system, DLL hell, the requirement of a thousand background processes and virus scanning and obsolete drivers for floppy drives and line printers polluting your OS, and random PC LOAD LETTER errors or whatever the hell else you don’t want popping up in a Win 3.11-esque UI on your tiny touchscreen.)

So the Watch is a subset of a subset. It pairs with your iPhone and gives a glimpse of its data through a bluetooth tether, with a certain amount of computing working through its own CPU, memory, and network connectivity in the form of WiFi. I don’t know what the division is; this is hidden from the user. It’s fairly seamless; you put on the watch, tell your phone to pair with it, and after scanning a weird QR-like code on the watch face with your iPhone camera, it’s done. It is odd to think of this Russian dolls method of nesting, but that’s how it works, and it works.

I was worried the watch UI would not work out for me with my rapidly diminishing nearsightedness, but it seems fine. The big change is the haptic interface it uses to send notifications. This is more than just a single-frequency buzzer; it uses some kind of variable motor that can make notifications feel like a “tap” of different frequency to send things to you. Depending on the app, this can be quite effective. The issue is how to standardize this on apps, or have an app come up with a good idea of how to notify you. For example, the Apple Maps app uses different tapping to indicate when you should take a turn, which is pretty genius. I think there is a good possibility for an app that uses taps to do things like tell you running pace or notify you of different types of communication via a morse code-like tapping system, to change the need to look at things. I don’t know what yet, but the idea of a haptic sensor in such a prominent place (as opposed to a phone in a pocket) could mean something significant in the form of direct communication beyond the sense of sight.

Apps right now are limited, and it depends on what you want to use the watch for. There is essentially no good input device for the watch, aside from Siri. If you use Siri a lot now, this is very useful. I use Siri at least ten times every time I cook (I can’t do measurement conversions at all — sorry for failing you, grade-school math teachers) and having it on my watch is wonderful. If you make a lot of quick phone calls, having a speaker phone on your wrist where you can yell “call home” is very useful if you drive a lot. Frequent texts, in the form of “send a message to Joe saying I’m going to be ten minutes late” is helpful.

Many of the apps — especially the mail app — are in their primitive, first-stab level of functionality. When I was sitting in bed, it was useful to open mail, and immediately delete half the messages, which I always do. But as I was doing this, it reminded me of 1999, when I had my first Sprint PCS phone, a flat rubberized slab of butt-dialing goodness that had a tiny calculator screen to show you texts and what it thought was “mobile web,” a rough and dumb approximation of browsing the internet in the form of showing you the first 18 characters of a stripped-down web site after about a minute of loading. Reading my mail messages on this little screen made me think back to those early days of reading mails on the tiny square screen of a Nokia, with no adornment or spacing or anything, just bare words in a little LCD box. It looks better and smoother on the Watch, but in my mind it is a representation or reminder of that feeling of “this is our first go at this, but in ten years, this is going to be phenomenal.”

Some apps are silly, or plain dumb. Apps are not separately synced; an iOS app may or may not have an associated Watch app. When your phone app has a watch app, you get it when you sync. As an example, the Walgreen’s phone app has a Watch app, and all it does is remind you when to take your pills. That’s it. I could have used a Watch app that showed me my rewards balance, but no. Some apps are decent. Like the Yelp app is pretty good at giving you condensed choices. The Weight Watchers app is buggy as hell and largely useless. The MLB At Bat app seems to be well thought-out, but won’t even launch for me. I think this will get better as the new native apps API get out there. The possibility for good apps exist. Maybe now that they’ve sold a few billion dollars’ worth of watches, they will start to happen.

Built-in apps are good. I like the idea of controlling iTunes with my watch. The messaging apps are decent. I rarely text or use the phone because I’m an introvert shut-in with no friends, but if you talk to friends a lot, there’s a lot of usefulness there.

One of the main reasons I wanted the watch is to keep track of fitness and quantify that. The sensors for this are excellent, as is the activity monitor. I normally use a Fitbit to count steps/floors, and the Watch seems to count slightly lower, which is normal for a wrist-mounted counting device, I think. The heartbeat sensor is pretty good. The integration with Apple Health is awesome. I first used the exercise monitor feature on yesterday’s walk, and it was great to capture my heart rate changes during the usual fast-walk with hills. I also used the Sleep++ app to track sleep last night, and that worked well.

All in all, it’s an interesting device — I’d like to see how it works out in the long term, and find more uses for it with regard to the usual writing/research/data collecting/tasks workflow.

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You Can Never Go Back

I am home.  My last ten days: Oakland to Chicago to South Bend to North Liberty to South Bend to New Buffalo to South Bend to North Liberty to Elkhart to South Bend to Indianapolis to Bloomington to South Bend to Elkhart to South Bend to Elkhart to South Bend to Milwaukee to Chicago to Oakland.  I did all of this except the Oakland-Chicago flight in a bright mustard yellow Ford Fiesta, fighting with Ford Sync to try and get the voice control to play songs on my phone, most of it in the rain.  But the driving and the subcompact and the junky Ford transmission were the least of my worries.  My big problem was the ghosts.

I don’t go home much anymore.  I don’t even know where ‘home’ is; I’ve spent more time out of Indiana than I lived there.  Home is probably where the mortgage is, and Elkhart is nothing but a distant memory.  And when I go there, that’s what always gets me: the nostalgia, the distant memories of the time I spent in that little town, when it was my entire world, and the coasts and cities and states outside of the 46516 were nothing but fictional entities on a TV screen.

This trip was particularly hard, for some reason.  I’ve been trying to foster stronger friendships with old friends and family, because I feel like my life’s been on autopilot, and if I don’t put in the effort to see people, it’s suddenly twenty years later and they are all strangers to me.  But when I went back, it seemed like everyone was in some kind of crisis or despair. Everyone’s getting older; everything’s falling apart.  People are unemployed and underemployed and oversubscribed and overextended.  Nobody’s happy.  Everyone’s unable to move, and tells me I’m lucky I escaped.  And I did escape; I do have a job.  I’m mostly healthy, I’ve got a house and a wife and two cars in the garage and food in the fridge and cash in the bank.  But that doesn’t make me happy.  I’ve struggled a lot in the last year or two with what I should be doing, the big picture stuff, and I haven’t always been happy with the results.  So it makes me uncomfortable when others look to me as a person who’s “made it”, and I have no business telling them what they need to do to get out of their own rut.

When I do return to Indiana, I find it amazing that I drive places without even thinking about directions or maps or GPSes.  I think about going somewhere, a mall or store, and find myself driving there on autopilot.  I drove a lot of my old routes: the IUSB to Elkhart path I took every day for year; the River Manor to Concord Mall trip I drove a million times in the 80s and 90s; the south-bound US-31 jump across the middle of the state to Indianapolis to Bloomington I drove every holiday I came back from school.  As a whole, the state’s in sad shape.  So many businesses are closed, homes foreclosed, factories shut down, strip malls empty, old malls bulldozed.  Roads are potholed and unkempt.  Of course, every other abandoned movie theater or grocery store has become some kind of evangelical church, and those continue to thrive.  But I felt such an overwhelming sadness driving those same old routes and seeing total devastation.

I went to my old hangout, the Concord Mall, to see how it was doing.  I spent my childhood going to this four-spoked shopping center, walking the concourses and buying toys and records and books.  I later worked there, at Montgomery Ward, mixing paint and selling lawn mowers and Christmas trees.  Concord Mall has been utterly decimated.  I went a couple of days before Christmas, and I’ve seen more people in the mall back in the Eighties two hours before opening.  My old Wards store died ten years ago, and has been split into pieces, now a hobby shop for scrapbookers and packrats, a discount appliance store, and a family dentist.  Most of the stores are now gone; the Osco drug where I used to spend hours at the newsstand reading magazines got turned into a food court; every single stall is currently shuttered except for a Subway.  The Walden books where I got every book that influenced my writing as a teen is now a bizarro used book store with old, beaten religion books.  The MCL cafeteria Ray dragged me to almost every week is boarded shut.  Both record stores are gone.  The only surviving store was the GNC where my first girlfriend worked.  I think it does brisk business in energy drinks and herbal stimulants for the few remaining factory workers.

I went to my old house in River Manor, which was absolutely heartbreaking.  It was foreclosed upon a couple of months ago, and was devastated.  The big TV antenna tower was bent at a 30 degree angle and falling over, and the roof was covered with a blue tarp, probably with some kind of wind or storm damage.  Several of the windows were broken and boarded over; the screen door was ripped off of the front, and the patio door in the back was broken and boarded shut.  The grass died; trees were missing or dead and the landscaping was entirely fucked.  Doors and windows were secured with impromptu padlocks and riddled with legal postings from sheriffs and maintenance services.  I looked in the windows, while trying to remember any of my old teenaged egress methods that could have been used to gain entry, and the inside was filled with garbage, old boxes and trash, and storm damage.

I have no love for Elkhart, and absolutely no desire to return.  But part of me wished some REO website had the house listed for ten grand, just so I could either restore it (which would probably cost more than the hundred grand it’s “worth”) or bulldoze it and put it out of its misery.  I walked the perimeter and thought of a million memories, all of the hot summer afternoons I paced every step of the lawn with a mower; all of the times me and my sisters set up our kiddie pool or played with the dog or built snow forts in the winter.  I thought about the year I returned in college and lived in the basement, stuck between a life of return and escape.  I went to all of the places in the yard where we buried childhood pets, under trees that were no longer there.  I spent a decade and a half calling this white tri-level home, and now it looked like one of the abandoned buildings outside of Chernobyl.  The entire visit completely gutted me.

One of the mixed positives about the trip was going to University Park Mall.  We first went on a Sunday night, at about 9:00, and the place was absolutely packed.  The mall looks like it has doubled in size, not even including all of the outlying big box stores that appeared on the perimeter.  I walked the concourse, and examined all of the stores, which have been replaced with more upscale items.  The place even has an Apple store now, which amazed me.  When I was a teenager and first got a license, I made the pilgrimage to this mall whenever I could, going with Tom Sample just to dig through the import records at Camelot and maybe see girls that didn’t go to our high school.  Almost every single store has changed, but the hallways are still the same, and I took a few laps, just looking for any reminder of my past, something that hadn’t changed.

I thought a lot about what would have happened if I never left Indiana, if I graduated from IUSB and got some middle management job at a bank or insurance company and stayed behind.  I think I would have descended into this world of retail therapy, buying a house with a giant basement and buying every Star Wars collector item I could find at the mall.  It seems like everyone in Indiana retreats into this kind of womb of consumerism, filling a house with big screens and bigger collections of media or whatever else.  The whole time I was in town, I wanted to buy something, and didn’t know what.  I felt this low-level depression, and my first response was either to eat something, or go to Best Buy and get something rack-mounted with lots of watts and inputs that would make me think of something other than life.

I’m home now.  I feel like throwing out everything I own, keeping the computer and maybe a dozen books.  It is so good to sleep in my own bed and use my own shower.  But I still feel strange and bad and conflicted with the trip, and I don’t know how to reconcile that.

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Extreme Hoarding

Yesterday I caught about an episode and a half of this show Extreme Couponing and felt maybe 10% intrigue and 90% anxiety and terror.  If you haven’t seen the show, the basic rundown: they follow maybe two families a show, with some alpha-mom type that has giant binders filled with coupons that makes an attack run on a big grocery store, filling multiple carts with whatever items are on sale, and strategically using coupon-doubling days along with store loyalty programs, store coupons, manufacturer rebates, and whatever else is needed to drive the cost of a thousand dollars of items to something like twenty dollars.

Each episode also does a profile on the family, and they always have a house that is filled entirely with stockpiles of canned goods, every closet and spare room containing stacks and stacks of cereal boxes and paper towels.  They always show the couponer with piles of newspaper circulars, clipping away and stuffing things in whatever anal-retentive organizational solution the person uses for keeping straight what packaged goods are on sale that week.  At the store, they bark orders at the poor cashier, intermixed with reaction shots of other Kroger customers amazed at this woman buying 150 bottles of Excedrin because the five dollars off the four dollar item offsets the cost of the twenty pounds of cheese and 38 packs of hot dogs in carts four and five.

There is some intrigue in this.  I remember way back when I first got to Seattle in 1995, and I used to try to shop for as little as possible.  I’d been lowballed a bit on my salary at my first job, and I got stuck with a huge car payment and even more on insurance, and I was living in an expensive city (or more expensive than Indiana, anyway) and living alone.  I dig back through my old journals and see entries where it was 10 days until payday and I had $7 and a full tank of gas to last me until then.  And I didn’t know how to cook and didn’t know how to budget or shop or any of that.  So I’d get the Safeway circular in the mail – this was long before the explosion of loyalty cards – and I’d only buy the things in the little newsprint booklet, only get the items with coupons or deals.  And there was nothing more exhilarating than getting ten bags of groceries for something like $40.  Of course this was countered with the realization that I’d have to eat rice-a-roni for my next ten meals.

I still try to exploit these deals as much as I can, without going overboard.  I mean, I use my Amazon Visa card to buy damn near anything I can find, just to get the points.  And I only buy Coke when either Target or Safeway has the big sale on it, and then I buy ten cases at a time.  But I don’t have one of those plastic accordion files that’s sorted and color-coded and organized by aisle and expiration date.  I don’t even know where to get paper coupons now – do they still print newspapers?  I think I remember looking at one about ten years ago.

So this show is obviously fake.  I did a quick search, and all of the people on the various coupon sites call bullshit on the whole production.  Stores are tightening the reins on these double coupon days, and many of the offers have transaction limits or limits per customer that would prevent you of clearing out the entire Albertson’s of shake-and-bake in one swoop.  They show some of that on the show, with the people dividing up the purchases into different transactions, dragging along friends and spouses to ring up items in batches.  They showed this one lady breaking up her purchase into 18 different transactions, taking up about an hour of this cashier’s time.  I don’t know what bizarro world this person lived in, but in any of the places I’ve lived, that shit would get you a beat down.  No cashier is going to let you break up your 244 boxes of Uncle Ben’s into however many under-$50 purchases you need to fly under the radar without pulling out a blackjack and beating you in the head until you leave and pay full price for everything from now on.  And if a cashier doesn’t do it, I’m sure the person behind you will.  (And every fucking time I go to Safeway, I swear this person is in front of me.)

And I’m sure they also pick the families that have the biggest crazy-factor to them, the ones that will make the best reality TV.  God forbid they find some quiet, slightly Asberger’s introvert who has no goofy soundbites and won’t lose their shit when they find out the manufacturer’s coupon is limit-5.  They’re going to go with the loud, obnoxious woman who loses her shit in the freezer aisle when she finds out the Pack-and-Save doesn’t keep twelve dozen boxes of Gorton’s fish sticks in stock at all times.

Another thing not addressed is that many of the people spent all day, 30 or 40 hours a week, clipping coupons and strategizing these mass purchases.  And then they spend three or four hours at the store, and maybe another couple of hours packing the stuff away.  I don’t know how much your time is worth, but if someone told me I could spend an entire work week getting paper cuts and newsprint dust-induced asthma and the payoff would be a savings of a few hundred bucks, I’d pass.

Also consider storage costs; you’ve got some 2000-ish square foot house in the Midwest, and let’s say you are paying a grand a month in mortgage.  Turning a third of your house into a Costco is going to effectively cost you $300 a month in lost square footage.  Yes, you can whittle that down by calculating the tax savings on a mortgage, and you pay off the house in 30 years, blah blah blah.  But the cost of turning your spare bedroom into the back room of a Wal-Mart is not free.  And that goes for any of this hoarding shit – there’s a cost, either financial or psychological, to playing the “die with the most toys” game.  That line from Fight Club about your stuff owning you is true.

And there’s the health risk issue.  Feeding your family high-fat cold cuts and having a million calories of potato chips on a rack in your living room has to be unhealthy from a BMI standpoint.  Maybe half of the people on the show are of the rotund midwestern category, and given that fresh vegetables don’t have manufacturer’s coupons or mail-in rebates, I’m guessing these people are eating nothing but pure sodium and nitrites in the form of packaged and processed meals.  In one of the episodes I saw, this woman was filling her cart with cases of Maalox bottles, and I was thinking, “you probably wouldn’t need to take that much antacid if you ate something other than stockpiled Frito-Lay products for five meals a day.”

One of the things that disturbs me the most is that most of these families are religious, some extreme form of right-wing christianity.  They don’t advertise this in the most blatant of terms, but it’s something you can pick up quickly.  When a blonde-haired  family of ten from Idaho shows up and the soccer mom uses “oh my gosh” all the time, my Mormon indicator is flashing bright red.  There is this weird intersection between the highly evangelical and the “I’m going to get mine” crowd that seems more than just causal, and probably wasn’t what the authors of the New Testament had in mind when they laid down that whole meek inheriting the earth thing.  Jesus didn’t do the whole fishes and loaves thing to bring it all back to his house and fill the shelves in his basement for himself.

I’d absolutely love it if one of the people on the show filled their minivan with five thousand dollars worth of stuff, drove over to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, and said “merry christmas” and left everything.  Instead, we get “I’ve got three years’ worth of Dinty Moore stored under my toddler’s bed!”  Ugh.

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Surge, Vault

One of the 200-some odd reasons my writing throughput and/or quality has dropped considerably in recent years (and I’m talking reasons in my head, not real, quantifiable reasons) is that Coca-Cola stopped bottling Surge soda. For those of you who don’t remember or never experienced it, Surge is/was a citrus soda that originally was called Urge in Norway, and was bottled there to compete with Mountain Dew. (Some Coke bottlers compete with Mountain Dew with Mello Yello, which is available in some markets, but not others.) Anyway, Seattle was a test market for Surge when it showed up in 1997, and once I tried it, I was hooked. Surge basically reminded me of a carbonated version of the Hi-C Ekto-cooler drink. It was more lime than lemon, with an unnatural bright green color, carbonation, and caffeine. It had a very unique taste, and wasn’t anything like its nearest competitor, Mountain Dew. I really liked it.

This was right after the time I quit caffeine entirely, but was going back on it again. I wouldn’t drink any Coke or anything else all day, except maybe the occasional Sprite. But on the weekends, when I was busy slamming away at the text for Rumored to Exist, I would go to Safeway, buy a 2-liter of Surge, and put it in the fridge, as my fuel for the next few days. I drank a lot of the stuff as I worked on the text, and I absolutely loved it.

Of course, when I moved to New York, I couldn’t find the shit anywhere. You already know the rant about how New York grocery stores don’t stock anything of variety, so I won’t repeat it. But I could not find Surge anywhere. Sometimes on a vacation, I’d get a taste. And I think the girl I dated in Cornell back in 2000 found a few bottles at a gas station upstate somewhere once. But after that, it was gone. And that pissed me off, because writers can get really locked into habits or triggers that can set off the hard-to-channel zone of writing. Some people have strange rituals. I used to start writing at the same time every night; others need a certain chair or pillow or snack or drink. Some need certain music; others require quiet. And for whatever reason, I got myself into a situation where I needed a certain type of sugar-water that a corporation test-marketed and then decided not to make anymore.

Well, good news, maybe. Coke has decided to come out with a new drink called Vault. There were a few ads during the superbowl, and they hinted at nationwide distribution in February. Now, I interpreted that as “distribution in every place with real grocery stores that aren’t run by the mafia, so fuck you New York”, and also wondered if the stuff really tasted like Surge, and if I’d get a chance to try it the next time that I went on vacation to a place with real grocery stores. But today, when we were at K-Mart, Sarah found that they actually had the stuff! I bought a couple of 20-ounce bottles, and gave it a try. It’s similar to Surge, although maybe a little more tart, and without as distinct of a green color as the original. The bottle looks different, of course, and you’d be amazed at how much different something appears to taste when it’s in a different bottle. But it’s pretty close. I like it.

I don’t know if I’ll be stocking our fridge with the stuff or not. My writing schedule and situation have been pretty off lately, and I don’t know if the magic elixer will suddenly have me pouring out words or not. I am in that process of thinking about what I will do before I start doing anything, and that’s frustrating and takes time. But it’s getting there.

Okay, I have to figure out a movie and a dinner and make them hobbling distance from each other so it will work out okay…

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