We have too much stuff. I avoid the word “stuff.” It’s lazy thinking. Doesn’t say anything. “Stuff” comes from stuffing stuff into garbage bags and cardboard boxes, then hiding them in attics, basements, and crawlspaces. Places where they won’t see daylight again ’til the house burns or we die and the kids are stuck with it. That’s what I’m talking about, stuff!
The winter after we bought our house the crawlspace flooded. Now it’s a dark and evil place. Forty five years later a trunk, suitcase, and slide projector are still there, like desiccated corpses. I only go down under duress. As when carpenter ants and a leaky dishwasher rotted parts of the floor. Fearing that a “pop,” “crunch,” and “crash” underfoot would leave her standing eye-to-eye with a startled housecat, Karen threatened to leave me if we didn’t go down and fix it. I stress we. Besides being a better fly-fisher, she’s a better carpenter and mechanic than I am.
My Sweetheart doesn’t really like problems but she loves finding and fixing them. Karen actually likes measuring, sawing, hammering, turning a screwdriver or socket wrench, triggering a power drill–go figure? You should see what My Girl does with her Jig Saw!
Decades back, after visiting The Mall of America an older gentleman observed, “There’s sure a lot of things we don’t need.” I heard or read, over the entrance to every Mall a sign should read, “You can never have enough of that you don’t really want.” Harvey said, “They sure have a lot of ways to get the boys’ money.” More important than dollars and cents, what does a consumer-driven lifestyle cost?
My teacher, Dr. Frank Wesley, pointed out, until around the end of the nineteenth century it took ninety percent of America’s people to feed us; now ten percent can. The rest, “Do each other’s laundry.” To survive after food, shelter and clothing, a market economy generates an enormous basket of laundry and needs battalions of scrub women and men to wash it. That laundry and washing concern me.
To see what I’m talking about stroll thought Fred Meyers. To the right in “Entertainment” a forty by eight foot glass case offers hundreds of music, game, movie, and TV show videos. For $9.95 to $39.95 and more shoppers buy CDs and DVDs to fill Entertainment Center shelves left empty when they lugged the VHS player and plastic tub of tapes to Goodwill–remember VHS? Will Goodwill still take VHS? Before that it was 8 tracks. Further back cassettes, remember? Remember 78 and 45 RPM? Before the memory of ninety percent of Americans there was radio and a picture show on an six foot screen in the church house Friday night.
A second wall displays twelve to sixty-five inch TVs, all on the same channel. Why the same channel? Maybe, seeing thirty TVs on different channels potential purchasers would panic from sensory overload . Freddy might never sell another television.
At Freddy’s main intersection across from Customer Service, in a celestially lit corner, behind gleaming cases of diamond rings, gold necklaces, emerald earrings, silver bracelets, and Rolex watches, a matron with a turquoise scarf and eyelashes like small Japanese fans waits, still as a mannequin, wondering if her shift will ever end.
I see youngsters in “R5” and “One Direction” t-shirts, holey Levis, shorts, and flip-flops. I see parents pushing carts with Franz bread, Willamette Farms AA eggs, a ten pound bag of #1 Idaho Russet potatoes, five pounds of hamburger, half-a-case of Dennison’s chili, gallons of Dairygold whole milk, and a thirty pound bag of Alpo underneath. I see folks with blue-gray hair and bald heads adjust their trifocals, comparing Attends and Depend. Do shoppers ever go in Fred Meyer Jewelers?
Past “Self Checkout” on the right is “Family Planning.” Do-it-yourself pregnancy tests, prurient potions unheard of in my time, and condoms. When I was a teen they were Trojans, “rubbers,” “head gaskets for your hotrod.” Sexy little numbers, rolled up with paper bands like bowties for squirrels. I’m surprised to see Trojans still “covering” the market.
With one-size-fits-all, do we really need a dozen styles of rubbers in individual paper, plastic, and foil pouches? When bedroom business gets serious do fluorescent, lubricated, scented, and invisible matter? Imagine a Millenial couple, male and female–an distinction unnecessary a couple of decades back–a lawyer and thoracic surgeon who lay out two bucks for one condom. As things heat up, picture a naked sweating man tugging desperately at a gold-foil packet grasped in his teeth. Someone should invent a condom dispenser, like for Pez candies. Slide a button, out pops a fresh rubber, unwrapped, ready to use.
Before Will K. Kellogg invented it, breakfast was bacon and eggs, toast and coffee. Freddy has five shelves, as long as a semi-trailer and taller than LeBron James, with over fifty varieties of Breakfast Cereal. Since Corn Flakes in 1894, reputedly concocted by accident, Kellogg, Post, General Mill and the rest have rolled, ground, shredded and otherwise mutilated uncounted silos of assorted grass seed, packed their products in paperboard boxes, and enlisted Olympic champions, cartoon Rabbits, Tigers, and Tucans to convince us Wheaties, Coco Puffs, Fruit Loops, Cheerios, and Frosted Flakes are a healthy Breakfast. Why “breakfast”? Why not lunch, dinner, a snack? Because Will K. and the boys say so.
Generating $50 billion in annual sales and 40 to 45% profit, the high-jacking of breakfast must rank among the most astonishing marketing achievements of all time! Corn Flakes to today, Wikipedia’s “list of notable breakfast cereals” (my emphasis) runs to fourteen printed pages! Nutritional claims aside, it’s safe to say that from the meanest ghetto to Trump Tower, from the Congressional Dining Room to the White House, every kitchen or pantry in America has a shelf or cabinet with boxes and bags of Corn Flakes, Wheaties, Kixx, Fruit Loops, Coco Puffs, Special K, Quaker Oats, Granola and the rest.
Around the corner, with $132 billion in annual sales beer and wine put Breakfast to shame. One hundred-foot cooler devoted to beer! On five shelves as long as two school busses, Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet, Merlow, Moscato, Muskatel, Port and a dozen other are cleverly bottled, canned, and boxed to get the boy’s and girl’s money. If every container broke shoppers would wade ankle deep in fermented fruit juice.
For a culture deeply troubled by “drugs” America’s obsession with alcohol seems hypocrisy. Youngsters with fake IDs troll the pubs. While teenage frat-house pledges guzzle beer through a funnel and hose, their parents convene at the Clubhouse to boast about birdies, eagles, and holes-in-one, to rationalize curves, hooks, and bogies. After eight hours on the line, mounting bumpers on Ford pickup, blue-collar Harry stops by Johnny’s Pit Stop for Happy Hour. Following days setting fractures and filing briefs, Millenials retreat to Beef and Brew for Martinis and Michelob. Exhausted after a day drafting anti-drug legislation, Senators and Representative adjourn to a bi-partisan Lounge for Wild Turkey and Heinekens. Middle class folks join wine clubs and tour vineyards to “taste” and hold forth on the flowery bouquets, the fruity flavor of this year’s Pinot, Cabernet, and Merlot. Fruity flavor? Drrrrr, it’s grape juice! With Schlitz or Carlo Rossi at their elbow Boomers in recliners doze through the News, The Brady Bunch, and Lucy reruns.
Having done my bit to “Drink Canada Dry,” Canadian Club and Coke, plus bathtubs of assorted inebriants, I’m in no position to preach Temperance. But let’s be clear, like marijuana, cocaine, and heroine, alcohol is a mood altering drug. Legal and illegal, their sole purpose is to get us high. Through aging, flavoring, or watering down, the vintners’, distillers’ and brewers’ challenge is making alcoholic drinks not taste like alcohol. If you doubt it, just a swig two fingers of Moonshine or hundred and eighty proof Everclear and catch your breath. If alcohol were magically eliminated from their merchandise, without effecting taste in any way, the alcoholic beverage industry would go keel-up as fast and with incalculably larger loss of life than the Titanic.
Despite needing to move on, I’m compelled to comment on Bottled Water. With the most abundant, clean, safe municipal water on Earth why do Americans pay fifty cents to two bucks for a bottle of water? In plastic! We buy because Freddy’s, Albertsons, Safeway, and every Qick-Stop and Get-n-Go in America sell it! My hunch, in many water bottlers basement rows of minions fill plastic bottles from Municipal Water spigots.
Next in my inventory of overabundance: cheese. Back on the farm there were two: Limburger was kept in a sealed jar because it smelled like a dead rat, and sharp cheddar that tasted like a dead rat–which goes toward my early distaste for cheese. After leaving home I discover mild and medium cheddar and Mozzarella. The sweet taste of Swiss took getting used to. Passing Fred Meyer’s cheese section today I’m amazed and bewildered by the variety and names I can’t pronounce. When I told Karen I’d like to start with Abondance and eat my way to Valencay, we decided to “give ‘re a go.” The following week she brought home Brie and twenty-nine dollars a pound goat cheese wrapped in a smoked maple leaf. Loved ’em. Today, except for Limburger, sharp cheddar, and perhaps some I haven’t tasted, I love cheese.
What about too many and too much? I’ve talked–or eaten–myself into a corner. Do I contradict myself? Okay, I contradict myself. Contradicting, repeating, and forgetting are prerogatives of senility. Our President for example. Cheese notwithstanding and despite being just another disgruntled old man, I like thinking my concern has merit.
I pick on poor Freddy because he’s close to home and emblematic. An inventory of Wal-Mart, Costco, Home Depot, Lowes, Ikea, Sears, Penneys, Macy’s, not to mention Amazon, is a task too daunting to contemplate. Suffice to say, my Little Freddy is the Big Boys writ small.
When we get our stuff, what then? Over time, to greater of lesser degrees, much gets consumed or used. But much doesn’t.
When attics, closets, and crawl spaces are stuffed we donate to Goodwill, The Salvation Army or recycle. At garage and yard sales we virtually give away lamps, TV’s, books, pictures, tools, tires, rugs, a sombrero from Mexico, a snow globe from Yellowstone, and clothes–Lord the clothes! We rent PODS (Portable On Demand Storage) and PackRat vans. We pay $25 to over $100 a month for space at E-Z Store, U-Store, and Public Storage. A cottage industry grew up around auctioning off contents of abandoned storage units. Last resort? The dump.
A dozen Christmases back, before she died, Aggie, Paul’s mother, re-gifted Florence and Paul an avocado-green, crockpot she got from sister Jan and never used. After one pork roast, the pot sat on a basement shelf beside a popcorn popper unused since the kids left home. The following spring, after a Channel 8 piece on “Downsizing,” Florence loaded pot, popper, two pair of roller skates, Paul’s old bowling ball, and the pink, eight-piece Melmac dinner set from Paul’s bachelor days in the Outback. As the kid at Goodwill moved her donations into his cart the box came open dropping the crockpot’s lid against a roller skate leaving a dime-size triangular dent in one corner! Last fall at a yard sale, for a buck Florence picked up an almost-new, avocado-green crockpot. When she took it from the box on the kitchen counter, her gaze caught a dime-size triangular dent in a corner of the lid.
Back to too much stuff, what if anything is wrong with the status quo, “business as usual”? Issues that trouble me include advertising, credit, service, inequity, waste and entitlement.
America’s consumer driven freight train, the Free Enterprise Flyer, is powered by two locomotives. Up front Advertising pulls. In the rear Credit pushes. The lead engineer calls back, “Ya gotta have it!” Behind, his partner shouts, “Ya can have it!” I feel like the Flyer’s on a downgrade, picking up speed, jury rigged with no brakes. In the Dining Car First Class passengers enjoy caviar, lobster, filets and sip champagne. We in Coach jostle and jounce, oblivious to the probability that a sharp curve or washout could send us tumbling into a canyon. It’s happened before!
Taking on Advertising could double the already-too-long size of this thing. I’ll save it for future dissertation.
As for credit, without “Nothing Down! Zero Interest! No payments For A Year,” without ridiculously easy credit, America’s–the World’s?–economy, again like the Titanic, would go keel-up.
Hearing that Wells Fargo opened accounts for unsuspecting customers, I was puzzled. Now I understand. Of course, loaning money makes money. Apart from the Trump Group, casinos, insurance companies, and banks can’t lose money. Profit is built-in. Loaning money is Very Big, maybe the Biggest Business of all. And it doesn’t matter who they loan to. Banks hand out credit cards to folks on food stamps, Welfare, and Section 8. Interest and penalties cover most losses. The rest is passed to we who pay.
Pardon an old man for recalling “the good old day,” but a vignette from one who was there could prove interesting if not instructive to some who were not. When gas was fifteen cents a gallon at “Slim Olsen’s” in North Salt Lake, before your wheels stopped rolling, like Beagles on a cottontail, three kids were popping the hood, checking the oil, water, and tires, pumping gas, washing windows. As one removed the nozzle a second sprinted inside for your change and a free map of any state you wanted. Today, except for New Jersey and Oregon, for three dollars a gallon eighty-year-old ladies pump their gas and wash their windows. Without a credit card they “pay inside.”
When Exxon, Mobile, Texaco, and Chevron number crunchers figured out there’s no profit in checking oil and washing windows “Service Stations” were an artifact. The only profit “outside” comes from a nozzle. The rest from coffee, donuts, sandwiches, Coke, Pepsi, Budweiser, Coors, chips, dips, Planter’s salted nuts, Baby Ruth and Snickers.
With America’s population exploding some loss of service seems inevitable. As battalions of buyers amass, service becomes, you might say, Institutional. Today most retailers do alright by customers. Smaller ones can be more personal. Founded by a man who grew up in Slim Olsen ‘s era, Less Schwab Tires provides Slim Olsen type service.
Three remaining issues trouble me: inequity, waste, and entitlement.
With something like five percent of Earth’s population–Think about it, only five percent!–Americans consume something like twenty-five percent of its energy and resources! Our failure to, if not appreciate, at least know how incredibly lucky and blessed we are–and I am one–troubles me. While not finishing breakfast will not feed a baby in Somalia, few of us give any thought to the enormous investment in energy, technology and resources spent to put the bowl, spoon, Corn Flakes, 1% milk, sugar, orange juice, and a banana on the table.
Spaceship Earth’s atmosphere is thinner and fragile as an apple’s skin. Despite her resilience she can’t give and take forever. Big Energy, Trump and cohorts to the contrary, the verdict’s in. Burning fossil fuel is killing us. Americans frantically produce, buy, get rid of, and waste energy, soil, minerals, water, air, flora and fauna, while at home and abroad, shameful numbers suffer and die from disease and malnutrition. It may be too late. Correcting this human created disaster may not happen. Without vigorous action to control global warming there’s no hope.
I feel, like me, Americans have an unconscious sense of entitlement. Being born in this country entitles me to have, use, and waste whatever I have the wits and resources to get. My and your parents and grandparents worked very hard, sacrificed, and suffered to make life better for themselves and us. But the resulting overabundance by no means entitles me to take and waste as I please. To the contrary, I am obligated to pass it on, not to sully my inheritance. Three words come to mind, re-spect: to see again; re-cognize: to know again; re-member: to bring to memory. My unconscious sense of entitlement, of failing to see, to know, to remember and to appreciate how very privileged I am underlies my concern about having too much stuff!