This year, my mother (who moved in with me after she lost her job in the recession) wanted to experience Black Friday in New York. In particular, she wanted to take advantage of a foolish sale at JCPenney. In New York City, this means going down to 34th Street across from Macy’s. It was an A.W.F.U.L. experience. I am not being bah-humbug here: there are times when the holiday windows and decorations in NYC simply inspire me. This year’s Macy’s display bored me to tears though. The tech wizardry of animated, interactive snow falls was underwhelming. So I did what was only right: I shared my misery with everyone around me, talking VERY loudly about how stupid and boring the Macy’s windows were. In truth, this is a deliberate tactic because my mother will get so embarrassed, she will want to leave— this is exactly my purpose. I did even MORE loud-talking at JCPenney. The worst part of these outings is the inevitable visit you will need to make to a public restroom but I will admit that I had fun irritating my mother here too. I simply yelled out: it staaaank up in here… damn, girl, what you eat for Thanksgiving? This bathroom is on FIYAH!
As a high school student, I had a very distinct relationship to “Black Friday.” I don’t remember ever using the term, “Black Friday,” though. I just knew it was the day after Thanksgiving and I could make extra money, even if I wasn’t the legal age to work. There were two jobs I held throughout high school after Thanksgiving: 1) wrapping gifts at the mall; 2) designing chalkboards and glass windows for shops and stores. That was the money that bought my or my mother’s coat that year or our Christmas dinner. At 16 and 17, it was the most I could do to help out my mother whose pittance of a salary barely kept the lights on (and many times, didn’t keep the lights on… winters in Ohio with no electricity is NO JOKE!) If I had internet way back when and could have easily accessed photos of Macy’s windows, I would have pimped myself out for every willing store owner/manager to transform their space to replicate Macy’s displays. Them rich fools woulda let me too.
Every gift that I was I ever paid to wrap, which came with very nice tips, came from a wealthy white customer. There was a stock set of designs that customers could choose, but if you added some flair, then you had a steady stream of tips and folk willing to pay. All I had to do was practice on newspaper at home and then roll out some funky color combos at the store. On weekends, I could count on taking home the $40 the manager gave me along with another $30-$50 in tips, depending on the number of customers. My family would have a fit if I didn’t wrap our gifts as beautifully as I had for them rich white folk. Needless to say, I got good at it and still have a reflexive habit to look at a gift’s wrapping and figure out the design. If you ever get a gift from my mother with a nice bow, it is one that she has saved from a gift-wrapping I did for her— she recycles. I doubt that the people who paid for my wrapping ever saved it the way my family does though. My family enjoys the wrapping as much as any gift, especially if it matches their favorite colors, outfit, or home decor.
The store owners and managers who hired me to do their windows and chalkboards were also white. I got good with those chalkboards too. For small signs, I could do a sketch at home and then knock that out in half an hour. That gave me $20. For larger signs, I wrapped the edges of the chalkboard with an intricate design and left a heavy, easy-to-touch-up border; that way, there was plenty of room in the middle of the board to write daily specials and wash the board without having to re-do the design. That gave me $40. Different customers got different genres: snow scenes were for non-religious settings; bows, gold, silver, and all kindsa razzle/dazzle was for the wanna-be sophisticates; variations of a St. Nick’s toy factory were for the Christmas die-hards. I could even do mangers and angels if you wanted to make people remember church. Words-only jobs were the best though: super-easy and really fast!
“Black Friday” signaled WORK for me; consumption was for OTHERS— something that I associated with rich, white people. Consumption was, for me, whiteness and squandered wealth. And white folk were the only people who I ever saw with that one thing that gave you big purchasing power back then: credit cards. I am convinced today that credit is the reason we see so much more shopping than when I was a child— and credit debt today is an equal opportunity deployer (I actually put a coat in layaway a week ago, wanting to catch the sale on the item. I was the only person on line. I was shocked to even see a store with layaway, the way that I remember my family buying things long ago.)
Needless to say, I had never gone “shopping” on a “Black Friday” til this week (I didn’t make any actual purchase). Everyone looked like they drank the kool-aid! In contrast, everyone that I knew in my youth had to work the day after Thanksgiving. I don’t recall anyone waking up at 3am to go to the mall before their jobs. While I certainly don’t ever wish to return to the economic poverty that characterized my youth, I find immense value in having never understood myself or Christmas in terms of conspicuous consumption. We would do well to remember that we have not always been or ever needed to be neoliberal subjects and hyper-consumers. We seem to have forgotten the wealth in spirit and mind of a people who never hesitated to remind a young girl that her creativity and talent were worth more than dollars, that you and the holidays are always about so much more than the people who can buy you.