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Descent into the Maelstrom: Celebrating the hell on earth that is the busiest shopping day of the year by braving a no-holds-barred consumer binge and buying nothing.
by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 12.02.98 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro November 2018 here.


-Do I need it? * -How many do I already have? * -How much will I use it? * -How long will it last? * -Could I borrow it from a friend or family member? * -Can I do without it? * -Am I able to clean, lubricate, and/or maintain it myself? * -Am I willing to? * -Will I be able to repair it? * -Have I researched it to get the best quality for the best price? * -How will I dispose of it when I’m done using it? * -Are the resources that went into it renewable or nonrenewable? * -Is it made of recycled materials, and is it recyclable? * -Is there anything that I already own that I could substitute for it?
-Buy Nothing Day checklist distributed in downtown Seattle, Nov. 27, 1997

As any Union Square employee will tell you, the day after Thanksgiving is hell on Earth, a day when Christmas shoppers swarm like flies on shit and even the strongest credit ratings falter. As will tell you, the day after Thanksgiving (traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year) is also “Buy Nothing Day,” a self-explanatory protest against the West’s gross consumer spending and an occasion on which participants participate by not participating.

Adbusters claims that the Western world makes up 20 percent of the planet’s population but uses 80 percent of the planet’s natural resources and that it buys a lot of stupid shit for no reason.

As a veteran waitron in a Union Square restaurant, I know that from Thanksgiving to Christmas, that particular 10-block area is a circus-worthy infestation of humanity and a laughable scramble for useless trinkets. Determined to celebrate the noble Buy Nothing holiday but always in search of a good spectacle, I resolved id and ego by settling in one camp and then venturing out to watch the other.

Dusk, pissing-down rain. The cable-car turnaround at the foot of Powell Street seems like a polite war zone. Traffic is beyond insane, Headwaters protesters shout and picket over the din, vans from Channel 7 pull up onto sidewalks, a Hershey’s Kissmobile (three monstrous kisses on wheels) circles the block, and helicopters hover.

The San Francisco Center mall is surrounded, uplit, decorated, battened down, ready for commerce, and jam-packed. Inside, from the vantage point of the third-floor railing of the multileveled, circular, brightly lit monstrosity, the humming escalators crammed full of shoppers make the almost monochromatic structure resemble the inside of a brass and taupe cyclone.

The San Francisco Center, if magically transported to somewhere behind the Iron Curtain 15 years ago, would make the gals in the bread line cry: there are stores devoted entirely to infinite arrays of pens, sunglasses, socks, shoes, coats, calendars, music boxes, and even a shop specializing in things that hold other things.

Larger-than-life posters of stick-figure models frolicking disinterestedly adorn all the skinny-girl stores; one knockoff fashion outlet’s banner sums up the Christmas message Jesus had in mind: “Peace. Sweaters. Love.”

I ask the salesperson at Williams-Sonoma if he’s seen any Buy Nothing Day action in the mall yet (the organization is known for staging “credit-card cut-ups” and other spontaneous performances).

“No. I’ve never heard of that, but it’s a good idea. Lord knows I’ve bought enough already.”

Today? “No, in my lifetime, honey.” (Cue string crescendo as she walks away. “He ain’t shopping; he’s my brother!” she hopefully whispers to herself, tears welling.)

The women’s shoe department at Nordstrom, littered with trendy footwear, looks like something the Buy Nothing Day extremists might have invaded, flinging shoes willy-nilly and chanting “Clowns on stilts — FUNNY! Women on stilts — HA!” except that they haven’t. The pub is nearly full of disinterested husbands and boyfriends.

I pass a few high-class, honey-did-you-sew-that-yourself lines of designer clothing and muster up the courage to ask to try on a $2,000 Calvin Klein gown “for my daddy’s big Christmas party.” The shockingly (shockingly) nice saleswoman leads me to a dressing room the size of my apartment, but the construction of the dress is so complicated that I can’t put it on by myself.

Hmmm, I can’t decide. Do I want the dress that requires a lady-in-waiting, or do I want to pay my rent for five months? I head toward Union Square in search of some Adbusters.

On the way up Powell Street, a group of rain-drenched right-wing Christians holds up some banners that, in the spirit of Christmas, doom all people unlike them to hell. “Got AIDS Yet?” the most offensive one reads. The pudding-faced bearer of the sign appears indifferent while two well-dressed gay men patiently but vehemently try to talk some sense into him.

I scan the streets for zany non-Headwaters protesters but come up empty. As I round the corner to ground zero, Union Square is blocked off; a thousand umbrellas form a canopy, and underneath them, a thousand upturned faces all stare agape at the same spot.

No, it’s not a massive anti-consumer rally or an X-Files episode — the town Christmas tree is about to be lit. (I really need to watch the news more.)

Some shoppers look down from the plate-glass windows of Macy’s (a store with a massive lighted wreath in every window — how expensively charming), taking a short break from their buying and receiving activities to oh-yeah the spirit of the season.

Anticipating the traffic- and Muni-congestion to come, I bolt. I dig out my bus transfer and decide I need a drink.

I wait until midnight.


This is the 32nd piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro is here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here.

Oh and ten years after this article, on 11.25.2008, the SFBG‘s next nightlife columnist Marke B picks the Plucky 15.

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