»  The Straggler, No. 105

August 29th, 2011

   A Glimpse of Hell

I—'ave—marched—six—weeks in 'Ell an' certify
It—is—not—fire—devils, dark, or anything,
But boots—boots—boots—boots …

Also shoes, skirts, dresses, blouses, lingerie, jeans, and sportswear. Jewelry, too; fine leather and luggage; housewares and home furnishings. Kipling's soldier didn't know the 'alf — sorry, half — of it.

We had been visiting with friends in upstate New York. Now we were driving home. The first hundred miles was delightful: lovely scenery, clear empty roads under bright skies. Then the landscape flattened out somewhat, traffic thickened as we got closer to New York City, and towns became more frequent. We decided to stop and get something to eat before braving the suburban expressways.

Mrs. Straggler was at the wheel; I was in the passenger seat, half dozing, half listening to some Teaching Company lectures; the kids were in the back with their gadgets. My lady saw an exit she liked, saying: "I've heard of this place. They have a food court."

I grunted assent, assuming this was some kind of mall or service area. We took the exit. We parked. We walked to a Disneyland-sized complex of buildings and open plazas, teeming with people.

Quite suddenly I awoke to the nature of the place. It wasn't a regular mall at all. I wouldn't have minded that: A mall generally has a bookstore. No, this was a sort of little village containing nothing but designer outlets!

I know about designers, of course. They design things. Then they put their names on them. Then people — people whose thought processes are as inaccessible to me as those of a Siberian shaman — pay premium prices for the thing with the name on it, which they carry home in an ostentatious bag that also bears the designer's name. Those people will even journey long miles from New York City out here to the bear-haunted wildernesses beyond the Tappan Zee Bridge to gather their designer items.

And there they were: Gucci! Izod! Tommy Hilfiger! Lacoste! Ralph Lauren! I know the names of course. How can you live in the world today and not know them? I had hoped, though, to make it clear through to the Garden of Rest without ever having to engage with any of them. Plainly this grace was not to be vouchsafed to me.

I need to pause here to explain my utter failure as a consumer. I am totally the wrong person to be living in a consumer society. I buy things only when I need them and cannot get them otherwise. Then I use them until they disintegrate. My car is a 1993 Mercury. My TV is a 1992 Sony Trinitron, humongous old glass tube in wooden cabinet: it needs two healthy adult males to lift it. My bicycle was given to me by a neighbor who moved house seven years ago; it had been at the back of his garage so long he'd forgotten he owned it.

It's true that I purchased a new laptop computer recently, but only because my wife had commandeered the old one. That's "old" as in "six years old." I tell you, if my habits of consumption were the norm among Americans, our economy — not to mention China's — would have collapsed long since even without the attentions of Messrs. Obama, Geithner, and Bernanke.

All that applies twice over for clothing. I buy an item of menswear about once every five years, and then only after some nagging by my wife. My best suit is one I had made by a London tailor during a spell of unmarried prosperity in the early 1980s. My second best is newer — late 1990s. I bought some white shirts last year on a whim, but that was extraordinary — possibly I was on some kind of medication.

You can't be less of a consumer than I am, unless you're Amish. Yet here I was in consumer heaven. (Practically none of whose inhabitants, I noted with curious interest, are Caucasian, though New York's Orange County, where the place is situated, is reckoned by the 2005 census to be 72.4 percent non-Hispanic white.) Heaven for them, 'Ell for me.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a play portraying Hell as a locked room in which three very unpleasant people must endure each other's company for ever. The moral of the thing was supposed to be that Hell is other people. Though far from gregarious, I had never previously had much sympathy with this notion. I have always thought that personally, if stuck in that room, I'd try to get a game of cribbage going. Now, among these happy consuming throngs, I saw Sartre's point.

The shoppers drifted to and fro, talking of Uggs and Ferragamo. I saw a certain light in Mrs. Straggler's countenance, and in my daughter's, and was at once gripped with a terrible fear: that I might be forced to browse the stores with my womenfolk. I tried to make eye contact with my son, but he was sunk in hopeless apathy. In imagination I saw my happy terrestrial home, as I suppose the dead must, and yearned for it — my quiet study, my desk, my books. Would I ever be there again?

Then suddenly — a miracle! We heard a muffled collective gasp from the nearest building, followed by some laughter. People began to surge out, from this and the other stores. "Power outage," explained a passing shopper when we inquired. It was, very appropriately to the drift of my imagination, a searing hot day. Apparently the local air-conditioning burden had proved too much for some transformer. The whole place had lost power.

Soon the stores were empty. Employees bolted the doors closed. Fire trucks arrived with great clamor, though their relevance to the situation was not clear to me. Some of the shoppers stood around disconsolate in the plazas; most headed for the parking lots. So did the Stragglers: two disappointed, one passive, one inwardly exulting.

In the great crawling press of traffic, it took us 45 minutes to get out of there and back on the expressway. I begrudged not one of those minutes, for we were facing the right way, towards the light and air. Virgil has Aeneas emerge from the Underworld through the gate of false dreams — a passage that commentators have always had trouble explaining. It is no longer mysterious to me.