Many of my neurotic tendencies are the result of early literary experiences—all the more so because literary experiences were pretty much the only kind of experiences I had. As a girl I combined an active imagination and love of melodrama with a child’s earnest acceptance of storybook morals and the result was this: a cautionary tale about what happens when you let impressionable children read The Little Match Girl. Almost three decades later and wherever I go I am hounded by the ghost of that tiny frozen salesgirl. Even when I appear to be out shopping by myself, I am never really alone. Imaginary supplicants are my constant companions. In every shop I see the downtrodden, meekly sniffling by the Apple store, muffling their lonely tears at the Coffee Bean.
The saddest cases happen at toy stores. Around birthdays or Christmas, I go out to grab a few things for my children, but I can never bear to buy something large or expensive or coveted in front of another child. Every time I put a big, colorful present in my cart, I imagine some saucer-eyed urchin looking at it longingly, solemnly asking their stooped and coal-begrimed father if they might someday have a model train set like that, too, please, Daddy. (The child has an English accent.) And so I always go to elaborate lengths to hide toy purchases from any nearby children. The nicer the toy, the greater the lengths. Recently I dropped a lovely wooden toy castle into my cart at Home Goods and then immediately covered it over with an armload of blankets and towels. The move makes you look less humble and more like a shoplifter. When there aren’t any towels around, I hide the goods in my coat.
Of course, waifs don’t only shop at Home Goods. They shop everywhere. The other day at Costco I lingered by a tower of dozens of gingerbread house-building kits. I grabbed the first one off the top of the pile. But then I vividly imagined an old lady buying a kit for her grandson, and her grandson terribly disappointed when he opened the box and found that one of the four included gingerbread men was crushed to dust. The grandmother can do nothing to comfort him except pat his bent head with her withered hand. (Also, and it goes without saying, both of them are dying.) Whereas I wouldn’t particularly care if my gingerbread men were broken, and my kids probably wouldn’t care either—and even if they did, teaching them to suffer disappointment is a pet project of mine. Inevitably, I went back and combed through all the boxes until I found a slightly broken one, meanwhile arranging the best of the kits at elderly-lady-accessible points along the display.
But however much I worry about imaginary shoppers at conventional retail stores, the problem is far worse at thrift stores. In a thrift store there is usually exactly one of any given item, which means if I get it, you don’t. This kind of zero-sum thinking is intolerable to me. At least at a conventional retail store, my impulsive decision to buy a squeaky toy bagel is not directly impacting your dying dog’s last Hanukkah. I can just throw the $6 piece of polyvinyl chloride made in China into my cart and feel guilty about it for all the perfectly good normal reasons, like how I am a spendthrift and a fool who is directly contributing to the extinction of all life on earth. I can’t add to that the extra guilt that I took the last squeaky toy bagel and now your cancer-ravaged Jewish dog is going to spend its last days on this earth listlessly chewing on last year’s KONG.
Let’s say I walk into a thrift store. I find something intriguing or amusing or even useful. But no sooner than I pick up, say, a framed watercolor, a fringed leather cowboy vest, or a child’s space helmet, I am already concocting an imaginary scenario where a bullied production assistant has been combing Burbank for a fringed vest and if she doesn’t find one by two o’clock this afternoon, she’s fired. Or, a world where an estranged daughter might be miraculously reunited with the very watercolor her mother had painted for her when she was only a baby and she still felt loved and it really seemed then like her family had a shot. Where a haggard mother, her tired legs boiling with embolisms, has been combing all the thrift stores in the area desperately trying to find the space helmet she promised her son for his birthday. And now, of course, I am holding in my very hands the last thrift store space helmet in the greater Los Angeles area, and I am going to buy it just on a whim, like an entitled asshole, even though my son doesn’t even particularly need it. Needless to say, I can’t buy the space helmet. Instead, I try to put it back on the shelf in such a way that it is accessible but also partially obscured, so that the toy space helmet won’t be immediately obvious to spoiled, selfish browsers like me, but will reveal itself readily to anyone truly searching for it, like the sword in the stone.
Now it’s important to emphasize here that none of this makes me a good person. Of course, I like to think it does. I will sometimes entertain the notion that my outsized efforts to avoid hurting the feelings of imaginary people are evidence of some fineness of spirit, but let’s be frank: imagining scenarios in which your trivial commercial interactions contribute to the crushing misery of others actually makes you several degrees worse than a regular person. Only a narcissistic maniac spends half her day imagining ways in which her slightest actions might utterly destroy everyone around her. Only someone without real problems would choose to luxuriate in such voluptuous, pornographic sadness. The more I contemplate my shopping habits, the worse I feel, until I’ve spiraled down into a dark self-loathing that can only be alleviated by buying a scarf I don’t need and then explaining to the indifferent cashier that I’m buying it as a gift for someone else. It’s a perfect storm of neurosis, self-regard, and purposeless misery, and it doesn’t do a thing to make the world better.
Or does it? Because maybe later that day, an old woman did find that perfect gingerbread house kit, and brought it home, and gave it to her grandson, who joyfully constructed a perfect edible model of the once-happy home that was recently destroyed in a fire, and set beside it the four unbroken gingerbread avatars of family members long and violently dead, and in that moment, his dear grandmother wheezed aloud, “Bless you, kind Costco lady. You are a saint.” And you know what? I am.
Summer Block has published essays, short fiction, and poetry in McSweeneys, The Rumpus, Identity Theory, DIAGRAM, PANK, The Nervous Breakdown, and many other publications.