In one of the shops, a Christmas-themed glass cookie platter caught my wife’s eye. It was pretty, and superfluous. But, as I say, it caught Alison’s eye, and it’s price ($29) didn’t seem outrageously expensive. People in the shop were buying more expensive things—silver knickknacks and glass ornaments that would likely be packed up into boxes and stuffed into attics all around town in another month. Twenty-nine dollars is twenty-nine dollars. Not an insignificant amount, but also not large enough to land me in debtors’ prison. But still, a seasonal platter has limitations. For a moment, I thought, Bah! Humbug! Why spend twenty-nine dollars for something we’re only going to use a few times each year?
Years ago, I saw an interview with Tip O’Neill, who was the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives during the Reagan years. He was asked why so many blue-collar Democrats supported the Reagan tax cuts, which clearly were intended to benefit the wealthier classes. Were these blue-collar Democrats bamboozled?
No, O’Neill said. The blue-collar Democrats were smart enough to know that Reagan’s tax cuts would not help them. But, America being America, each of these blue-collar Democrats wanted to believe that they would one day be wealthy enough to personally take advantage of Reagan’s tax cuts. It was a powerful lesson. People could willingly vote against their present interests if you bedazzled them with aspirational longings and long-term greed.
Okay. So I’m not wealthy enough for a weekly splurge on twenty-nine dollar cookie platters. But, plonking down my credit card at that cashier’s register, I wanted to believe that I could be like every other American and enjoy a small luxury once every Crimble. I wanted to believe that more small luxuries lay in my future. Signing the sales receipt, I wasn’t just buying a superfluous cookie platter—I was buying the illusion of financial well-being. Consumerism is such an integral part of American culture. Those with limited incomes and unable to take part in frivolous purchases can feel as if they’re excluded and isolated from our natural cultural, their natural identity. But it felt good, knowing that at least for a moment, I was an American, someone capable of buying a Made-In-China platter decorated with holy leaves and mistletoe.
Stepping out of the shop, I talked to the people standing around us, waiting for the parade to begin. A woman commiserated with us over the lack of hot chocolate vendors.
“My son owns a beverage cart,” the woman said. She was wearing a red and green Christmas stocking cap, the kind that should’ve had a brass sleigh bell jingling at its end. “My son could have made a million dollars today if he was out here, selling hot chocolate.”
Well, maybe not a million dollars. Blacksburg is a small town. Perhaps a few thousand people lined the streets, waiting for the parade. But we all had the appetite for small luxuries. A cup of hot chocolate, a bag of caramel popcorn, a painted glass cookie platter, and whatever else we could afford.
Addendum: Winter might be the season when my thoughts swing most to food and cooking. Last winter, I wrote a couple of food-related essays for Entropy (here and here). By happenstance, within the last week I’ve read two foodie books: James Lasdun’s THE FALL GUY and Stephanie Danler’s SWEETBITTER. Both are superb. Danler’s protagonist in her coming-of-age novel is a back waiter in a swanky New York restaurant modeled after the Union Square Cafe. Lasdun’s protagonist in his psychological thriller is a down-and-out chef who becomes the personal chef for a wealthy friend at his summer home. Both authors explore the role of food in our society, but in remarkably different ways. Hopefully, I’ll write more about this over the coming days