Today In Maine: White Roads, Black Friday
Attention, holiday shoppers: Maine has a little surprise for you this Thanksgiving weekend.
We awoke around 5 a.m., across much of the state, to an odd pitter-patter outdoors, which at first, swimming upward through layers of semi-consciousness, we could hardly put a name to. Something like rain, only more substantial. Frozen leaves blowing against the windows? Chipmunks dancing on the deck?
It was, of course, the first snowfall of the year, arriving stealthily before daybreak on this morning of long-awaited retail hullabaloo. And it wasn't just snow — that would have been too simple — but a seasonal cocktail spiked with sleet and freezing rain in variable proportion. To wake on such a morning and find no coffee in the house is to stare deep into the abyss of holiday gloom.
Actually I felt pretty cheerful, once I realized what was happening. White roads on Black Friday! You could practically hear, borne on the ghastly breeze, the grinding of big-box managers' teeth.
Black Friday is a strange American phenomenon: not a holiday, but a mysteriously agreed-upon date when we are expected, as patriotic consumers, to dash out and do what we can to prop up the sagging retail sector of our economy. We are given to understand that everything and everyone, from Santa Claus to Goldman-Sachs, is counting on us. We must Save Big Now!, or else forever ... well I'm not too clear on the consequences, but they must surely be dire. Why otherwise would Doors Open At 4:00 A.M.?
Something's wrong with this picture, beyond the usual crassness and banality (which by now we're inured to) and the shoddiness of most of the goods on offer. We all sense it, this abstract wrongness, even as we ply through stacks of sales fliers and blink at online banner ads and ponder whether, just maybe, this is the best time to buy iPods for the kiddies. This week while listening to a local radio call-in show, of all things, I gained some insight into what the deeper and more elusive problem might be.
I don't listen much to shows like this. But the topic was something along the lines of Revitalizing Our Downtowns, and one of the guests was a local hero, former mayor Mike Hurley of the small coastal city of Belfast. A running metaphor throughout the discussion was the traditional downtown as the heart of a community. Healthy heart, healthy body. Much of the talk was vaguely inspirational — local residents and businesspeople and governments working together to do Something Good — but Hurley, a down-to-earth guy, had some blunt things to say.
I'll try to paraphrase the pith of it. The deck is stacked against us in these small towns, Hurley warned. We can do all these worthy things, but we've got to face a cold reality: namely, that there are powerful economic forces working against us. "We're up against people with MBAs in retail management who are working day and night to attract customers to their businesses," he declared, as near as I can remember.
He might as well have said, "We're up against Black Friday." Not as a dark spot on the calendar, but as an emblem of what our economy has come to.
The ethic of spending frenetically and lugging home cartfuls of cheap merchandise is antithetical to the traditional economy of Maine. Our towns and small cities are built, even now in the 21st century, on an older model of careful work, well-made goods, conscientious services, and — maybe this should be at the top of the list — local spending. We aren't an affluent state, but we get by, and do well enough, by keeping our dollars moving around through local hands. But that's a tricky business these days.
It's easy enough if you're hiring a carpenter. You pick some home-town guy who buys his wood at the local lumberyard. If you're buying, as I plan to, a couple of iPods for my kids, it's a whole different equation. We don't make those things around here. I could of course choose not to buy them, opting instead for, say, hand-knitted made-in-Maine sweaters. But then I couldn't have FaceTime chats with my kids when they go back to college. As Bugs Bunny would say, "Oh, the humanity!"
Last week I quoted W.B. Yeats in this space, and on this messy non-holiday he seems relevant all over again:
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned...
Happy Black Friday, fellow Mainers!