Sunday afternoon I decided to drive into Manor West in Tralee, our local mall, to stock up on groceries and essentials. I was trying to be a responsible adult, instead of being surprised every day by the dual facts that (a) I need to eat and (b) there is no food in the house. Late Sunday afternoon is usually safe for this kind of thing.
I crested the hills at Gleann na Gealt and wound down the valley toward Camp. Tralee Bay gleamed in front of me and a snow brushed Brandon rose to the left, very dark against the late afternoon winter sky. The road into Tralee along the bay was quiet. I skirted around the town center to the Killarney roundabout and spilled out into…utter madness.
Traffic was backed up all the way to the circle. "There must be some kind of match on," I thought as I inched along. "All these people can't be going to Manor West at 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon in late November." But they were. The place was jammed.
Creeping up to the central shopping hub all I could see were car roofs, filling the entire parking lot and spilling over into auxiliary parking lots magically created from what had been waste ground a few weeks ago. There was no reason for all these people to be here. It could only mean one thing. It's started. Christmas.
I'm not a fan of malls in normal times. I have to steel myself to remain in them long enough to get whatever long put off and required shopping has driven me there. The piped in music; incomprehensible announcements, scornful shop assistants; dazed, captive, young family men; weirdly echoing cacophony; and, most disconcertingly, the brutal discrepancy between the high-life images soaking every shop and the actual shoppers wandering among them induce a near panic that often has me fleeing within half an hour.
And then there are the meta messages. Shopping as entertainment. Shopping as life-enhancing. Lately, Irish leaders have even wafted the idea of shopping as a sort of national duty. Put Christmas on top of that (shopping for Christ, shopping for love, shopping to ease that nagging guilt) and the ambience is nearly lethal.
So I arrived at Manor West, innocently thinking I'd pop in and out for my messages, and smacking into holiday retail hell. And I landed into that scene alone. In fact, it appeared I was the only single person in the entire megashopolis. Families roamed; couples ruled. Every so often I came upon a lone man with a cart and a brief hope arose, immediately smashed when the girlfriend rounded the corner with a bag of carrots.
Some sort of subliminal message had gone out to the other peninsular singles, transmitted and received: stay home with your dvds. From now until past the new year, shop only on weekdays, at 11 a.m., after the first school run and before the second. You have been warned. Not me. I was a lone woman buying essentials among families stocking up on cheese, chocolate, dvds, christmas decorations, christmas lights, tins of biscuits, wrapping paper and frozen party food.
I did the only thing I could do. I bought a pack of condoms. It was only a 3-pack, but it was a statement, an assertion, a grab at reality amid the unholy fakery of the modern holiday shopping experience. Stuff, stuff, stuff–sex!–stuff, stuff. That's kind of the effect I was going for.
It's not much but it made me feel better. I needed to subvert and condoms are pretty much the only subversive thing you can buy at Tesco. Because it's a long holiday season, and it's just begun. I'm trying to make it safer out there.