celebrating Here and Now

My Year (Without Target) in Review 2012

yrinreviewIt’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  Time for Top Tens, Best-Ofs, Worst-Ofs, Countdowns, and of course the ubiquitous Year In Review.  The Year in Sports, the Year in Politics, the Year in Homicides, the Year in Pop Music, the Year in Moments of Reality Television, and this year a new category:  the Year in Not Going To Target.

When I began the Year Without Target, my challenge to myself was simple: stay out of Target for a year as a way of becoming a more conscious, if not more conscientious consumer.  Even as I boldly declared my resolution back in January, I was already feeling fretful about how this decision would affect the ability of Santa to visit our house in December.  Turns out this month was the easiest yet.  We bypassed the traffic jams, the over-decorating, the over-spending, and the resulting bickering of Christmas Past.  We gave more creatively, received more appreciatively, and celebrated more merrily than ever before.  Fortunately Christmas Without Target came at the end of my Year Without Target.  The prior months were necessary preparation.  I was able to change my habits and my thinking enough throughout the year to make possible – easy, even – something I could barely imagine when I started the year.  There were no emergencies this year involving rolls of gift wrap, Scotch tape, or toilet paper running low.  Before I would have run out for more at the last minute, just in case.

I initiated the Year Without Target without any concrete metric for success.  Yes, I avoided Target for the whole year but what does it mean to me?  Did I save any money?  Did I learn anything?  Did I run out of any staple household items?  Will I go back?

Saving money wasn’t necessarily a goal of my Year Without Target.  Rather, I wanted to gain an awareness of where and why I was spending money and regain control over my shopping decisions.  Although I am terrible with record keeping and maintained no receipts or spreadsheets for comparison, I suspect I spent the same amount of money throughout the past year that I usually do in a year.  This hunch has been informally confirmed by my in-house financial expert (my husband, who actually holds an MBA… but also manages our household bills).

When I was shopping at Target I always ended up buying things compulsively no matter what necessities I had actually come there to get.  Shutting down my tendency towards impulse buys by not going to the store where I usually made them has not helped me save money as much as it has made the same money available to be spent in more positive or meaningful ways.  Significantly, after eliminating much of the flow of unnecessary incoming stuff from our household inventory and paring down what was already here, we were able to hire a house cleaner to help with routine cleaning of our home, which has freed up a lot of the precious little time we are not at work to enjoy our home and spend time together on things other than lamenting how far behind we are on household tasks.

Reflection on my personal history helped me understand how I had become a Target shopper, which I needed to do in order to break my habit.  It was an opportunity for insight into the person I’ve always been and the person I’m always going to be, the events and relationships that have shaped me.  Paying attention to where I’m shopping and why has helped me pay more attention and make better choices in other areas of my life.  In a roundabout way, my Year Without Target has been a great tool for self-evaluation and affirmation – things I don’t always take time out to do but which I usually find helpful.  I learned things I already knew, but I’ll be learning them all my life.

I still feel conflicted as a consumer.  I didn’t give up paper towels, bottled water, or buying my kid a new Barbie dolls.  I did buy stuff this year, and some stuff came from corporations I suppose I was just substituting for Target.  I hope I bought fewer things I didn’t need than I would have at Target.  I know I put more thought into my purchases this year than I have in a long time.  I feel less guilty about shopping now.  But there’s still a half-written list of Things I Need From Target floating around somewhere in the back of my mind.

I won’t be waiting in the Target parking lot to get my fix on the first business day of the new year.  I’m enjoying my Target-free life as it is and I’m in no hurry to go back there.  Time will tell.  Whatever happens, my ability to shop on auto-pilot has been permanently disabled and I am better off for it.

Now we’re all just waiting for the ball to drop.

I’ll keep you posted.


Keeping the Ween in Halloween

Most times, being in Target just made me feel really gross.  But I have one memory of shopping there that I absolutely cherish.

I’ve always loved Halloween, so I was super excited to learn that my baby was due on Halloween.  One of the many things I naively assumed about my pregnancy was that the baby would certainly be born on her awesome due date.  She was not.  She was late.

When she was turning five, my daughter wanted to have a Halloween party for her birthday.  To me, a week past Halloween seemed like a great time to throw a Halloween party.  Most kids would still have their costumes hanging around and would love a last chance to wear them.  Plus, Halloween stuff would be on deep discount.

A few days before the party, we went to Target.  We headed straight to the Halloween closeout section and loaded up our shopping cart with round orange treat buckets bearing jack-o-lantern grins, which we planned to use as party favors.  We headed towards the checkout with pumpkin buckets piled gloriously high in the cart, in our arms, and on the cart’s lower rack and built-in child seat.  Our progress through the aisles was slow because some of the pumpkins kept rolling off the cart but we were carrying too many more and laughing too hard to chase them effectively.  Shoppers and employees stared.  Maybe they all thought we were crazy but at the time I thought they were just jealous, out buying shampoo and dog food while we clearly had the most fun Target cart contents EVER.

When we finally reached the register, I was so elated to be spending just eight dollars on thirty-two pumpkin buckets that I couldn’t even be serious when the cashier wondered how the hell she was supposed to bag them.  We tossed the loose pumpkin buckets into the Subaru and just barely  got the hatchback closed.  The pumpkins seemed to laugh with us all the way home, their grinning faces pressed tightly against the window glass.

Some of those pumpkin buckets are still hanging around our house, but I don’t feel the same way about them as I do other miscellaneous crap from Target.  They always look cheerful and are actually utilitarian containers.  We hosted another Halloween party this past weekend, and were able to use them for kids’ candy once more.

Americans now spend seven billion dollars annually on Halloween.  I know I’ve certainly spent my share of that over the years.  It’s my favorite holiday and I tend to celebrate it in grand fashion.  Once in the late Nineties I spent all my rent money on Halloween but gladly waitressed almost nonstop the first week in November to keep my check from bouncing.  Exhausting, but totally worth it.

Looking back over a lifetime of awesome Halloweens, I think something has changed about the way we spend money and celebrate the day.  The thing I love most about Halloween is that it’s an equal opportunity holiday when anyone can be anything they want, when we embrace our inner demons and beg for candy in the streets.  It’s the one day of the year when everyone gets to be creative in ways daily life doesn’t offer most of us, from carving faces into pumpkins to executing a clever costume idea and then acting the part.

I’ve always enjoyed and excelled at Halloween, for I’ve always been a drama queen addicted to the thrift store and the sewing machine.  I didn’t have much money growing up, but Halloween was the one day that leveled the playing field.  I didn’t have any resources or finances or common sense when I was in my 20’s, but my Halloween extravagances were legendary and I still don’t regret them.  Always knowing I can conjure up a memorable Halloween is just part of who I am.  Jobless in recently-post-9-11 DC, I was able to pay my bills for a brief season by improvising self-employment as a “Halloween Consultant”.

These days my daughter, when I attempt to engage her in a dialogue about costume possibilities, asks to be taken to “the Halloween Store”, a recent retail phenomenon wherein a temporary emporium of Halloween-specific merchandise pops up in an ailing strip mall for a couple months each year.

There’s always much ado about the commercialism of Christmas, keeping Christ in Christmas, remembering the Reason for the Season, etc. in December, but for the thinly veiled paganism and hedonism of All Hallows’ Eve, I think it is more appropriate to honor my hometown heroes of long ago by “Keeping the Ween in Halloween”.  Do it yourself, even if no one gets it but you.  If someone offers you a record deal, a Sega Genesis, and an apartment in Trenton, all in the same day you better thank your lucky stars and Sassy Magazine for letting you keep it real even if you are not that cute in real life.

Just the other day I realized that the town of Homestead, PA where I now do business is the perfect place for Halloween shopping, well-planned or last-minute.  There’s an old-school candy store next door to a bar that purports to be “Your Pumpkin Beer HQ”.  There is an Adult Novelty store, where all those “SEXY Insert Non-PC Archetype Here” lingerie-style costumes are available year round, a wig shop, and plenty of hipster thrift.

So in the few minutes that are left in this Halloween, please join me in paying homage to the true spirit of the season.  Raise a glass of Weyerbacher pumpkin ale to Aaron and Mickey, aka Gene and Dean.  Life outside the basement is OK, if you love chocolate and cheese.

The Mother of Consumption

Seven years ago, when I was eight months pregnant, I had a baby shower.  It wasn’t traditional.  My husband (or babydaddy as he was then) and I hosted it ourselves.  It was attended by both men and women and featured a performance by my friends’ costume rock band as well as some epic Sangria.  It began in the evening and ended early the next morning.  It was in fact just a shade grander in scale than any party we would typically have thrown in the pre-baby era.  I may be the only one who can remember every detail of the day (in my condition I was the only one not drinking the epic Sangria) but what sticks with me the most is feeling loved and so lucky to have the friends who traveled, planned, cooked, shopped, helped, and sang for me as I prepared to step into the unknown realm of parenthood.

I was the pregnancy pioneer in my circle of friends; I didn’t know anyone who had babies or young kids at that time.  I remember feeling overwhelmed and astonished by the number of products it seemed I would be required to buy in order to take care of the baby, beginning with books on healthy pregnancy and childcare, all of which described items I would need to acquire to ensure the baby’s safety, health, and development both before and after she was born.  The non-medical expenses of a typical American baby’s first year of life add up to around ten thousand dollars.  To me it just seemed like so much stuff, it couldn’t all possibly be necessary.

Of course there are tons of products marketed to new parents, and of course not all of them are necessary.  And of course it is only possible through experience for parents to know what the best things are for their own children.  And though rationally I must have known all that, I also knew I was totally clueless.  I hadn’t really been around a little baby much since my sister was born in the late Seventies, the blogosphere was still under construction, my peers were out at the bar and I couldn’t go with them.  I had a lot on my mind, I was busy working, I was moving to a different house, I was giving up my studio space, negotiating changing relationships, eating lots of broccoli.  I had no resource for evaluating the future usefulness of available items to the baby I had yet to meet and the parent I had yet to become.  I had enough to do; I gave up trying.  I registered for a baby registry at Target.  Since my friends knew even less about childrearing than I, most of them were more than happy to choose things from the registry, and my relationship with Target as a simple fact of my child’s life was solidified.

Years have gone by and some of that stuff is still hanging around, in part due to consumer guilt.  I’ve given things away, thrown things away, repurposed others, and yet every once in awhile a tube of diaper rash cream or set of sippy cup valves turns up in the back of a drawer to remind me that of all the hats parents wear, Consumer may just be the empty 10-gallon Stetson of them all.  Parents also carry guilt around with them constantly, for a million reasons that can all lead to compulsive spending.

This cycle of guilt and spending can be viewed through the clinical lens of addiction, though compulsive consumption is so ingrained in modern American life that we’re conditioned to the way it makes us feel and rarely recognize it when it’s happening.  The word “shopaholic” to me conjures dated pop culture caricatures of Valley girls and mallrats, but could be applied to some of my own behavior.  Shopping addiction is linked to identity issues and loneliness, which were things I experienced when I became a parent.

My pregnancy was a surprise, so unplanned that I mistook my first bout of morning sickness for a hangover.  I’d never had maternal instincts whatsoever, and even regarded people with kids suspiciously.  Maybe because I’m an artist, I saw the expectant parents I occasionally came in contact with as mistaking procreation for creativity, using their helpless little bundles of joy as excuses to proudly buy lots of stuff that would shape the poor kids themselves into the artistic products of their parents’ tasteful consumer choices.

So when I was pregnant I needed to reevaluate my ideas about creativity and parenting.  I viewed the baby as someone with whom I would certainly enjoy collaborating on future projects, but less herself a project of mine than of my body, which was eating and growing until I was nearly twice the weight at which I had graduated high school.  I wanted to be a good steward of my body’s pregnancy project, so I took the appropriate vitamins, dutifully attended doctor’s appointments, and read about how to care for babies.  I had no idea how my own creative work would be impacted by the baby’s arrival and naively imagined that my lifestyle and work habits would continue as before, except that I would be accompanied always by a tiny person.  The “mother” component of my identity clearly was not quite established.

Additionally, the idea of motherhood brought to mind my own mother, with whom my relationship was strained.  Through the Vaseline filter of childhood memory I recalled her passing judgment on the parents of babies given bottles and pacifiers, diapered in Pampers, and taken to theme parks.  I can remember her telling me that other kids had toys I didn’t because their parents were “materialists”.  When I was older I realized that her tendency to judge others was rooted in her own fear of being judged, but when I faced the fact of my own impending parenthood I felt preemptively judged.  I was determined to create a warmer environment and better dialogue for my own child, and embracing shopping was somehow part of making this distinction.  I was a lonely kid about to form my own parental identity upon doing what my mother had not.

Then there were my friendships to negotiate.  Although I loved rock’n’roll as much as before and insisted on naming my baby after the hard-living KISS guitarist Ace Frehley, some of my friends felt betrayed by my pregnancy and didn’t know how to interact with me outside of noisy, smoky clubs.  A friend whose kids are around my age told me that when she had her babies in the Seventies she was never again accepted by some of her peers and colleagues, although her ideas and achievements, and eventually those of her children, remained prolific and relevant.  Would I ever be hot again?  Would I ever have someone to talk to about whether or not to put baby bottle parts in the dishwasher, if it was okay to play Velvet Undreground albums for my newborn, or how to manage my time and wardrobe with regards to baby-vomit-cleanup?  If I couldn’t even answer these little questions, how could I expect ever again to be taken seriously as an artist and professional?

These days, if I wanted to answer those questions, I could find anything I wanted to hear on the Internet.  I could find the best products and services for my child.  I could find friends for both of us, but would feel funny that they weren’t made organically.  In short I bet I could have gotten pretty wrapped up in the online parenting world if it had existed then as it does now, but I would never feel fulfilled in the same way I do talking over real life issues with real life moms who have been my friends since before any of us had kids.

So when I think back to our baby shower, I’m really so proud to have such awesome friends in my inner circle, the ones who have stuck by me through all my awkward parental phases.  I’ve remained connected with most of those friends, and many of them now also enjoy friendships with my child as well.  After all, the most meaningful things in life are the personal connections we share with others, not the things they buy us at Target.

Back-to-School Jitters

Summer began early this year, but passed by in a flash.  Mornings are crisp.  The Steelers are in camp.  And later this week kids around here will be heading Back to School.

Now, I can acknowledge that there have been a few annual occurrences that have troubled me so far during this Year Without Target.  Notably, summer vacation prep.  The idea of loading up the Subaru without first investing in a fresh stock of  beach towels, sand toys, and sunscreen bottles from Target as I had in years past was just a little scary for me.  But I didn’t do it and it turns out it was much simpler to travel with what we already had and pick a few things up along the way as we needed them.  Not to mention the unprecedented ease with which we were able to maneuver the luggage rack through the hallways of our customary hotel upon arrival.  There you have it… another unnecessary shopping ritual successfully and joyfully eliminated!

With September looming, there’s a lot to be nervous about.  Have I filled out all the necessary forms for my child’s school and activities?  Has she practiced her sight words enough over the summer?  Does she need a haircut?  How the hell and I going to get her up and out of the house an hour earlier than she’s been in the past three months?

Then there’s the Back to School shopping part.  I wasn’t looking forward to it, but about a month ago I familiarized myself with the school’s dress code, checked out some websites that sell uniforms, and ordered the ones that seemed the least unflattering/synthetic/expensive.  In time, a large box of nondescript garments in navy, white, and khaki arrived at our door.  My daughter, miraculously, even seems excited about wearing the uniforms as a rite of Big Girlhood.  To make room for the uniforms, we purged her closet of stuff she’s outgrown, packed it into the same large box, and  sent it off to friends who have three younger girls.  Done and done, easy as pie.  No Target at all.

Truthfully, pie has never really been easy for me.  I do not excel at blending or rolling piecrusts.  So when I checked the school website for the list of supplies needed for first grade, I shouldn’t have been at all surprised to find that the uniform-ordering part was just a simple seasonal fruit filling.  This was going to be tricky after all.

The list was about 20 items long and included items from all over Target’s typical floor plan, everything from Kleenex to gym shorts to cleaning supplies to the traditional pencils, crayons, and notebooks.  In many cases, specific quantities and brands were specified.  I spent the next couple of weeks carrying that list around with me each time I visited the supermarket, office supply, dollar store, or art supply store.  Everything is checked off now except we haven’t been to the shoe store yet.  If I’d gone to Target I could have done it all in an hour.

I wonder whether there will be times, once My Year Without Target is over, that I will decide it is okay to go there for a list like this or if I will continue to avoid Target even if it means I spend two weeks on a one-hour Target list.  I’m going to leave that one alone for now.  I still have Christmas to get through this Year Without Target, for Christ’s sake!

Meanwhile, I have a lot of No. 2 pencils to sharpen.  It’s clear I haven’t quite passed this test.

Recovery Milestone: Six Months Target-Free!!

It’s been six months since I first posted about not going to Target for a year, and you may have noticed I’ve been pretty quiet lately.  This isn’t because I’ve fallen off the wagon, it’s because I’ve been riding it for long enough now that I’ve been able to move My Year Without Target from the driver’s seat to the backseat of my brain.

I used to be like that guy you know who just quit drinking (or smoking or crystal meth or whatever) who can’t stop talking about how he just quit drinking (or smoking or crystal meth or whatever).  He’s not really looking for your sympathy as much as he needs to reinforce his decision to quit by making it public, reducing his internal struggle between going cold turkey and merely being chicken.  He may be boring his support network to tears but at least it’s keeping him honest with himself.  When his habit is less freshly broken, he’ll begin to talk about other stuff again… the weather, the ballgame, or, you know, the joy he experiences upon the occasion of his first visit to the farmer’s market each springtime.

I had known for years that shopping at Target had become a bad habit for me.  I sometimes would try to quit, or promise to quit the next day, or I would go on and on about it at parties and then not quit.  It wasn’t until I formalized my commitment to quit to myself by writing about it on the Internet that it became possible to actualize My Year Without Target.  In my blog, I have frequently used the language of addiction to describe my shopping behavior.

My goal has been to make more conscious choices and become a more self-aware consumer.  At times this “recovery process” has helped me understand events in my personal history or find hidden opportunities for creativity in situations that previously would have resulted in a mindless trip to the store.

Recently, my family decided to do some serious spring cleaning.  Although generally we aspire to tidiness it’s always been easy to say that our working life keeps us too busy and too often out of the house for this to really be achievable, or that a home that has been occupied by one family for five generations is bound to have its clutter.  I think since we’re buying less random stuff now it is finally possible for us to sort and evaluate the things we have now.

As we began to sift through the mess I noticed how many of the things in the “throw-away” pile were of Target origin.  Not all of them were true junk, many had just outlived their own utility.  In addition I realized that for some time instead of truly addressing the root of the clutter issues I had been attempting to organize the clutter itself by purchasing plastic storage bins and laminate shelving from – you guessed it – Target, and these items had eventually become just another component of the clutter.

Our home still has a long way to go before it’s really organized, but we’re doing much better without all the organizing “solutions” I acquired as impulse buys.  Oh and all those aromatherapeutic “green” cleaning products I was always stocking up on?  The packaging takes up so much more room than the recently reinstated  jugs of white vinegar and peppermint castile soap that I used to clean everything before my Target shopping habit took hold.

A few months ago when I began writing about not going to Target, I was alerted by a reader to a New York Times Magazine article by Charles Duhigg called “How Companies Learn Your Secrets”.  You can read the article in its entirety here.  The article discusses habitual consumer behaviors, and how companies such as Target collect and analyze information about their customers with the goal of creating new shopping habits.  Research indicates that consumer habits become flexible when individual consumers’ lives change, and if marketing is directed at individuals during these moments they are more susceptible to forming a new shopping habit that will keep them spending money there for years to come.

Think of events in your life that caused your daily habits to change – such as changing jobs, graduating from school, moving to a different home or apartment, or a shift in your household demographic.  It turns out that consumer analysts at Target can tell what is going on in our lives by what we buy.  This information is used to predict what they can sell us next, and to market these items to us at times when our habits are changing anyway.

A few posts ago I succeeded in analyzing my own shopping history  well enough to understand that my Target habit began when I became a parent.  I chalked this up to the fatigue of caring for a newborn causing me to go for one-stop shopping, which I had previously avoided.  From Duhigg’s article I learned that Target’s consumer statistics can identify pregnancy almost as early as a First Response test kit by what women buy in terms of personal care products like vitamins and lotion.  They know when you stop buying tampons, and start sending you coupons for diapers instead.

Expectant mothers are Target’s most desirable mark.  This life milestone is the one that creates the most dramatic capacity for change in shopping habits, as well as a tiny consumer who will consequently grow up to trust the bullseye brand, eventually reaching adulthood with the Target habit already intact.

Now that I’ve been Target-free for awhile I really don’t miss it.  I’m actually quite relieved not to shop there anymore.  But I’m aware that as with any habit, this one will always be lurking around somewhere ready to re-emerge.  Like that recovering alcoholic (or ex-smoker or reformed meth head or whatever) one sip could still do me in.

Coffeeshop Confidential

Recently, a local cafe announced that it would be closing within weeks.  This was reported by the local food critic in the local newspaper along with the news that the shop’s space would soon be occupied by a new location of a local bagel chain.

Local social media pricked up its ears.  After reading the posted opinions of friends, acquaintances, friends of acquaintances and acquaintances of friends, as well as a few complete strangers (if any such people exist in Greater Pittsburgh’s socially inbred local landscape) it seemed to me that the local consensus was Starbucks had done them in.  This idea was offset somewhat by underlying smack talk.

In Pittsburgh we like to support the little guy.  But while we were busy blaming Starbucks for driving the little guy out of business, we were also acknowledging that we as consumers who prefer a local product were dissatisfied by the product being served by the little guy.  People were saying that it made them sad to see the local spot closing due to Starbucks market encroachment, but in the same breath that they had been unable to stomach the local cafe’s caffeinated and culinary offerings, dirty bathrooms and rude baristas.

Forgive me but Starbucks, I think, was being scapegoated.  Because sometimes it is easier to blame a large, faceless, globally despised corporation than to hold your friends and neighbors accountable for their incompetence and sloppiness.

The intersection of Forbes Avenue and South Craig Street is one of the liveliest in Pittsburgh.  Two universities, their associated medical, cultural, and technological facilities, the Diocesan cathedral, the main branch of the citywide library system, and the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History are all within a stone’s throw.  There is substantial foot traffic and the neighboring businesses provide the essential amenities of coffee, lunch, snack, and happy hour options for the masses who pass through daily.

About a decade ago, I was working in the service sector at Forbes and Craig, serving Pittsburgh-portioned lunches to hefty office workers every day, earning tips by breaking my back under the weight of so much meat and potatoes on my tray.  I had worked in this industry almost all my adult life and I was finally at a point where it was really just impossible to put plates in front of people with a clear conscience.

When I lost my job it seemed to me almost a blessing.  I thought I might try to start my own catering business instead, making an opportunity for myself to finally make and sell food I could really believe in.  I mentioned this to my usual barista at the coffee place across the street when I stopped by for a post-getting-fired soy latte, a splurge since I had no idea when I’d be able to afford another one.  The barista, a familiar guy from years of frequenting the Pittsburgh music scene, suggested that I talk to the shop’s new owners, who were getting ready to expand both their space and food menu.

It seemed a serendipitously perfect turn of events.  I was eager to get started making food, and the idea of going from a job I would never love to one that I maybe could without a lapse in paychecks was immensely appealing.  The new owners told me that shortly after they bought the business, they had the opportunity to expand into the adjacent corner storefront.  Their new rent on the enlarged space had been increased to nearly double what they had agreed to.  And the rumors that a Starbucks was going into the vacant storefront on the opposite corner were true.  Times were tough for them, undergoing an expansion to a recently acquired business amid unanticipated adversity, but they were hoping that adding a fuller food menu to their coffee bar would help them carve out a niche in the crowded service economy of the intersection and set them apart from the impending Starbucks.

I was game.  I took the job they offered me at a fraction of the salary appropriate to my task, willingly, because their plight was compelling.  I wanted to help them.  I liked them.  Besides, I was ready to stick it to the man after so many years of selling products I would never eat and explaining to coworkers each and every Friday that vegans don’t eat fish sandwiches, even during Lent.

The kitchen was simply equipped with refrigeration, a commercial-grade hotplate and panini press, and a tiny convection oven.  I made assurances that I could cook anything in there, and in return I was assured that when the new menu took off they would be able to afford for me to cook with gas.  I took care with the menu I created and executed.  I worked in the kitchen with one of the owners.  His schedule was heavy with scoop and bake muffins, filling a merchandising cooler with pastas dressed in commercially prepared sauces, crazy one-man offsite catering gigs which may have been the company’s bread and butter, and the occasional tennis match (highly anticipated and stressful due to ex-girlfriend opponent).

The other owner was driving himself crazy executing the store’s expansion into the neighboring space.  He wasn’t sleeping much, but he was using power tools often.  Despite his background as a statistician, his decisions were frequently based more on emotion than analysis.  He relied on the goodwill and help of friends and employees to achieve the renovation, assuring us all that our labor was for the greater good.  Some of the staff who had stayed on from the previous ownership were asked to take pay cuts in order for the new guys to afford them in the transition.  At one point I was offered a share in the company in exchange for my extravagant $160 per week salary.  I declined to be paid in liability and our relationship went downhill from there.  To their credit, my back wages were dutifully brought up to date throughout the following year.

Lo these many years in the service industry, I regard my experience there as seminal.  I met some of my most treasured coworkers ever at that job, a testament both to their benevolence and the charisma of their employers.  I made a menu that could be prepared on limited equipment at any hour by anyone working.  I am proud of my work, but I can’t be proud of working there.  Staff meetings were characterized by accusations, denial, and blame-placing.  Tears were common, as were cockroaches.  I was mad, sad, and glad all at once on the day I was told that my ingredients and manpower were no longer an expense they could bear.  I packed up my bourgeois Cuisinart and baking pans and cried all the way home.  Years later, I simultaneously felt vindicated and like kicking myself in the head each time I observed any of my underfunded suggestions being implemented there.

So like everyone else in town, my mood went all bittersweet upon hearing the news that the joint would soon close.  But I also felt slightly indignant.  What the hell took so long, I wondered.  Those guys made their own bed before Starbucks had poured a single cup of coffee on their corner.  Their sob story never changed.  They always felt entitled to succeed despite the odds, not because their business model made any sense or their coffee was so much better but just because the community should support its local, independent, non-corporate shop.

There will always be folks who just prefer Starbucks and would never cross the street to check out a local spot.  Those people can’t really be courted by an independent shop and can’t be blamed for its success or failure.  They will always think that a macchiato is caramel latte.  Nobody can do anything to change that.

Then there are those who will try the local shop, but if there is nothing particularly compelling or delicious about it for them, or if they have an experience there that is annoying on any level, they may not bother to cross the street the next time.  This group of consumers is probably the most important because they represent the unrealized potential and unmet expectations that can drive a small business out of business.

There are also people who will always seek the local cafe, who will treasure its humanity and appreciate its struggles, and who are proud to feel a personal connection through their cup-by-cup contribution to its place in the culture and economy.  It is when such patrons become so frustrated by poor service, crappy products, or general filth in a place they care about that they end up crossing the street even though it breaks their hearts to do it, that we can see who is really to blame.  It’s not Starbucks.

Small business is hard, there’s no denying that.  In my current situation my attention is all over the map, spread too thin over too many skill sets.  My creativity and my efficiency both suffer as a result.  My thoughts drift back to Forbes and Craig.  I know I can do better.

Small business, this I say to you and me:  It’s not enough just to be your lovable self.  No one loves text-messaging baristas or running out of toilet paper.  Don’t give people stupid reasons to leave, craving the bland comforts of corporate consistency.  Give them instead great reasons to stay.  That’s how you got here in the first place, right?  Because you wanted to provide something really special in your community, something a corporation never could.  You put your heart and soul, your career and life savings on the line to do this.  It is your responsibility to give your community something they can believe in.

Or at least a decent cup of coffee.

Goodwill Revisited

So really it’s the semi-disposable and staple items that I’m missing most this Year Without Target.  I am at a loss for gym socks and wifebeaters, Kleenex and Charmin.  I just about drove myself crazy trying to think of where to get some little white T-shirts for my daughter to customize for her school project.  I didn’t want to go to a more expensive but equally evil chain store like the Gap.  I didn’t want to go to a high-end boutique.  I thought maybe if I were less of an asshole I would have been buying domestic organic cotton shirts my whole life and know where to get them already.  But then, I knew this was bullshit.  Really, when it comes to clothes, I am a Not Always Organic Asshole.  And Sam is the Kindergarten Bear.

Each child in my daughter’s class takes a turn hosting Sam the Bear.  Photos are taken documenting Sam’s adventures with each family, and a journal is compiled detailing Sam’s experiences throughout the school year.  My daughter had received a set of fabric markers for Christmas and was keen to make custom T-shirts with Sam the Bear when her turn came around in January.  We needed some shirts she could draw on, add to a stuffed bear’s wardrobe, maybe wear a couple times and then move on.  Without the kids’ section of Target at my disposal, I felt stumped for awhile.  I really didn’t want to spend much on Sam, who is sort of a germ factory of a bear and is usually dressed in hand-me-downs.  Then it occurred to me that it would be fine if the shirts were already a little bit gross when we got them.  We went to Goodwill.

Back in the proverbial Day, I used to spend hours shopping in Goodwill.  There was a particularly fabulous one near the intersection of Baum and Liberty in Pittsburgh.  It seemed always to be freshly stocked with beautiful vintage sweaters and coats, as though the wardrobes of stylish midcentury grandmas were being donated almost daily, which probably they were.  I still have most of the stuff I bought there, and I’m still amazed by the quality fibers and fine tailoring I was able to find on the $3 rack.  I love the tailors’ labels embroidered in metallic thread, many of them representing local artisans of a bygone era, when ordinary clothes were made really well and the people who wore them took great care of them.  Of course, since it was Goodwill and not a vintage shop, there was also an endless supply of ridiculous 1980s wear and sloganed t-shirts, as well as secondhand craft supplies, housewares, and cassette tapes.

The Liberty Avenue Goodwill closed some years ago, but before it did I noticed a shift the in merchandise there.  I could page through rack after rack and never see anything I wanted.  The clothes were all new…ish.  Contemporary, though perhaps vintage-styled, and maybe a couple of seasons past trend, with labels like Old Navy and Rue 21.  It was sad to think that all the classy grandmas were gone, their closets emptied forever… but that was the only explanation I could come up with.  I was told by friends a little crustier than me that the good stuff was still there, but that instead of being put out for sale it was being put out for the trash.  Evidently the Dumpster behind the Goodwill store had developed a great deal of hipster cred.  I never checked it out for myself, I just didn’t really go to Goodwill anymore.  When my friend Frank died in 2004, his funeral march meandered accross town from the place where he was killed to the home that was his destination at the time of his murder.  The procession attempted to follow a path Frank might have walked on his way home, and the Goodwill Dumpster was on that route.

When Sam showed up I hadn’t been to Goodwill in a long time, but I had just started going to a new gym on the Southside whose windows gave me a panoramic view of a neighboring Goodwill superstore, and I had started daydreaming about its contents as a way to relieve boredom during my morning workouts.  But this had done little to prepare me for the experience of thrift shopping with a six-year-old who is used to Target.

As we approached, I explained to my daughter the function of thrift stores in our community, how sometimes things that aren’t useful anymore to the person who bought them can be repurposed  by people who can use them now for a discounted price.  She wanted to know why the floor was dusty.  She wanted to know why the shirts in Sam’s size were on a single rack with the clothes her own size and all the sizes in between.  I wanted to know why so much of the stuff in the thrift store was from Target, not only on the clothing racks but also on strategically placed endcap displays of seasonal cling-on window decorating kits, as though the $1 section in the front of  Target had been purged and donated in bulk.  I also wanted to know why pre-stained baby t-shirts were selling for $3.99, but some questions are not meant to be answered.

Gradually, my child and I began to relax and enjoy the Zen experience of Goodwill shopping together.  We paged through rack after rack of things that were wrong and found things that were right on the wrong rack.  We took our time.  We sang along to oldies Muzak.  We laughed together at the contents of my favorite Goodwill department, Miscellaneous Housewares.  We were there for an hour and a half and spent $17.99, hardly a bargain for our time or for a bunch of shirts that were already gross.  But in terms of intangibles, we got more than we came for, because it was fun and helped us think about how to shop outside our usual box.

Plus, when we got home we got to draw on some shirts.  I even did one for myself.

There’s a Monster in my Closet!

When the Shopping List Challenge was challenging me, I realized that it’s often an apparel component that sends my list straight to Target.  Sometimes it’s small electrics, but usually apparel.  Everything else on this list I was pretty sure I could get at a regular supermarket, and lo and behold I did.

It was just one simple thing from my list, plain white t-shirts, that made this a Target-type list… and made my head spin.  For days.  I had to overthink this one a lot!  But that is what My Year Without Target is for, right?  Getting me to understand myself better as a consumer and make more deliberate choices about where and why I buy things…

When I was a kid if you wore clothes from Kmart (the Target of its day in many ways) they looked like clothes from Kmart and they looked, well, like what they were.  Poorly designed and cheaply made, like something you’d expect to buy two aisles away from the cat litter.  They looked bad.  Kids made fun of other kids who wore them.

Not so at modern-day Target.  It is possible to buy flattering, stylish, durable clothing there.  Trendy designers now create exclusive lines that are Available Only At Target.  But the clothes are still mostly produced cheaply overseas and available two aisles away from the cat litter… and though we may look way cuter in them, they’re really just another nail in the coffin of our individuality.

I view the Target-heavy contents of my own wardrobe with a mixture of horror and amusement.  How the hell did I get so lazy?  Somewhere along the line while shopping with a little kid for a little kid I stopped even leaving the little kids’ department to get stuff for myself!

The fact that as a healthy, average-sized adult I can buy matching outfits for myself and my six-year-old in the girls’ section of Target and quite possibly look more age-appropriate in mine is troubling.  It truly speaks volumes about America’s nutritional crisis to think that we’ve doomed a generation of large, sexy children to wearing such clothes.

Deep inside I’ve always known better than to go to Target for jeans or lingerie.  But I have… and I live with the shame.  I’ll smugly shrug off the compliments I receive on my fine-looking duds, but I know their true proximity to the cat litter.

Shopping List Challenge

So, I’m proudly just three weeks into My Year Without Target, and my shopping list reads as follows:

  • Small bubble mailers
  • Plain white T-shirts in baby and kid sizes
  • 60-watt lightbulbs
  • Tampons
  • Milk

Sigh.  I knew this would happen.  I just didn’t know it would happen so soon.  This is exactly the kind of list that screams “take me to Target!”  The list that has common enough stuff on it, but you can’t quite guarantee yourself that you can get it all at one store… unless you go to Target.

After my inaguaral Target purchase in 1992, I did not shop at Target for a very long time.  Sometimes I visited my brother in Minneapolis, which is Target’s city of origin.  The Target stores there were smaller and more urban than the ones we now associate with Target’s national brand.  A sort of Uber-convenience store, it was a place you could go in your neighborhood to pick up things you had forgotten to purchase elsewhere without the risk of not being able to find them there, but it didn’t seem to be anybody’s primary shopping destination.

Later, after I’d been living in Pittsburgh for some time, a shopping center was built on a nearby former millsite which included a Target.  It was the first time as a city dweller that that type of shopping was located conveniently enough for me to actually shop there.  Although I did occasionally go there to buy things for my apartment that had Hello Kitty on them, it usually made more sense to shop in my neighborhood, and usually I did.

A lot of things in my life changed when I became a parent.  One of them was my approach to shopping.  I was no longer living in a walkable neighborhood with a business district, so any trip to the store that I made had to involve driving, negotiating parking and getting my infant in and out of the car and the store before her next nap, feeding, crying jag, or diaper change.  The things I was buying were different too and it seemed like there were always more of them.  I got really used to Target then because it just seemed easier to make one shopping trip to pick up the next size of onesies or developmentally appropriate plaything along with the diapers and formula, dog food, Kleenex multi packs, toaster waffles, picture frames, leg warmers, et cetera.  Stuff with Pooh Bear on it… then stuff with Dora on it… now stuff with Barbie on it.  Stuff with Hello Kitty on it again, who is now being marketed to me and my daughter simultaneously.  Yuck.

I realize now that it’s not the stuff ON the list that makes me feel disgusting.  It’s the other stuff that ends up in the cart.

At some point, I gave up my power of consumer choice.  I was no longer choosing, I was just consuming.  I would sometimes experience a moment of addict’s remorse when I saw my checkout total, but I could put it behind me by the time my card was swiped.

But consumer choice IS powerful, and I’m taking mine back, one shopping list at a time.


1992: The Year Target Saved My Life

So, now that I am not shopping at Target I am wondering, how did I become such a Target shopper in the first place?  I mean, I have understood for years what the Big Box has done to Mom and Pop local economies, and I have avoided Wal-mart deliberately and successfully forever without even trying.  How then, have I fallen so hard for so long for Target?

Rewind twenty years.  Back then I was an art student and a fish out of water, a northeastern Goth chick negotiating dorm life in beautiful, plastic Sarasota FL.  My school was on the Tamiami Trail, which is not a hiking trail or even remotely suitable for pedestrian use.  It is six lanes of traffic wide, the length of the Gulf coast, and lined on each side by indistinguishable strip malls.

In those days, I had some really bad food issues.  I barely ate and couldn’t yet cook.  It was really hard for me to eat in front of other people, either socially or alone in a public setting.  As a dorm student, my only option for sustenance was usually the college cafeteria.  Unable to determine the caloric and fat content of the prepared foods in the steam tables and unable to enjoy dining with my peers, I developed a strategy of choosing raw foods from the salad bar and taking them back to my room on a stolen plate.

Cooking was prohibited in the dorms, and I didn’t know how to cook.  But my friend Aimee had an electric pot in her room which heated quickly when plugged into the bathroom outlet, and which she used primarily to give herself steam facials.  I asked her where she had gotten it and she said: The Target Store.

South Florida had a lot of national chains I’d somehow remained blissfully ignorant of before I moved there for school.  I had no idea that the Olive Garden in Sarasota wasn’t the only one in the world, I couldn’t tell a Walgreens from a Wal-mart, and I had never heard of The Target Store.  But I was able to get a ride there and procure the electric cooking pot that would keep me alive until I left Florida.  I have a hazy but specific memory of the squint-inducing lighting, the floor-to-ceiling merchandise, and the eerie lack of Muzak.  I was somehow able to locate the item I came there for without taking in much else, buy it without compromising my lean budget, and return to campus without being run over on the Trail.

Thereafter I was able to steam my pores and my cafeteria broccoli, and I occasionally used the pasta insert that came with the plug-in pot to prepare fettucini for guests, which I would serve with canned black olives and a jug of Sangiovese.  Go figure. At least I didn’t have to schlep everyone out to the Olive Garden.

In the Spring semester I came across a tofu-based chili recipe in Spin Magazine, which was credited to k. d. lang.  It called for canned beans and packaged seasonings.  It could be made in just one pot and I made it, over and over again, adding what I could from the cafeteria salad bar.  It was the first thing I ever learned to cook, and apparently it provided me with enough nutritional value to cross an important hurdle into healthy adulthood.  I’ve made versions of that dorm-room chili ever since, and I’ve always been able to rely on a big batch of it to get me through the financial uncertainties of changing jobs or cities or boyfriends.  It’s the same chili that our Cafe has become known for.  It’s the food I send to my friends who are living with new babies or challenging grandmas.  It’s on the table for football games, birthday parties, and Sunday brunches.  It’s been my standby, my comfort food, and my calling card.  It was the first recipe I cared about, and it changed my creative trajectory, my food philosophy, and my whole life.  Without it, I would have starved in many ways.  With it, I’ve become who I am today.  So I feel I was saved in a way by my Target purchase in 1992.  It’s hard to say if or how or when I would have discovered myself as a cook and as an eater without that little electric cooking pot.

Right now, in the dead of winter in Western Pennsylvania, chili appeals.  It’s hearty and warm and doesn’t take long to long to eat, order, or even prepare.  Without dealing out significant trade secrets, I will tell you two things that I think are essential to good chili…  Surprise!  Neither one is meat.

Keep it Sweet!  Balance is key when it comes to chili, so if you’re including hot or spicy ingredients, showcase them by including such sweet complements as corn, carrots, or brown sugar.

Fresh is Best!  Choose plants over powders whenever you can.  Instead of garlic powder, chop garlic.  Instead of coriander, garnish with fresh cilantro.  Instead of using a prepared chili powder, discover your own preferred balance of paprika, cumin, and oregano.

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