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Thursday, September 05, 2002

Who Will Take Me to the Big Place?

I like going to the Big Place.

If anyone had been reading this blog a couple weeks ago, they might've noticed that I've recently come back from three years in Sydney, Australia. I didn't like living there, and one reason was the difficulty in buying things. I didn't have a car, and going shopping for household goods often required a hell of a lot of time riding on busses to places that didn't have what I wanted at a price I could afford. I'm not talking about just computer components and large furniture, but in stuff like coffee makers. I blew $10 in bus tickets trying to find a $20 coffee maker.

Now back in the States, I'm enjoying shopping, something I haven't done in years. My boyfriend Niles takes me, since I don't have a car. If Niles ever longed for a dog, I think he's getting his wish now.

Where are we going, Niles?
I like to go to Target, Niles.
Good. Would you please stop slobbering on the glass?
But you won't let me hang my head outside!
It's a hundred degrees outside. Keep your head in.
Oh, look! A Kroger! Can we go to Kroger, Niles?
We just went to Kroger yesterday. And mind you don't scratch the dashboard.
But we didn't go to this Kroger. It might have different things! I like looking at things! Can we stop at this Kroger, Niles?
No! And will you watch where you're wagging that great tail of yours? It keeps hitting the gear shift.

And so we ride, Niles driving and me goggling at all the big places you can buy things.

When we get to Target, I immediately sought out the Michael Graves designer gunk, as mentioned by Lileks. I'd give a link to a Lileks bleat that talked about Target's Michael Graves line, except I couldn't find it. I prowled through about a year's worth of Bleats looking for it, and came up dry. Tried to find it in "The Back Fence", too. No dice.

Michael Graves is apparently a famous designer whom Target has signed on to design some stuff for it. I remembered Lileks talking about a Michael Graves potty chair at Target, but that was just my faulty memory. He was actually talking about a Philipe Starck potty chair. (I couldn't find the Starck potty, but I did see some Starck garden gnomes.)

But I was intrigued at this notion of designer crap at Target, Target's Own Designer Crap, and I wanted to see what wonders sprang from having household things designed, rather than the kludgy practical things that our fathers and their fathers before them have known.

I finally found the Graves stuff, and was contemplating it when Niles showed up, having completed his hunter-gatherer rituals. I told him about Lileks and Graves and how these things were designed. "Who's Michael Graves?" he wanted to know. Not a clue, I told him, except I keep confusing him with Michael Grant (and Robert Graves).

Now, one of Niles's missions was to procure a toilet brush. Could there, perchance, have been a Michael Graves toilet brush? Niles didn't know, he just grabbed the cheapest one he found. So we went back to the toilet brushes, and it turns out, yes, there is a Michael Graves toilet brush. We stared at it in wonder. The secure rubber grip. The elegant vase-like holder. The discreet "lid" that tastefully hides the brush so that your guests will never suspect that you actually clean your toilet. Instead, they will see this sleek, modular thing and they'll be overcome with curiosity as to what it could be, pick it up, knock it over, and make a mess embarrassing all concerned.

"Well, look," Niles said, "The lid thingy will get in your way when you try to scrub, and probably break off inside a month, and closing it up means the water doesn't evaporate so that you'll start growing disgusting mold at the bottom. Aaaaand," he finished, delivering the coup de grace, "it's five and a half dollars more than the cheapie one I picked out. Let's go."

We also got to see the Michael graves poker set and the Michael Graves feather duster, but some how missed the Michael Graves beechwood banana hanger.

At dinner Niles and I discussed the cultural implications of designer toilet brushes. Do things work better when they're designed? Does it make your kitchen more efficient, or more beautiful, to have designer wooden spoons? Does it make you feel somehow better if they are all designed by the same sensibility, a sort of Western feng shui? What good is a beautiful kitchen, anyway? Eventually this got around to the day when refrigerators and stoves stopped being white and began to be harvest gold, avocado green, and coppertone, eventually evolving into almond. I supposed that colored appliances sprang from the growth of the middle class: before, either you were rich enough that you never worked inside your kitchen and didn't care what it looked like, or you were poor enough to find better things to do with the money than have pretty appliances.

(And you thought it was all a ploy of the Evil Corporate Robber Barons, didn't you? Hypnotizing housewives into spending money on nauseatingly-colored appliances rather than organic farming or clean water for India. Suuure, 1960s housewives agitated for ending world hunger, but the malevolent Frigidaire corporation whispered "dispenses crushed ice" into their ears and the world's little children were forgotten.)

Anyhow, I think this might be an aspect of the same phenomenon. Either that or the word "designer" just pushes some people's buttons.


Our other scheduled stop was Fry's. Before I moved to Australia I lived in Northern California, where there is a Fry's on practically every block (well, not really, but it seems that way). The one in Houston is fairly new. When I first got back to the US we went to Fry's, and I tried to pay my respects by prostrating myself in front of the altar. But Niles said it was just the checkout counter, and that I was embarrassing him, and dragged me away. Ahhhh, Fry's. Where else are you going to get a washing machine, Myst, a radio in the shape of a 1930's aircraft radio, ethernet cable in seven eye-catching colors, board games, O'Reilly books, Cheetohs, Jolt, and Fry's special coffee beans (no, really) with accompanying amaretto syrup (no, really).

In Sydney, when you wanted computer gunk you went to Harvey Norman. The Harvey Norman nearest me had a separate computer store. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald once mentioned Fry's, saying that Harvey Norman near me was the next best thing (in Sydney). Feh. I think the cafe at the Houston Fry's is the size of Harvey Norman's whole store. (And there wasn't any Harvey Norman special amaretto coffee syrup, either.)

Afterwards we went to Borders, which vies with Fry's for my own personal shopping temple. Niles bought a book by his former boss (no I will not link), which describes the history of their field. When I found him reading it in the store his first words were, "I'm not in it." I think he's relieved.

I bought an acre of book---regularly $60, on sale for $15---The Invisible Universe by David Malin. Worth $15 just for the photo of the Rho Ophiuchus region on the cover. In Australia this would have cost me over AU$100. Life is good.

Yes, I could have given that money to save the little children of Piconesia, but they put something in the coffee in Borders. I didn't drink it, but you don't have to; the fumes permeate every nook and cranny of the store, compelling you to Buy! Conform! Consume!