(Originally drafted in 2008)
I never was on time for Mom's Thanksgiving dinner. I'll spare you the guilt reducing stories of how that dinner was never on time either. The truth is I was usually late. Drivng there each year, I was presented the same distraction: "Alice's Restaurant." That's right- at 3:00 Chicago time, Arlo Guthie's 18 minute 34 second lyric dissertation on Thanksgiving, garbage removal, crime scene photography and the draft hit the air with a predictability I held sacred.
My parents had a copy of the album stowed away in their warm living room, but once I’d been in it for five minutes, there really was no point in getting out of the car until it was over! I’d sit at the curb, wearing down the car’s battery, anticipating every line. It held no surprises-I knew the song well – but, after a late holiday morning’s chaos spent hunting for an iron, pulling cat hair off my ‘good’ sweater, burning something in the kitchen, and breaking speed limits to get there, Arlo gave me a reason to sit still for a moment and ‘shift my consciousness,’ so to speak, before commencing with the celebration. Mom occasionally caught me, staring out through curtains. She’d send out one, or two, or all of my siblings to see what was what, but they’d end up joining me in the car until Arlo wrapped it up with the chorus- twice, of course.
Living in a different city, I still hear this song, which has become a widely held tradition- far beyond the curb of the street by Mom's house. It comes on at noon here, and is rarely an imposition on anyone's dinner expectations. Occasionally I forget and miss it. When I do, I feel like something is lacking in my Thanksgiving. In those former days, after Mom’s holiday feast, dessert, a round of turkey sandwiches and the washing of the dishes, I’d drive home while finding Christmas jingles and sales ads flooding the airwaves. That sudden shift towards generating a merry “Christmas Shopping Spirit,” often seemed contrary to my already satisfied mood. So at home, in the peaceful stillness, rather than studying the sales flyers and setting the clock radio for 4:00 am, I’d dig through my cassette tapes for more Guthrie music. It became an unlikely tradition of mine to stay up late and listen to him sing his father Woody’s, “1913 Massacre.”
I did get up early on Black Friday, once. I don't remember what drew me out of a warm bed in the dark of night. It was before the days when hundreds of others did the same, before the advent of CD players, flat screen TVs, high def, camera phones, personal computers, pods and pads, when apples and blackberries were pie fillings. Probably I'd gotten up early to shop because something I truly needed was being offered- like work slacks or shoes- necessity reduced to luxury, given the cash crunch of the season and all. I do remember sitting in my car, trying to stay warm, nervous when a scattering of other cars pulled into the lot before opening time. I watched them closely to see if their intentions were as mundane as my own or if they were up to no good at 5 am. What ever I'd gone there for, I must not have saved all that much money for the lack of common sense the venture seemed to require. I've never felt the urge to do it again. I have shopped on Black Friday, but at more wakeful hours- and just came to find it frustrating as marketing strategies evolved. The fantastically advertised “Door Busters” were sold out before I arrived, of course. If stores intended to let you sleep in for the holiday, there’d be no point in limiting the number of coveted items on hand! “Black Friday,” so dubbed by Philadelphia law enforcement for the overwhelming traffic congestion it caused, held little attraction for me. As I said, I preferred to begin the holiday season contemplating a gruesome song about a true event in that took place a long time ago.
“1913 Massacre” is about copper miners in Calumet, Michigan. They’d been involved in one of the longest strikes in the county, prompted by drastic job losses following the innovation of a drill. This new drill broke up three man teams- often family members who had previously worked together as a team. But it was Christmas Eve and these miners were having a party with their families, on the second floor of Italian Hall, when the scabs formed a mob outside:
"….Copper boss thugs put their head through the door,
One of ‘em yelled and screamed there's a fire,
A lady she hollered there's no such a thing,
Keep on with your party there's no such a thing.....
A Few people rushed, it was only a few,
‘It's just the scabs and the thugs foolin' you,’
A man grabbed his daughter and he carried her down,
But the thugs held the door and they could not get out......"
It's hard to imagine that the thugs and scabs set out to murder 59 children that day, however taut tensions were between them and the miners. One can imagine they weren't thinking much about children at all. Probably they meant to scare & intimidate- maybe get a few miners to come outside for a bit of knock down drag out. Possibly, they were thinking of their own families' needs, feeling pitted against the miners, competing for jobs. Were they fueled up by issues of religion or race?’ Did they long to erase a lingering image of a wife across the supper table, the subtle expressions of want and anxiety paling her face, while setting down the evening’s meal for their own innocent children? OR…was this “Citizens Alliance,” made up of company owned hit men on a job? Whatever their motivation was, we can imagine they built their egos up with ale and testosterone, as it is so frequently abundant in the formation of a mob- a necessary fill for that otherwise powerless space they occupied between the low-end miners and the corporate bosses.
What they did not do was set a fire. That's right- There was no fire. The thugs thought they were teasing within reason, given the stakes- just shaking the miners up with a little fear. They stayed the course when they got the response of panic they hoped for, holding the outward opening, double-doors closed. They weren't even fully aware of the injuries they had caused, laughing still, as the suffocating bodies piled up on the stairs behind the door: 73 people in all, including the previously mentioned children…
It's Black Friday, 2008. I had no intention of shopping. I'm sick, but content to be home with my kid...except that my husband's birthday is next week. In a rare act of verbalizing want, he actually offered up a wish to me: an MP3 player, and, no-- not an IPod-- just something with a FM radio, so he can catch the news on his bus commute from work. This does not have to be a big-ticket item. The problem is I know nothing about MP3 players, so I started researching them on line.
In minutes I found what he was looking for- surprisingly inexpensive ones, too! And then I found even better ones with awesome features, stylin' colors, and fabulous Black Friday discount prices! Amazing. Even though I’d slept in, I just had to do some comparisons, figure out which one before the day’s sales ended, punch in my numbers and cool- I could get a great deal and really give him something much more than he expected- something, um... special!
And then I heard the news....
….The news about a 34 year old temp worker at Walmart, trampled to death when hundreds of shoppers hoping, also, to purloin something special, broke through the doors just a minute before opening, all fired up with that ever so intoxicating, “Christmas Shopping Spirit.” It’s time for truth here- tell me that sort of bubbly feeling isn’t perhaps, something closer to fear? I’d like to imagine that most of them didn't even know what they had done, even as the reports say plenty of them just got mad about the inconvenience of a man smashed on the tile floor.
I shut down my computer. I know Jim will graciously accept which ever gift I can afford to buy on ‘No Deals Tuesday.’ I just promised myself I’d never again shop on Black Friday in person or on line, because this is not a rare occurence. There are such stories every year, of some horrific violence or another at a mall in some American city on the day after Thanksgiving. Every year. But this year, it seems ever more biting:
A temp, trying to make ends meet, maybe trying
stave off the debt collectors until he finds another job for one he just lost,
maybe trying to make a little more cash for the holidays…
to pay off those unexpected doctor bills,
and fix the old car
or maybe to keep his home….
A little man, determined to get by, not unlike the rest of us,
takes a little job at Walmart…..
And Walmart, determined to stay in business and make billions by what ever means, as usual…..
And us toyed with to keep jobs in the market and feed the economy as we empty our pocket books,
hoping to beat out the other guy and get a good deal...
Well? Who among us yelled,
Do we need Thanksgiving? With Xmas decorations and hype decking the stores as soon the Halloween candy goes into clearance bins; ready made feasts waiting to be picked up at the grocery store; TIvo for the games; and stores opening before anyone wants seconds on pie- Why bother? It’s hardly patriotic, interrupting us from our obligation spend and spend (or for some to work and work) and put Walmart and friends in the back in black. Even if we’ve disposed with that fallacy, it’s hard to know what will be worse for our future, spending or not spending. As I face the loss of my job soon, I admit I want some holiday miracles, too.
It IS a very old tradition, this business of gifting in the darkest days of winter. Here’s another Solstice story, based on research, written with liberties:
It is dark. Really dark. Even as you did this task some days ago, there was still a dim light. Now it's dark and bitter cold, too, but you let go of the flap of fur against your face so that you can open the door and carry in the firewood under your other arm. The children have eaten and your wife is tucking them under piles of hides and pelts in your common winter bed. Just in time- the hearth contains only darkly glowing coals. You build up the flames and in the brightening flickers you find yourself mesmerized by her face. She looks healthy- a little thinner than she should, but her eyes are bright and lively. She was sick just weeks ago- the children, too- but she’s better now. So far, you've kept your health. On the other side of the glen, your brother, Togh’s family was sick like yours. The mother of your brother’s wife died, but the rest made it through okay. You remember with a gruff sigh how you found the Elk commune last year. It was after the longest deep freeze you have ever lived through and food was hard to find. Five days up the river, hunting with Togh on the slate ridge below the mountains you approached the friendly village in hopes of shelter and trade and stories to share. Instead, the stench was awful, attracting all manners of scavengers. You found the shell bracelet – a gift from your wife to your sister. Her bones lay indistinguishable amidst the dragged about and scattered remains. It wasn’t illness or food poisoning, you sadly remind yourself. The mass of dried wood pulp and mud in cooking pots and the scarcity of hides is all the explaining you need. Fifty bodies from 12 shelters, maybe more? It’s hard to tell, but no one there was alive.
Now, here by the warm fire, you find yourself tallying the stores in your head- the smoked fish, the fowl, the calf, the frozen bear hocks hanging in the tree behind the sod covered hut. It’s enough meat, you think. Jnord family around the knell below Togh’s place has stores of apples this year. You met him and his family returning from his cousin’s land in the south. All of his clan carried or dragged hides full of the juicy treasures. Jnord will need meat. Your family will need fruit. Togh has a caged boar, oil, maybe some pine nuts and dried berries, too. It will get darker still before the sun returns. You know it will, but for a second it gives you pause. When will spring come? Three moons or four? Or five?
It makes a difference.
When the sun can only touch the three peaks on the southern horizon of your world, it will be the darkest night. All the families along the river will come together and feast. You will slaughter the calf, you think, and bring it to be shared- some fish too. The image of starved offspring haunt your thoughts and you shudder. Maybe it is better to keep the calf for your family, but as soon as you think this, you know it isn’t. It, too, has a mouth wanting to be fed. Besides, that one family that keeps to themselves all winter, hiding their food- they seem to suffer for it, with dull witted kids, bleeding sores, illness and missing teeth. You will give and share at the Solstice. Everyone is healthier for it and good will comes in handy when the thaw is slow to come.
Yes, this tradition is so much older than Christmas- older than Hanakkah and other winter holidays, too. Indeed-with evidence traced back to over 12,000 years, Winter Solstice may be the first, the oldest holiday. You might consider its associated gifting as an inherited human survival strategy! Think on Hanakkuh for just a second. It can be summed up as: “Man, we looked everywhere and found were we short of oil! It was going to be so dark, but what do you know- we had enough, after all. There was light and it was good.”
Before you allow them to prey on your very human fears- before you take the bait and go shopping, look around yourself! Consider what you have already and allow yourselves to be satisfied! It is the best antidote to fear. Could it be that when we don’t bother to reflect on darkness that proceeds the return of light, with humility and gratitude, we risk inflicting our suffering on to others? There is little doubt today, that we are all capable of inflicting despair. For at least one family in Long Island now, there will always be a shadow of despair this time of year, when the phrase “Door Buster,” falls with Autumn’s leaves, littering their newspapers and mail boxes.
I suppose you’ll write me off now if I suggest we grab a friend or two, go into the nearest Walmart, and sing a line from “1913 Massacre,” and walk out. If you’re willing, though, try this slightly rephrased one:
“The people, they cried and the shoppers they moaned,
‘See what our greed for money has done!”
Perhaps with all the trouble in India this week (and elsewhere), our own financial troubles and wishes for the holidays, Jdimytai Damour’s inconvenient death is small potatoes to be forgotten, along with the leftovers, before the weekend is out. Still I find myself wondering if that Walmart, which reopened at 1:00 this afternoon, is at least allowing a candlelight vigil, or a space to pile roses and impromptu offerings pulled out from the lint-line depths of coat pockets of passers by. It's not a new idea for some, to turn Black Friday into, "Buy Nothing Day." But with all things being recently reconsidered by the larger population, perhaps, this idea's time has truly come. Better still, to turn this black day into a day of reflection with good deeds and community works. Is it too much to hope for, even yet? Can there be no social revolution?
I'm going to go dig up my Arlo recording. Undoubtedly, I’ll have to dig deeper for an archaic machine on which to play the stretched out gritty tape. When I do, I’ll listen silently to my personal little reminder to take a pause, to remain grateful for what is, and be humble as we approach the solstice. And maybe then, I’ll say a little 'prayer' for all of us…
with feeling and four-part harmony…
“You can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant
You can get anything you want- At Alice’s restaurant
Walk right in – it’s around the back
Just a half a mile from the railroad track
You can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant
(Bada bada bada da da)
At Alice’s Restaurant…”