At the mall the other day, all the parking spaces were full by nine in the morning. All the tables were in use at the food court. All the cell phone sales kiosks in the center aisle were besieged by customers who wanted more daytime and evening minutes, plus rollovers, and no roaming. And absolutely, they had to have a built-in digital camera, MP3 player, and e-mail and web access. Post-purchase, lovely young women from neighboring kiosks, offering manicures to complement the new phones, chased frightened, grey-haired male shoppers.
All the checkout lines were long. They reminded me of the lines you stand in at the airport waiting to check in for your flight, pushing your bags along the floor, sometimes ducking under the dividing rope, striking up conversations with the shufflers ahead and behind you. But, unlike the airport, no matter how long the mall checkout lines were, no one was going anywhere.
The bookstore didn't have the books I was looking for. At the music store, looking for CDs by singers or bands whose names sounded like the inventory at the NAPA auto parts store, I asked the help of kids who resembled the musicians pictured on the CD cases. The kids, wearing more earrings than ears and hair the color of Christmas itself, turned out to know everything needed to help a bewildered shopper, including where each CD could be found. One salesgirl, dressed entirely in chains and with an engagingly subversive air, whispered, Just download it, sir.
The young woman checking us out said she couldn't guarantee to disarm all the anti-shoplifting alarms on the things we'd bought. When you have a boxed set of DVDs, disarming the barcode on the box won't do the trick. You have to disarm each of the discs in the box. That means taking the plastic wrap off. It takes forever, and sometimes it doesn't even work.
As she explained this, the alarm sounded repeatedly at the entrance to the store. People walked out, set off the alarms, threw up their arms in exasperation and stomped off. How can you tell who's stealing and who's not, I asked. Good question, she said, smiling blindingly.
At the mall, nobody gift-wraps. Not in the stores anyway. You can go to a gift-wrapping kiosk and stand in line. And surprisingly, although no one goes to the mall expecting to be reminded of the holiness of Christmas, the lines of shoppers aspiring to gift-wrapping looked like the members of a Christmas congregation lined up in the nave waiting to take communion.
And everyone is on the phone. In the stores, in the dressing rooms - they talk on the phone with their friends, snap and transmit digital photos of the potential new outfit, and ask, What do you think, will Tommy like me in this? They talk as they walk from store to store - Do you think mother would like those fur earmuffs, or is she against fur? Sally has put on so much weight, what do you think her size is in jeans? I can't find anything for dad, I can't give him socks again. No, of course I'm not at the mall, when I call in sick, I'm sick.
I'm merry anyway because today I'll shop the malls that are downtown Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown. No parking issues. Everyone gift-wraps. No shoplifting. Mulled cider and eggnog on offer. Carolers under the Linden Tree. (Actually, there's no Linden Tree anymore, but it doesn't matter to the carolers.) No cellphones, except for visiting college students who caught the disease off-Island and summer residents spending Christmas at their Vineyard places.
You don't need to phone anyway, because if you're wondering if the sweater fits, your neighbor who is shopping at the same store will tell you - Sorry, dear, but I'd go another size bigger. And if you're wondering what to get, the store's owner will say, She was in yesterday, and she was admiring the vase with the fluted top.
As for holiness, you can't escape it. In each of these busy town centers, there's a church around nearly every corner or up many of the streets. Take your denominational choice, or not. Buy a CD, do the Stations of the Cross. Buy a sweater, pop into choir practice. Buy that vase, say happy holidays to the rabbi, or Merry Christmas to the minister shopping nearby. 'Tis that season, after all. Merry whatever.