Sunday, 14 December 2008

Corporate Touchstones

The only thing I was armed with upon beginning this journey was two pieces of advice:

Don’t panic.
Always have a towel.

These two pearls of wisdom, along with the idea that I am, at this moment in time, the answer to the universe, come from Douglas Adam’s brilliant Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. Maybe humourous, satirical sci-fi isn’t your thing. Even so, therein lies some good advice.

Yes, unlike Elizabeth Gilbert, I embarked on this journey with no safety net. No savings, no book deal, no lump sum of cash, no credit lines. Just me and what I had in my pockets, my two suitcases, my hard drive, and my brain. My friend K. and I were discussing this concept last night. I love Eat, Pray, Love, but it is a very cushy way to “transform” your life. I’m not recommending my way – if you have all the comfort of cash and credit, by all means take advantage of them. But there is letting go, and then there is letting go.

So far, what I have needed is the above advice and an unbelievably strong network of people who step forward in various ways at exactly the right moment. Some of them are long-time friends, some are strangers. Like the people at Cross Kings who made sure I ate, even if I didn’t actually have any money. Or the people who opened their homes to me when I needed places to stay. Four months into this journey, I am not dead. That is pretty much a miracle. I have met people who have enriched me in ways I cannot describe. I have walked streets that have sent their energy and stories up through the soles of my shoes so I could carry them to new places.

In this city, I am a tourist most of the time when it comes to consumerism. Today I went to the Columbia Road Flower Market armed with nothing to spend. Down to my last 2 pounds, I was not about to spend them in frivolity. But somehow, then, the experience of the market and the people became the point. The smells of Christmas in pine needles and citrus and cinnamon; the calls of hawkers trying to get rid of their wares before closing – so many cries of 5 pound, 5 pound, that in one shop, a little girl was saying out loud ot herself “five pound, five pound…”

The shops on the road are wonderful, too. Yes, I wanted battered shrimp in a little cup from a windown onto the street for 2.50 and yes I wanted tea and cupcakes and mince pies. But you can’t always get what you want.

I went into Ryantown. The first time I came upon the work of Robert Ryan was on the cover of John Connelly’s wonderful The Book of Lost Things. He has a store on Columbia Road filled with his simple, mystical designs. Even just being in there, without the possibility of buying things, was precious.

So what is the possibility of buying things? What is this feeling? What does it do to us? Is it the whole hunter-gatherer thing? Is it status? Is it tactile? Would I have felt different on my journey back had I accumulated bags and bags of things?

Sure, I had no money – but it is Christmas. So I imagination shopped. I bought everyone presents as I saw them. For George and Alisha, there was a mirror dish, like the mirror box I got Alisha for her birthday last year that she liked better than the gift that came in it. There were flower shaped tea lights for entertaining and a book for writing for George. For May there were fantastic mugs. For the Isabella Road crew, there were funny spatulas. They have no spatulas. For Patricia – reindeer earrings. Everyone’s gift logged and registered, if not purchased and given. And do they need more things? Or are they happy as they are?

Martine is having the dilemna of possessions, and she has barely had much time to accumulate them. They are already constricting her movements, plans and freedoms. What is enough? What is too much?

There was a homeless man on the road. Sitting. Waiting for grace. That is not enough. But where is the line between that kind of not enough and adequate…good…excess. We seem unable to grapple with it.

When I got to the UK, I was so comforted by the existence of Woolworth’s. I don’t think there are any more in the U.S. The site of much time spent in childhood, Woolworth’s was the home of Nana’s thread and needles, and replacement zippers and shoelaces, of tuna sandwiches with potato chips at the low counter on the red swirling stools and getting lost in the aisles. I went in one, and found it to be mostly candy (ah, perhaps that’s why I loved it so much as a kid), and a lot of stuff no one really needs. But way in the back, a pretty good and remarkably cheap few rows of housewares. I was thinking if I had a kitchen, I could outfit it pretty fast and cheaply and nicely with not much cash.

Since then, Woolworth’s has declared bankruptcy. It seems that they will close all the stores. The one at Hackney Central has been having a huge sale. Or at least they profess to be having a huge sale. I went in to find a notebook. I cannot seem to keep myself in paper and pens. Notebooks are pretty overpriced. I found a book that I liked that seemed like it would be about 2 pounds last week. I then waited on line for about 20 minutes to pay for it. I stood amongst people trying to gather holiday decorations and gifts, people buying games and DVD’s and kids trying to get as much candy up the aisle and to the checkout before their moms could veto it as possible.

People talked while waiting. Woolworth’s is just a store. An old store, sure, but just a retail chain. But it’s as much a part of lives as Seinfeld or X-Factor, or Sunday dinners. How, when, why do we attach so much sentiment to retail establishments?

Walking to the bus stop the other day, a woman pushing a stroller stopped me. She said something I couldn’t understand. I asked her to repeat it. She uttered it again. And then finally, through her accent and her uncertainty in English, I heard it, “P-r-i-m-a-rk.”

If you don’t know, Primark is a chain of stores here not unlike a strange hybrid of Target and Forever 21. But cheaper. Much, much cheaper. Guilt-riddenly cheap.

As she uttered “Primark” plaintively I was moved to gesture that it was just through the Churchyard, that she was almost there, that she couldn’t possibly miss it. We did not really share English, or anything else, but we shared the language of consumerism. We shared Primark.

We continued walking in the same direction, when I realized the time and checked my phone. After 6pm.

“Ohhhhh,” I exclaimed. She turned. “I think Primark closes at 5!” I was horrified for her.

She shook her head. “Okay….meet…friend.”

Ah – she was not on a retail quest today, just meeting a friend at our new kind of cultural touchstone.

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