Multicultural Man WILL SELF visits an LA shopping complex and reflects on why you don’t know consumerism until you’ve been.
At the Beverly Center, our small raiding party advances across the ground floor of the Macy’s men’s store. Not the Macy’s women’s store – we’ve already ascended to that, and drawn a blank: no, the concession we seek – for Vans sneakers – isn’t in their heavily-gendered half, but the other one.
Furthermore, the men’s store has its own elevator system – so if we want to access it, we have to return to the hated ground, which all true Los Angelenos avoid being contaminated by, as if they were devout Brahmins, rather than devilish materialists. Yes, the hated ground – which is really just the necessary plane upon which they roll about in their giant, yet infantile looking cars.
Yes – you think you understand consumerism, after all, you’ve been consuming all your life – like some sort of whale, sucking up great salty drafts of the world, and filtering out the £9.99 special offer krill; but trust me, you don’t know consumerism until you’ve seen one of the gargantuan American malls. Even the legendary indoor ski slopes of Dubai – which I’ve shivered at the sight of – look positively restrained when set beside the enormity of the Beverly Center. Occupying a weird scooped-out wedge of space between La Cienega and San Vincente boulevards, 3rd Street and Beverly Boulevard, it’s eight storeys of so-called ‘luxury’ shopping – which, in truth, covers everything from snob Mexican eateries where the burrito is reinvented in a ‘fast casual’ ambience, to Uniqlo, Macy’s, and the elusive Vans concession.
Our mistake was, of course, to simply rock up, park, and hope to find it – when what we should’ve done is to plan the raid exhaustively in advance. You think you know multi-storey car parks? You think you’ve experienced the full horror of concrete, rubber and carbon monoxide configured as an architectural style? Trust me – you can cite Get Carter all you like, but what makes the parking garages of the big American malls quite so terrifying is not the alienation of their vast decks, but how very domestic they are. Here is a culture in which it remains good to drive. Morally good – and the giant parking garages of the Beverly Center evince this ethic, with their spotless ramps and immaculate balustrades. And of course, the link between driving and buying is indissoluble.
Shopping is serious in America – shopping is what has forged the Promethean bargain whereby we get to burn all the earth’s bounty of stored energy, in return for choking to death on our own tailpipes. Moreover, the selling-of-shopping (which some call ‘marketing’, others ‘commercialism’), is arguably America’s very own popular culture – far more significant than the Blues, or Country & Western: it’s a massed moan of ‘I wanna!’ and ‘I ain’t gotta!’, that you can hear being emitted by every radio and television, and see played out across the very skyline of her great cities, in the form of over-lit billboards, and vast VDU screens, wide-casting the good n’ shiny news.
To berate the Americans for this – even their evilly high-earning CEOs – is simply absurd. And yes, I mean you, Ms Klein, who’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, in fact changes nothing while it’s being retailed for £8.02 – discounted from £10.99 – on Amazon, thereby further lining Jeff Bezos’s already grotesquely swollen pockets. Which are what I’m conscious of in Macy’s: the pockets of the plaid jackets hanging from the rails – and the deep pockets of silence in between those rails; for, at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon – when you’d expect at least a few punters – the place is empty. All this woolly shmatte is huddled up on its hangers, and played upon by chilly zephyrs jetting from the store’s air con.
And it’s this, surely, which makes the whole bonfire of our vanities so very easy to contemplate: it’s massive superfluity – yes, there may be people without a pot to piss in right outside – let alone in Africa; but here at the Beverly Center the West’s illusion of never-ending progress is reconfigured as clever merchandising – truly, the perp’ walk of late capitalism, the slow shuffle past the brand names that shame us.
Eventually, we reach a desk manned by a couple of oddballs out of a Coen brothers film, one egg-headed and beaming; the other smirking through a whimsical grey beard and upswept moustaches, his eyes coddled by round gold-wire-framed specs. Both wear plaid waistcoats. I ask after the Vans concession, and Greybeard explains that it isn’t, in fact, in this store-within-a-store, but back up on the eighth where we’ve come from.
“Oh, man!” I cry, “that’s so far – I’ll probably die before I get there.”
“I’m older than you,” Greybeard replies, affably, “so I’ll probably die first.”
“Well,” I call back cheerily, as we head for the exit, “I really hope you don’t, ’cause if you do you’ll be there in Hades waiting…” The rest is in an undertone “to fucking sell me something.”