Berlin, Creative Writing

I Shopped at Primark. And Lived.

July 23, 2015

In America, we have this horrible tradition called Black Friday. It used to start the day after Thanksgiving (and thus, lo and behold, a Friday). But more recently, it has crept into the Thursday Thanksgiving Day festivities. Every year, stores outdo each other in the race to start the holiday sales that much earlier than the competition. I like to think of it as “Oh God, It’s Hurry and Chow Down Your Turkey Because We Have To Go Wait In Line and Hold In Every Ounce of Pee Until Our Bladders Explode Thursday.”

Apparently, big box stores like Walmart and Macy’s have decided that their employees no longer deserve to enjoy tryptophan-induced post-feast comas and Dallas Cowboy games (okay, I’m with them on the latter). Instead, people queue up hours in advance so as to dare not miss out on two-year old LCD TV models and 500-pack baby wipes, risking life and limb in the process. Shoppers make “friends” with each other, all the while (I’m in Europe now, so whilst) sizing one another up to see who they need to trample to get to the latest Adam Sandler DVD first.

It has since spread to other countries because, well, what are the holidays without some good-ol’ American-style bitch-slapping in other assorted currencies. It seems it wasn’t enough for other countries to just import episodes of The Big Bang Theory.

As a kid, I loved Black Friday. Maybe it was nostalgia. Maybe it was the lack of blood spatter on the floor. But I can recall my mother bundling us up and all excitedly getting on the train to meet my father in Center City Philadelphia to watch the wonderful Wanamaker’s Christmas Light Show. It was a treat and I honestly don’t recall seeing women smacking each other across the face to grab the last fuchsia, lime, and teal scarf in the bin. (Oh, who am I kidding? Greed is as old as the apple in Eden. And the Apple store when a new iPhone is released.)

Why am I reminiscing about Black Friday in mid-July? One word. Primark. A store where it seems it’s Black Friday every day. Like a bargain shopper’s Groundhog Day (yeah, I mixed two stupid annual events in one post).

When I prepared the move to Berlin a few months ago, I was limited as to how much clothes to bring. So I figured I would get by for awhile and slowly buy new clothes. But one pair of jeans wasn’t going to last long. And I knew that it’s expensive to buy clothes in Europe. It’s why most Europeans visit the U.S. with two empty suitcases and fill it like, well, like it’s Black Friday.

Then I saw this store called Primark at Alexanderplatz. I knew nothing of this place and thought it was probably another high-end store with €90 Levis. Oh contraire, grasshopper.

It was the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the week. I had just said “no way” to the €110 jeans at Galeria Kaufhof (Okay I exaggerate. It was €109), the lousy selection at C&A and the assortment of “mom jeans” at TK Maxx. On the other side of the plaza, I saw the sign for Primark. Then I started to notice all the brown Primark shopping bags. So I had to see what this place was about.

In I walked and was immediately hit with a claustrophobic’s nightmare (I’m not claustrophobic but this put me to the test). It was a sea of people carrying items, tossing items, grabbing items. This visual assault was quickly followed by the violation of the olfaction, the pungent odor of…people. This place makes the Walmart in Panorama City, CA seem like Bloomingdales. Yeah, I’ve been there once. I repeat, I’ve been there once.

My immediate reaction was, “oh hell no.” But before I turned to leave I began to notice the price tags. Shirts for eight euros, trousers for ten euros (I’ve learned that using “pants” here can cause snickers as they are the male version of knickers–see what I did there?). Still, I didn’t let the prices overrule these pervasive attacks on my senses and I high-tailed it out of there.

A few days later I found myself back at Alexanderplatz. This time it was in the evening and it was shortly before closing time for the department stores. My eyes locked on the blue Primark sign once again. It beckoned like the call of the siren. Thoughts of twelve euro jeans racing through my mind. Maybe it would be different now that it was so close to closing. Maybe those of the odorous persuasion were long gone for the day, happy to have purchased an entire new wardrobe for under fifty euros.

With a deep breath (mainly to delay the possible oncoming odor), I entered the arena once again. It was crowded but at least one could actually navigate the aisles without squeezing through a mass of sweaty bodies. I wanted to yell, “I am Spartacus!” And the aroma? Well, let’s say it was…uh, better (less worse?). Either that or my last foray permanently burned away some of my ability to distinguish different tiers of stink (See what I did again? Tiers of stink? Tears of stink? Never mind).

Still, I didn’t want to spend too much time here. And fortunately, the clock was ticking to closing time. Down into the dungeon of the mens department I descended.

And there they were. Chinos of assorted colors for only €10 and jeans for €12. I quickly grabbed a few pairs and went to try them on, being careful not to pull on any threads lest they unravel into one giant ball of thread. It was actually a relief to go into the dressing room–an oasis of calm in a sea of calamity. Didn’t smell much better, but what can you do? Okay, good fit. Now let’s pay and get the hell out of here.

And thus I was able to double my trouser supply for a mere €32.

Once I left the store I started to do the math in my head. A pair of chinos for €10. Let’s be all hypothetical and say Primark buys them from the manufacturer for €6 per pair, making a €4 profit. Now out of that €6 — stay with me here — the manufacturer probably makes about a 50% profit. Now we’re down to €3 for overhead–equipment, materials, etc. That means their employees are being paid, per pair, about…okay, slaves made the jeans I just purchased.

Had I just contributed to the endless cycle of world poverty? Should I find a find a Bangladeshi restaurant and order extra portions so they could send some money back home? (And is that racist? Because it seems everything that is said is racist these days. If it is, I will issue my apology like everyone else – on Twitter.).

But this is what happens when we see a bargain. Our basal instinct takes over and damn the consequences. We’re irrational. We don’t think things through. Do we care about slave labor when we’re trying on €10 trousers? Do we care when harried employees have given up their family holiday? No, it’s quite the opposite. We brag about the deal we just found. Then we turn around and look for the next one. It’s a trap we continually fall into.

Like Black Friday.


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