the mad shoppers

When my son left for California to take a Masters degree in Fine Arts, he left behind a garage full of sculptures and endless boxes of items he couldn’t take with him but wouldn’t throw out. There’s a universal rule when it comes to garage space: the amount of belongings necessary to fill it up will appear. The sculpture was one thing–well, half a dozen, actually, all angles and iron with sharp corners that tore clothing which came closer than six inches–but then my nephew arrived from Manitoba to go to horticultural school. He didn’t bring much with him. A stereo, a truck and a girlfriend. But then he started getting customers and the customers, trying to be good to him, gave him things. A lawn mower here, a light table there. There had to be some place to put it. So it went into the garage. Then there was the potting soil and the pots and the tarpaulins and after his mother turned up and took me and my credit card shopping, a pile of beat up furniture that was being replaced.

My nephew’s mother, my sister-in-law that is, is a terrifying shopper. She moved from a village on the edge of not much to the city and found her metier. It’s shopping. Of course, she had a mentor. My father was a shopper from hell. If given half a chance, he’d buy things out of other people’s shopping carts. Once, after he’d had a few drinks and was walking home, he met a man on a bicycle. In the basket were two baby goats–I’d say kids but most people nowadays know nothing about goats and would think I was talking about his children. The goat transporter was transporting his goats to Winnipeg Beach where he had a buyer. My father gave him five dollars for the goats. He proudly brought them home to show my mother. She was aghast. We lived in town, on a town lot and she’d never owned a pet, never mind goats. She sent him back to find the man on the bicycle. It cost him another five dollars to get the owner to take them back.

Once, he and my sister-in-law went shopping in Winnipeg without my mother. It was a dangerous situation. Their favourite haunt was a salvage company just off highway 59. You never knew what would be there. Whatever disaster might bring. Fire or flood. Train wrecks. Bankruptcies. Some weeks it was furniture. Another time groceries. This time it was paint. A dollar a gallon. There was an entire semi-trailer load. They were on the verge of buying it when my father remembered the goats and thought he should check with my mother first. There were no returns at the salvage yard.

“A dollar a gallon,” my father said to my mother when he got home. “Think of the price of paint. We’ll make a fortune. There’s a thousand gallons. We buy it at one dollar a gallon and sell it for…” His words faded away as he calculated a fortune. “Do you know what paint sells for nowadays?” he asked.

“No,” my mother said. She’s a woman who doesn’t mince words.

“Why not buy it?” he pleaded. “Why pass up an opportunity?”

She told me later she had visions of one thousand gallons of paint stacked in our backyard, slowing rusting away. My father is a great buyer but not much of a seller. He’s more inclined to hoard things. Like the papers in the basement. Boxes of them. Piles of them. Cupboards full of them. Waiting for the day when he might need something they contain. They’re not cross indexed, they’re not indexed, they’re not even organized by date.

My sister-in-law was out to beat him at his own game. She once saw a coat on sale at a really good price so she bought twelve. In different colors. One for each day of the week and five for special occasions. They hang on a rack beside the thirty-six plaid shirts she got for ninety-nine cents apiece.

Me, I’m the other way. I throw things out with abandon. Stuff comes in the front door and goes out the back door so fast that when my parents visit me, they sometimes have to rescue the daily paper from the recycling bin in order to read the news. I’m also a procrastinator when it comes to buying anything. I like to take my time thinking about a purchase. It once took me two years to pick out a suit.

My sister-in-law came to visit for a week and asked if I’d bought new furniture for my study. I said I was still thinking about it.

That was a year ago” she said. “Get your credit card.”

She dragged me through Standard Furniture, Office Depot, The Bay, Eaton’s, The Brick, the government salvage store then, when I thought we’d exhausted all the possibilities, barked out directions to Victoria Book and Stationary.

“Too expensive,” I said. “Going there is a waste of time.”

Six feet inside the door, before I’d had a chance to prove my point with one of their sticker prices, she’d confronted a sales clerk. The clerk snapped to attention. Sales clerks know real shoppers when they see one. Or smell one. Shoppers have a plastic, credit card smell about them that’s unmistakable to the trained nose.

“We’re moving,” the clerk said, “and all our staff’s furniture is on sale for half price.”

So there I was going from office to office, looking at furniture at which some hapless employee was working.

“Do you like that?” my sister-in-law said, pointing to a gray desk.

“I guess so,” I said.

“Good,” she said. “Guess so means he thinks it’s great. We’ll take it.”

We bought a corner desk, a matching filing cabinet, book shelves, a matching table, a longer matching table, a room divider. She harried the clerk into the warehouse where the clerk wheeled chairs past us at startling speed until we found one that matched.

Then we went to Standard Furniture where she made them show us every rattan couch on the premises. I bought one.

“My credit card’s run out,” I said when I saw her eyeing a chesterfield and chair. She didn’t approve of the three love seats I have in the living room, I bought them off some guys lawn for three hundred apiece. You sort of need to know where to sit on them to avoid the springs but other than that they’re okay.

“Next year,” she said as she snapped off delivery orders. “Single men,” she said as she gave me a disgusted look. “What a hopeless lot.”