Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lost in the Aisles

Into the Labyrinth

Stop fucking with my amygdala, you bastards...

(Wherein your faithful -- if increasingly cranky -- correspondent wanders far off the Hollywood reservation to foam at the mouth about one of the many indignities that plague modern life.)

Other than a few choice walking neighborhoods crowded with restaurants and retail outlets – or out at the beach -- you don’t see too many people ambulating on two legs here in LA. Yes, there's the occasional power-walking babe grimly marching towards the cultural/media-mandated ideal of the Perfect Feminine Form to the beat of her Ipod, along with the usual solitary dog-walkers, most of whom hold the leash in one hand and a brand new Smart Phone in the other. The dog -- along with the rest of the living, breathing world -- is utterly ignored in favor that shiny little electronic bauble. Although I see something like this every day, it never ceases to astonish me. LA might be enjoying the most gorgeous day in creation, with so much to see all around, but these too-hip young zombies remain hypnotized by that little glowing screen.

Other than these Walking Dead, the cliche pretty much holds true:, “Nobody walks in LA”

What you do see are lots (and LOTS) of cars on the roads. Granted, each vehicle is piloted by an individual person, but once strapped in behind the wheel, he/she ceases being human and morphs into a kind of automotive cyborg -- a bio-mechanical interface between the human amygdala and the gas pedal.

You've heard of the amygdala: buried in the deepest recesses of the brain, this nasty, paranoid little gland is a fight-or-flight remnant from the very early days of evolution, when the most terrifying primordial monsters imaginable ruled our blood-soaked earth. To quote the WiseGeek:

“The amygdala is most commonly associated with the emotions of fear and anxiety... It is also associated with the emotion of pleasure, though mainly in a negative sense, i.e., the pleasure sometimes inherent in aggression.”

That explains why otherwise pleasant, normal people become bloodthirsty psychopaths behind the wheel -- they actually get off on it -- but this information comes as no real surprise to anybody who has braved the wild and woolly streets of LA aboard a motorcycle or bicycle. As one with extensive experience on two wheels here in Smogtown (and who recently emerged the bloodied, limping loser in a bicycle vs. car conflict), I know firsthand what it's like to be a butterfly among the herd of rampaging buffaloes. Accordingly, I've learned the importance of using those brief lulls in the automotive shit-storm -- traffic windows, I call them -- when there are fewer cars on the road. The best of these windows opens during the two hours between 10 a.m. and noon, after the morning crush and before the lunch hour stampede. Another window opens briefly in the early afternoon, but that one is considerably dodgier than the morning hours. After 3 p.m.? Forget it. I'd rather stick to the relative safety of walking than tempt fate by riding a bicycle on the street as rush hour ramps up towards a full adrenal frenzy.*

With late morning the only reasonably safe time slot to hit the streets around here, I wheeled out towards the local drug store a few weeks back. The sudden onslaught of a strange malady required certain pharmaceuticals not normally found in my medicine cabinet. Given that I felt so lousy, I had no choice but to try the nearest drugstore, an outpost of the bland-but-odious chain known on the West Coast as "Rite Aid."

I've never liked Rite Aid, which swallowed up the old Thrifty Drugstores of my youth. Thrifty was hardly a Paradise on Earth, but at least they carried a number of products that actually worked as advertised. Rite Aid seems to take a more modern approach, cramming the shelves with ostensibly cheaper crap that doesn't work as well.

This seems to be the definition of "progress" in today's America, where everything gets worse for all the little people while some corporate sociopath who lives in a gated community several thousand miles away grows fatter and richer by the day.

The original Rite Aid was bad enough -- really, it was just a re-branded Thrifty with poorer consumer choices -- but a recent major remodeling created a "new and improved" store that in reality was immeasurably worse. The first time I went in, I ended up wandering around like a dazed puppy trying (and failing) to find the various items on my list. After a while, I realized I was lost.

Yes, I got lost in a fucking Rite Aid -- for a few minutes there, I could not find the checkout counters to escape. And as I later realized, that was no accident.

Rather than give these Servants of Satan my money, I avoided Rite Aid from that day on, going the extra mile or three to another bland-but-not-quite-so-odious chain drugstore that didn't piss me off quite so much. But that was under normal circumstances. My recent situation was most definitely abnormal, so I swallowed my pride, girded my mental loins, and ventured forth to Rite Aid.

Walking through the doors under the big blue and white sign, I stopped to take a good look at the layout of the aisles. That's when it hit me: the store had been designed along the lines of a Native American fish trap -- easy to enter, but hard to get out. The older stores were laid out in a traditional grid pattern of hard 90 degree angles, so that a customer always knew where he/she was in relation to the front doors and checkout counters. But in a modern Rite Aid, the customer is immediately confronted by a dizzying array of aisles going off at soft diagonals to the left and right. It's oh-so-easy easy to wander down one of these aisles, where all those diagonals tend to keep you moving ever forward, down one aisle, then the next, and the next. The extra-tall aisles are impossible to see over, inducing a certain dazed confusion. A confused customer is an anxious human being -- and once we become anxious, we're right where the modern corporate retail Goliath wants us. Americans have been trained from birth to buy consumer goods as a means of easing ease our existential anxiety. When knocked off-kilter, we often feel a need to buy something -- anything -- to fill the suddenly yawning void inside and temporarily restore a sense of order to our universe. If we can't find what we want, we end up wanting what we find. Lost and anxious in the diabolically clever labyrinth of Rite Aid, it's all too easy to grab items you never intended to buy on the way in. A short shopping list for Aspirin, toothpaste, and bar soap can easily morph into a half-full shopping cart by the time the hapless customer finally stumbles upon the distant checkout counters -- counters that are so hard to find because Rite Aid wants it that way.

They're fucking with the customer's amygdala, hacking into our ancient evolutionary circuitry to goad us into buying more Rite Aid crap.

I've got no problem with a business making a decent profit -- without profit, we'd all be living in mud huts chewing Taro root and cactus for dinner, then choking down fried cockroaches for dessert -- but I really hate being manipulated in such a basic, subconscious manner.

That's why I've come to despise Rite Aid -- their entire business plan has been painstakingly calculated to poke a sharp stick into my reptilian brain, and thus herd me off the cliff of mass consumerism with all the other confused, anxious lemmings.

Finally aware of their dirty little tricks, I got out of that bright and shiny dump as soon as possible with exactly what I went in for. Well, that and one other item -- a "designer" toilet brush, whatever that is. Clearly a human being was involved in designing the brush at some point in the manufacturing process, but to then market something meant to scrub shit off the porcelain walls of a toilet bowl as a designer brush?

Sounds like a stretch to me. So why did I buy it? The damned thing was the only toilet brush left on the shelves, and the one at home had been broken for months, and even though it wasn't on my shopping list, there it was calling to me as I wandered in a fog of existential confusion down that extra-tall aisle...

Damn. Rite Aid got me again.

* I violated this rule the afternoon of the wreck. That'll teach me...


egee said...

I feel the same way about Wal-mart. A store dressed up to make you think you're saving a bundle when the moment you walk through the door, you're mesmerized by the "low low prices" and the confusing aisles of bright shiny consumerism. Of course, no one seems to realize that you don't save money by spending money.

A.J. said...

Costco is like that, only you get to snack at their sample stations as you wander through the warehouse looking for a way out. That, and a super fine deal of a hot dog and a soda for only $1.50 makes it a cheap way to spend the day when you're unemployed and broke. :)

Michael Taylor said...

egee --

I don't have much experience in WalMart, but imagine that the modern corporate retail experience is pretty much the same everywhere.

Personally, I find this trend depressing as hell... but thanks for tuning in.

AJ --

You won't find any super fine (read: cheap) hot dogs at Rite Aid, which is definitely NOT the place to spend an unemployed/broke day. The corporate ethos of Rite Aid is the death of Everything Good, and the triumph of the banal. In a rather sad way, it's also a perfect reflection of our increasingly dumbed-down, brain-dead society.

Shit, now I'm REALLY depressed...