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Al Martinez

The poor guy was suffering from Male Shoppers Blackout. : Notes on a Certain Madness

December 19, 1985|AL MARTINEZ

I was waiting in line at the gift-wrapping counter of the Broadway when a customer named Larry derailed.

He was trying to determine the fate of packages he had left earlier in the day, and, when he received no satisfaction, he began hollering and pacing. Finally, he marched around the counter and stood there, arms folded, glaring.

He was a big man and therefore appeared ominous, but since he was decently attired, one felt almost instinctively that he was probably not inclined toward violence.

Larry simply wanted his packages and he wanted them now.

Eventually, Broadway security people talked to him, got his name, helped him find his packages and led him away.

Later, the women around me assured each other that the man was arrogant and demanding and possibly mad. They mentioned a faint animal aroma about him.

I thought about that as babies screamed, a 3-year-old ran amok back and forth across the gift-wrapping section and customers tried to crowd in front of me.

Then it occurred to me what the man's problem was. Not arrogance, not excessive self-assertion and not insanity as we know it. The poor guy was suffering from Male Shoppers Blackout.

MSB, not unlike lycanthropy, is an illness that turns a man into an animal. It afflicts only those who shop and is sometimes known as malls syndrome. Women are immune because of a genetic buildup of fatty tissues in their bloodstream.

Larry's Case is a classic example of how MSB works.

Up until that incident at the Broadway, he was no doubt a gentle and loving person who helped his wife in the kitchen, read to his little boy at night and played fetch with the family dog.

Sometimes when the Missus was tired, he would take over the cooking and prepare a nice tuna casserole with cheese and chopped celery, just the way she liked it.

Then one day he offered to complete their Christmas shopping and to mail the already-wrapped packages intended for relatives in Fresno. His wife was delighted and kissed him warmly on the stoop.

Larry whistled as he backed out of the driveway, never dreaming that dark and hidden forces were about to be unleashed inside him.

He drove first to the bank to withdraw $236 he had saved in order to buy presents without straining the family budget. The bank was crowded, so he had to wait for 22 minutes.

When Larry at last reached the teller, she closed her window and left on a break.

Even so, old Smile-Face, as the guys on the loading dock called him, maintained his sunny outlook, waited some more and tried to ignore the faint edge of pain at the base of his skull.

He hummed "Jingle Bells" as he drove into the United Parcel Service lot in Van Nuys.

The lot was a mess. Larry had to wait in line for a place to park and, when he saw one, another driver made an illegal U-turn and sneaked in first.

After finally finding another spot, he hauled his packages to the UPS shipping area and had to wait in line to fill out a shipping form.

When he reached the shipping form table, there were no pencils available.

He had to wait for a pencil.

Then he had to wait to have his package weighed.

Then he had to wait to pay for the package that he had waited to have weighed.

Larry rubbed at the back of his neck. The edge of his mouth began to twitch ever so slightly. His smile seemed somehow tighter.

He drove next to Topanga Plaza, where it took him three trips around the lot to park. He honked at a woman who was coming at him head-on in the wrong direction. She made a dirty gesture at him.

In one store, a clerk would not wait on him because she was too busy talking to a friend. In another, a clerk did not know how to use the computerized cash register and tried to charge him $1,268.40 for three potholders.

Passers-by began to glance at Larry as his pace through the mall assumed a stalking gait. His head was hunched slightly forward. His toes pointed inward. A lady buying an Orange Julius could swear she heard him growl.

Larry entered the Broadway where he purchased a pair of slippers, a woman's robe, a necklace and a leather purse. The smell of leather made him strangely hungry. Drool formed on the sides of his mouth.

He dropped the packages off at the gift-wrapping section and trotted to an area of booths where food was served. He wanted Japanese food. So did everyone else. He couldn't even get close to the chicken teriyaki. In desperation, he turned to popcorn. They told him to take a number.

It was more than poor Larry could stand. All he can probably remember now is a blinding red flash as MSB took him in its iron grip. Shoppers in the dining area thought they heard someone howl.

You know the rest. Larry loped back into the Broadway, his arms swinging from side to side, demanded his packages and was finally led away.

I trust that he was treated with kindness by those aware of what a mall can do to a man at Christmastime.

God help them if they made Larry wait.

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