I went in for only a couple staples, really, just a few non-perishable things like diapers, drinks and dog biscuits.
I left two hours later, nearly $200 poorer, my arms sore from pushing an oversized shopping cart packed with enough generic toilet paper, toys and Calgon dishwashing detergent to last until next year.
I'm talking about an excursion to the Price Club, of course, that suburban temple of conspicuous consumption where you can buy Waterford crystal and Beer Nuts in one fell swoop. A place whose success clearly lies in its ability to satisfy both unabashed consumerism \o7 and \f7 old-fashioned thrift, brand-name elitism and classic, American populism.
Where else can you spend like there's no tomorrow and feel so virtuous at the same time?
Where else can you pretend to belong to a members-only "club," whose $25 annual fee entitles you to enter the warehouse world of discounts, and yet mingle with the city's incredible ethnic stew?
It's also great for people-watching and eavesdropping which, let's face it, are two of life's greatest pleasures after shopping and eating--which, oh yeah, you can do there too. But more on the free-sample carts later. Those towering aisles of tires, vacuum cleaners and Osterizers seem to give people the illusion of privacy and lend themselves perfectly to staring and listening without invitation.
On a recent Sunday at the Price Club's Northridge outlet on Tampa Avenue, two Golden Girls gossiped about health, oblivious to the throngs of shoppers they were blocking at the jewelry counter.
So-and-so, one loudly confided to the other, "gets back trouble all the time.
"You know why?" she asked her friend.
"He doesn't move around! Of course he's going to get back trouble!"
Those giant aisles and ceilings of the club's cavernous space can also be very disorienting, making you feel like a Lilliputian next to Gulliver, or Alice in Wonderland. All those 5-pound, "Economy Size" cans of Skippy peanut butter and 10-pound jugs of olive oil, those 25-pound bags of rice and endless flats of soda pop.
Everything is oversized, out-of-scale, surreal. A perverse reminder of days when we had a growing economy instead of a shrinking one and the nation was fat with promise. Maybe that's another reason why the Price Club is so popular; it can be comforting to look at all that bounty and there's a basic delight in seeing row after row of foot-tall jars chock full of cookies and candy.
Like a sugar binge before the nausea hits.
They had plump, stuffed pumpkin toys the other day for Halloween, covered in bright orange fur.
There were no Cheshire cats, stuffed or otherwise, on this particular day, but I did find one Beryl Weitzman of Northridge, who was advertising her line of wearable safety alarms as she perused the chocolates.
"I AM ALARMED. ARE YOU? ASK ME," said the bright yellow button she was wearing.
I asked, and it turned out Weitzman had a device resembling a beeper attached to her purse with which she could set off an ear-splitting alarm.
"If anyone tries to attack me, I just pull the plug . . . " she said, unleashing a mechanical shriek.
The bizarre is only outdone by the bazaar and its incredible variety of goods, edible and not. Paper products and pasta. Batteries and bagels. Lazy-Boy recliners and Levolor blinds.
Underwear. Conair Hair Cutting Kits. Ceramic beer steins depicting the Budweiser horses in the snow. Talking Picture Frames with which you can "record your own message" to go with a photo. "We love you grandma," was the obvious example cited on the box.
Items you'd never imagine existed--until you see them at the Price Club and, unable to pass up the seductive discount, find yourself blindly tossing them in your cart.
Nineteen-year-old Tasha Singh and her mother, Sandeep, deliberated a long time over a set of cosmetics and seemed to have the willpower to resist. Tasha wanted the earth-toned eye shadows in the kit but not the red and purple nail polish.
"It seems like a good deal, but it's too much," the teen-ager said, putting her finger on the club's biggest drawback. Buying in bulk often leads to waste, as I'm reminded each time I open the refrigerator and see the huge jar of rapidly molding Dijon mustard bought for a party more than two years ago.
But you have to appreciate the democracy of the discount, the way it brings together doctors and school aides, shoppers in sweat suits with shoppers in turbans, the list-followers and the impulse-buyers.
Internist Bruce Landres and his 14-year-old son Michael of West Los Angeles carefully read the label on two attached, 36-ounce bottles of Scope mouthwash before concluding it did not contain the fluoride Michael's dentist ordered. Without a second thought, they put it back on the shelf and plowed on to the frozen hamburger patties.
Emigre Dina Simonova, meanwhile, bought seven pairs of sheepskin slippers and six frozen Alligator coffee cakes to bring to friends in New York. Visitors from her native Russia weep when she takes them to a supermarket, let alone the Price Club, she said.
"They say, 'The meat! The cans! My eyes run (with tears)," Simonova said.
I made one final, quick tour of the aisles on my way to the checkout lines, hoping to find my missing husband at one of several free-sample carts. Talking Picture Frames he can skip, but not nachos and microwave pizza.
Instead, I ran into the Singhs. Their cart was filled with 10 6-pound cans of garbanzo beans--enough to feed a party of 200 with a vegetarian curry--and that box of makeup, nail polish and all.