JOURNAL of a Christmas shopping trip:
11:20 a.m. -- Arrive at mall. Ignore astronomical 50,000-to-1 odds and take stab at parking space near entrance. Woman in Buick Regal cuts me off, glares, pulls into handicapped space. I think: Lady, you better not jump out of that car doing the jitterbug. She emerges with fake limp and cane, an obvious prop. It's amazing lengths people go for good parking space.
I end up parking somewhere out near Pennsylvania border. Am tempted to leave trail of ashtray butts to find way back.
11:35 -- Mall is packed. All I can say is: What recession? They're even three deep in Hickory Farms store. There's something I could never understand: Who gives a "Party Wheel" of cheese and salami for Christmas? ("Honey, couldn't find that pearl necklace, but here's a nice wedge of sharp cheddar." What's next: pepperoni sticks in stocking?
11:45 -- Sullen bimbo-in-training behind register at Gap stops snapping gum long enough to say she never heard of sweater I just described. Says she never heard of jeans I described, either.
"Hey," I say, "didja hear they shot Lincoln?"
Dim flicker of recognition crosses her features, but quickly disappears as she goes back to deep conversation with Madonna-wannabe folding corduroy pants.
Noon -- Good God, we're all doomed. Santa has just arrived at his "Workshop." Some 200 kids, jacked up on adrenalin, cola and chocolate, surge forward screaming and whining. Put flaming torches in their hands, they could double as mob of Balkan villagers hunting down Wolfman.
Santa's face drains of color. He forces weak "Ho, ho, ho" but senses this could be last day on the job. Volume level approaching that of Concorde lifting off. This could get ugly.
12:15 -- Lines at Burger King remind you of refugee camp in the Sudan when the supply trucks roll up. I drift over to Chinese food carry-out, where it's calmer. No, check that. Guy behind counter might as well break out a cot, it's so dead. I fire down an egg roll and Pepsi as brawl threatens to erupt at Boardwalk Fries.
1:00 -- Pick up tape for nephew in Record World. Skulking through aisles is usual Night-of-the-Living-Dead crowd: disaffected punkers with green hair and nose rings, suburban gangsters dripping with gold, vacant-eyed heavy-metal groupies, beered-up fraternity jocks, etc.
By comparison, people in the Gap look like local chapter of Sweet Adelines.
1:20 -- Duck into Hickory Farms, just for the hell of it. Woman near entrance hands me cracker with slice of cheese. I feel bad, have nothing to give her. Surge of electricity ripples through crowd as tray of mild provolone is re-stocked.
2:00 -- I buy over-priced sweater from scowling salesman who apparently feels he should be secretary of state and can't believe he's fallen so far as to be working in men's store. I ask if he has box for sweater. No, he says, we're all out, might have some in next Wednesday. Gently I point out next Wednesday is day after Christmas, when box will do me absolutely no good, unless I expand baseball card collection or need a place to keep a frog.
2:25 -- For laughs, walk back to "Santa's Workshop." Santa's on the verge of collapse. He stares woodenly at each child on his knee, mutters a few words. Line of kids now stretches into Delaware; parents wear that forlorn look usually associated with Motor Vehicle Administration customers.
2:45 -- Woman blocking aisle at Macy's asks if she can spray me in the face with perfume. Maybe later, I say.
3:15 -- I ask to have blouse gift-wrapped at Macy's. Big mistake. They send me to a part of the store so isolated Daniel Boone couldn't find it. Line there stretches into West Virginia.
3:45 -- Hands trembling badly now; we're deep in the bowels of a toy store. Apparently every kid who's not driving Santa nuts at the "Workshop" is in here. I grab Turbo Trax something or other off shelf, lower head like fullback, somehow bull my way to the register.
4:10 -- Time for return trek to car. Canteens full? Check. Extra provisions? Check. Flashlight, compass, cooking utensils? Check. All right, let's move out.
4:25 -- Arrive at car. Feels like we crossed at least two times zones. People are milling everywhere, radios blaring, great clouds of exhaust smoke rise into the air. I gun the car toward the exit.
It's the fall of Saigon and the last chopper is lifting off.