JOURNAL of a Christmas shopping trip:
11 a.m. -- Arrive at mall. Parking lot looks like Woodstock. Woman in late-model BMW noses her car into handicapped space and practically sprints to the entrance. Way to go, honey. Don't worry about those people in wheelchairs. Heck, they'll find something. Besides, the fresh air will do them good. I park next to Dumpster approximately six miles from entrance. Am tempted to bring along a flare gun in case I get lost.
11:10 -- Mall is packed. All I can say is: What recession? It's like something out of a George Romero movie: package-laden husbands listlessly trailing their wives, young couples arguing loudly over gift-wrap, leather-jacketed teen-agers smirking and chain-smoking near the fountains. I buy a Coke, knock back two Advil, steel myself for the ordeal to come.
11:30 -- Good God, we're all doomed. Santa has arrived at his "Workshop." A crowd of 200 screaming, wild-eyed kids surges forward. Close your eyes and it's the scene at the U.S. embassy gates in Tehran all over again. All we're missing is the Ayatollah.
The color drains from Santa's face. You see it in his eyes: last gig for me, Jack. This time next year, he'll be selling bathroom fixtures at Sears. Volume level now approaching fire-bombing of Dresden. Perky mall rep leads an obviously shaken Santa to his chair.
11:55 -- Sullen, Jessica Hahn look-alike behind counter in jewelry store interrupts conversation with her girlfriend long enough to show me a watch. When I ask if it's battery-operated, she cocks her head and gives me a quizzical look. Quickly I glance around to make sure they're not filming one of those "Stay in School" public service spots.
12:20 p.m. -- Pounding in my head worsening now. No wonder: "Jingle Bell Rock" is blaring over and over from a store speaker. I wonder how many people listen to that song and attempt to disfigure themselves with a piece of broken glass.
12:30 -- Time for lunch. Typically, the food pavilion has all the calm of a refugee camp. I grab a burger and fries and move briskly to a table in the rear, avoiding eye contact with a dangerous-looking cowboy eating an egg roll. I make a mental note to hit the deck if he approaches at any time.
1:15 -- Whoa! A heavily mascaraed saleswoman in Macy's lunges at me with a bottle of Calvin Klein's "Obsession." I flash the crucifix from the chain around my neck. Slowly she backs away.
1:35 -- Strictly for laughs, I return to Santa's Workshop. It's even worse than I envisioned. The line now snakes halfway to Pennsylvania. Santa is slumped in his chair listening to two feverish little kids yammer on about the Ninja Turtles while their dad works the camcorder. Yeah, there's a moment you want to preserve: Santa, weepy and jittery, on the verge of an emotional collapse.
Suddenly another child bolts from his mother's grasp and rushes Santa, who jumps as if it's Sirhan Sirhan. Santa needs a break, big-time.
2 -- I pick up a cotton twill shirt that will shrink to the size of a dish rag after one washing. I ask the salesman if he has a box for shirt. He directs me to an area of the store so far away it appears to be in Tennessee. When I finally get there, they say they're out of boxes.
2:25 -- Hands trembling badly now. This is the part I've been dreading: the hellish trip into a toy store. A child pedaling a Big Wheels runs over my foot and laughs. Another little girl is hurling herself violently into a Barbie display and sobbing: "But why can't we get it?!"
Hoo, boy. And they wonder why some animals eat their young. I grab the first thing I see, a bow and arrow set, and head for the cashier. Sure, it's a dangerous gift and someone could lose an eye. No time to worry about that now. Gotta get out, gotta get out.
2:45 -- Dude! I pick up a tape at record store and mingle with usual Night-of-the-Living-Dead crowd: disaffected punkers with green hair and nose rings, gangster wannabes adorned with gold, beered-up frat boys, Jon Bon Jovi look-alikes. Equal-opportunity weirdness. These people make the kids hanging out by the fountains look like the Young Republicans Club.
3 -- Mercifully, it's time to leave. I steal one last glance at Santa, who still wears that startled, deer-in-the-headlights look.
Somehow, I know the feeling.