It was raining at 4:15 a.m. when I pulled into the Target parking lot out in Lansing. The rest of the mall parking lot was empty, but there were a dozen or so cars clustered close to the store, and sure enough -- just as the news accounts had predicted -- a line-up of lawn chairs next to the front doors.
I counted: 14 chairs and a couple of tents. And several of the chairs were empty; their owners must have been snuggled more comfortably in the two tents pitched nearby.
I had called Target at about 10 p.m. to find out what the lines looked like. I wanted to buy one of the new Nintendo "Wii" gaming systems for the Park School. (After all, it is
the 'nongamers' system, and we're beginning to plan for a gaming and immersive media degree program in the school; what better way to introduce faculty and staff to the joys of interactive multimedia? Tennis, anyone?) But that didn't mean I was willing to sleep on the sidewalk in the rain to get one. Not even for the Park School.
Still, the woman who answered the phone assured me there were only a few folks out in front, and if I arrived by 5, I should be fine. "We have 24 in stock," she said. "And it's raining."
So there I was -- tired and wet, but reasonably optimistic. I made a quick head count of the crowd. In addition to the squatters at the door, there were three guys clustered around a car in the parking lot. One of them was slumped against the bumper, staring at the blue glow of his cell phone screen; the other two had just climbed from the car and were making stupid jokes (really, stupid) and guffawing at each other in ways that only a night out in Ithaca can produce. But they didn't seem to be officially "in line."
I couldn't figure out why anybody would come all the way to Lansing at 4 o'clock in the morning and then not join the queue. "If they're that drunk, they shouldn't be driving," I thought, law-abiding citizen and mother that I am.
Turns out, it wasn't about them.
I proceeded toward the store, lawn chair and book in tow (Bob Woodward's "State of Denial," I recommend it), ready for the two-hour wait. "OK," I was thinking. "Whaddya know? I might actually get one of these things. Think how psyched everybody will be at school."
Just as I got to the sidewalk, one of the people at the front of the line walked over to me. "You here to get a Wii system?" he asked me.
("No," I thought to myself. "I'm here because I am such a Target fanatic I always get up at 3:30 a.m. to be sure I'm the first one in.")
"Yes," I said. "Where's the end of the line?"
"There's no reason to stay," he said. "They only have 24 of them and there are already enough people here to get them."
I looked at him for a few seconds. Then I very explicitly scanned the line-up in front of the store. Counting.
"We have a list," he said. "We're all on it, and that's all the systems they have."
I looked at him some more.
"So," I finally responded, "it's your job to tell everybody else to go away?"
"I just want you to know that we have a list," he said again.
"Where's the list?" I asked. "Can I see it?"
"The guy over there sleeping has it," he said, nodding in the direction of one of the tents.
"And he's a great big guy," piped in a middle-aged guy sitting in one of the lawn chairs. "I wouldn't wake him up if I were you."
I looked at the tent. Long silence.
"We're sending people over to Best Buy," said the first one. "You'd have a better chance over there."
I looked back at them. They waited.
I contemplated -- for a brief brave moment -- holding my ground. But common sense prevailed:
There I was, a middle-aged woman with a lawn chair and a Bob Woodward book, who had driven from Trumansburg in the middle of the night just because it seemed like it would be kind of fun to bring a new game system into the Park School.
And there they were, a bunch of guys (OK, so it's a fact, not a political statement) who'd devised a plan to distinguish themselves from the rest of us. That old "haves-and-have-nots" thing.
"OK," I said. "I'm going."
I walked back to my car, right past the three guys still lounging against their car in the rain. They'd given up the fight, but not the war: If they couldn't join the line, at least they were going to stay in the lot. Good for them.
Driving home, I thought a lot about how quickly we claim our turf, no matter how absurd the stakes. We respond instinctively, we establish us-and-them, we act as though it matters.
And I listened to a news report about the crisis in Darfur, where it actually does.