Shopping in Berkeley

I’m always ranting about supporting small local businesses instead of the big chain stores, but then I go into the small businesses like Watson’s or Morley’s and bargain with them until they sell to me at cost. I see if the bakery will give me half-price at the end of the day. I give the rotting old guy on the corner of Euclid and Ridge Road a dollar sixteen plus half a cigarette and a small plastic giraffe for two books, instead of the two dollars he’s asking. Who can put a price on stories, knowledge, and history? But then the books turn out to be two of the best books I’ve ever read, and I have to return to that corner every weekend trying to find the rotting old guy to appease my guilt. Probably he was a dollar short on rent, got kicked out on the street, and caught pneumonia. No wonder the small businesses are dying. I’m killing them.

I’ve got all these systems. A small coffee in a large cup. One large coffee split between three large cups. A small burrito in a large tortilla. Confusion tactics. It’s almost impossible for them to give me as little as I’m paying for without feeling like a cheapskate, though of course I’m the cheapskate. I dream my cheapskate ideal: cooking only rice while buying sauces by the quart from every restaurant in town. Knowing a bartender who’s trying to invent their own drink and wants to use me as the test subject. A dry cleaner who’ll give me all the unclaimed clothes, plus friends at the ice cream place and movie theatre. Unfortunately, even a free bagel is getting hard to come by now that my friends are successful musicians. I was happy for them when they got to quit their lousy day jobs, but sad for me. You can’t eat, or wear, promo records, although they do help pay the rent.

It’s hard to support smaller businesses when the chain stores are the only ones that can afford to stock up on low-selling items like size fifteen shoes. They are a rare item, also a conversation piece, so I end up meeting more people while I’m out looking for a new pair than I do at any other time of year. Everyone has something to say about large feet, and it’s usually sort of sleazy. It’s also hard to avoid office supply chainstores and go to Barlow’s instead, especially when I find out that Barlow is a scumbag. I cry everytime I pay a dollar fifty each for pens, twice the price of Office Depot, but I’d still rather support a local scumbag than a multi-national one.

I go out shopping in Berkeley, and I end up in the middle of a moral crisis. Should I get beer from the liquor store which shortchanges me and rips me off, or the grocery store which overcharges and rips off the entire community? Should I go to the copy shop owned by Iranian refugees who fled persecution from the shah and who now support the Ayatollah, or the copy shop owned by the Iranian refugees who supported the shah and who were later persecuted by the Ayatollah because they are Jews? What business is it of mine anyway? But in Berkeley everything is everybody’s business. It’s think globally, act locally taken to its lowest common denominator.

Even at a garage sale, I get all involved in someone else’s life. There’s the usual tell-tale trinkets from lost lovers, exercise bikes, and clothes that no longer fit, just like garage sales everywhere, but in Berkeley there’s also ideologies, movements, and lifestyles that no longer fit. With the rows and rows of self-help books, you feel like you’re at a 12-step meeting, except there’s no free coffee. Men who Beat the Men who Love Them, Men who Hate Women and the Women who Love Them, Women who Drink, Women who Love Sex, Women who Walk Through Fire, Women whose Lives are Food, Men whose Lives are Money. Children of Alcoholics, Children of Intermarriage, Children of Dune. How can anything be a bargain when you know that by buying the junk, you also get the emotional burden that comes with it? No wonder old photos are so cheap. I got a funny feeling when I bought a strobe light for a dollar at Country Joe’s yard sale, and, sure enough, he’s looked younger ever since.