Last View of Atlantis
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Wasn't it a shame that just before Athens fell, nobody snapped any pictures... or okay, made a few sketches? I mean, wouldn't it be great to see how the Acropolis actually looked? The Roman Colosseum? The Colossus of Rhodes?
Last week, fearing he would miss his chance, the Urban Man whipped out a digital camera and rushed down to a big strip mall here in L.A. I wanted to record the brightly-painted facades of our retail giants, as they still rose like stuccoed ramparts above the glittering sea of a parking lot. I was thinking someone should record the rows of flat-screen TVs inside bankrupt Circuit City, the endless aisles of molded colored plastic at Toys R Us.
I mean, all around us, retail icons are falling like overbalanced stone columns or sinking like the very Temples of Atlantis: Wickes. Levitz. Sharper Image. Mervyns. Shoe Pavilion. Bombay Company. CompUSA. Linen N Things -- all gone. Foot Locker is closing 140 stores. Home Depot 15. Pep Boys 33. KB Toys 355. A fifth of the nation's largest regional malls are failing.
Human beings crave greatness, and I figure each truly great civilization is required to pour all its resources into whatever its special genius might be. The Egyptians sacrificed countless souls to build the pyramids. Easter Islanders decimated their environment to raise up those weird statues. Beginning in the 1950s, Americans discovered the greatness in a thing called "Aspirational Consumerism" and instead of saving our spectacular wealth, we began spending it at the rate of 91% a year. Recently, as individuals, we've been spending close to 99 percent of our yearly income — and like the Egyptians, we bent the economy of the entire world to achieve Circuit City and Toys R Us.
What a lovely phrase, "Aspirational Consumerism." Surely it's inspiring, even now.
Inside Circuit City, I was thrilled to see everything still in place: the displays of 30 clever cell phones and 18 kinds of boom boxes, along with unnumbered accessories shrink-wrapped to hanging placards. Out front, a woman still hawked "Circuit City Rewards Cards," and inside, smiling employees yet loitered, though at high noon they outnumbered customers four to one. Me, I made my way past a table groaning under 70 varieties of video devices, drawn by the distant thunder of the flat-screens themselves. There, I stood for a time with my face lit by a fitful storm of movie previews, flashing again and again along the serried silicon cliffs, and I thought, "At least I saw this before it was lost. I mean, imagine being a Greek born too late, or a Roman who never knew the peak of Rome."
What would I say to future generations? "Lo, we covered the blue Pacific with container ships. At Circuit City, we paid $100 an ounce for printer ink in tiny disposable cartridges. At Toys R Us we experienced a wall of 60 kids' bikes, four shelves high and stacked 15 wide, each made subtly different by subtle Chinese hands. We took our children down 50-foot aisles of $9.95 action figures. We paid $129.99 for a 3-foot high Hannah Montana Malibu Beach House and ferried it home in personal vehicles weighing 4000 pounds. Our closets filled with obsolete digital equipment, plastic bowling sets and electric drums. We tried to divide each day into a dozen timeslots of attention, each configured to correspond to an item available in an individually wrapped package.
In short, we achieved maximum retail.
And as the Urban Man returned to the embrace of his fully-loaded midsize, he thought, "Let them record this accomplishment as they recorded the Great Wall or the Hanging Gardens. And let us remember that whatever comes next, we did, briefly, create this magnificent thing. Like the builders of the Tower of Babel, we almost piled our Razr phones and Bratz dolls and home theater systems up to heaven itself....
Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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