Black Friday and the Cider Press

In the fall of 2004, recently divorced, trying to house three teenagers, and close to personal bankruptcy, I took a second job selling color printers as a store rep. at Best Buys. The job had been referred to me through a friend at my day job. I was less than thrilled about spending my weekends working as a retail sales person, but I desperately needed to earn more money, to keep the wolf from the door so to speak. It seemed like the right move at the time.

I was required to work at least one weekend shift of 5-7 hours until Thanksgiving, and then two weekend shifts of 5-7 hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and a Thursday or Friday night when possible. But the biggest day—the long, grueling, brutish, dazzling, loathsome and maniacal day—would be Black Friday. Black Friday . . . The time of year when merchandise (and especially electronic, digital merchandise) was seized, pillaged and trundled from stores with a speed and frenzy only seen in violent action movies. The ultimate gift: Technology. Gadgets and appliances that would soon become worthless, and ultimately wind up on the tables of every yard sale and flea market in 7 to 10 years. I sold photo printers.

My work largely consisted of standing in the aisle near the printers I was hawking and performing demos and answering consumers’ questions to the best of my knowledge. It was straight hourly pay, there were no commissions based on the number of printers or ink tanks you sold. I printed many color photos for display. I loaded inks and photo paper. I occasionally talked to or bantered with store reps of rival printer manufacturers (names withheld) who were competing with me for sales. About once an hour I would abandon my station and either stroll around the store, eyeing the latest merchandise, or take a short rest in the break room. And the whole time I was trying not to think too much about how my life had come to this, driving a junk car to Best Buys every Saturday and Sunday to sell photo printers because I was trying to save my house and mortgage and teenage kids because my ex- had moved to Montana, and that I was exhausted with no prospect of financial solvency, no less finding love (as if I needed that), or even a bit of peace and relaxation on the horizon. I was trying not to think too much about anything. I was trying to survive.

But then I remembered something . . . I remembered the cider press . . . the sound of the apples tumbling into the hopper, their spectra of color, the juice oozing from the press as a rich russet(?) intoxicating drink. Yes, it had been 10 years and then 8 years, but a long time since I was standing on this mountain ridge in the Catskill Mountains of New York, standing next to a blazing campfire. It was a crisp, cold Friday after Thanksgiving and I was splitting wood for the fire and drinking Irish Whiskey between falls of the axe. My family was spending Thanksgiving weekend, from Friday through Sunday, with my friend’s family at their country house. The sky was a brilliant blue but would soon darken quickly this time of year and make a reddish dying light in the winter woods. My friend and I took turns splitting logs, and the exertion of swinging a wedge maul while drinking whiskey spread a welcome heat throughout my body.

By late afternoon the air turned colder and the kids tossed a football and dashed through the edge of the forest shouting in the mutable shadows of the firelight. My friend joined them, horsing around, saying “I feel like Joe Kennedy!” Our wives were inside the house heating up abundant Thanksgiving leftovers, but it was too early to care about food, so I stayed outside and stoked the fire, smoking a pipe or cigar and drinking fresh hot cider laced with rum. When ice formed along the gutter and drain, and the metallic polar wind became more piercing, then it was time to head inside. The day was pretty much over by that point anyway, and I felt pleasantly warm and lethargic. The kids had already eaten dinner and they would stay up and play games and watch movies for a while, and the adults might have coffee and talk around the table, but it was all anti-climactic. Everything in the mountains revolved around being outdoors, and possibly later, if I hadn’t fallen asleep and the night was clear, I’d step out on the deck for a smoke and meditate on the 10 million stars scattered and fused upon the night sky. Here was a Thanksgiving weekend that was pitch perfect. Two years later we reprised the same weekend, more or less.

But Thanksgiving in 2004 was unseasonably warm. My kids, who’d spent those Thanksgivings in the mountains ten years earlier, were now in high school, and my younger son, aged 14, was flying to Montana to visit his mother for the holiday. I had dropped him off in South Philadelphia at his aunt’s house (with whom he was traveling) a few hours before the flight. My youngest son’s twin sister and my oldest son, who was a high school senior, would be staying with me. It would only be the three of us for Thanksgiving—the smallest number I could recall in my life. No relatives or friends as in past years, no large settings for 20 people, or happily when it was just the five of us. We were pretty much a broken family by now, but not badly broken.

I ended up making way too large a turkey for the three of us, but there would be plenty of leftovers. While the turkey roasted, my oldest son, daughter and I headed up to the high school to watch the football game. It was a quiet day compared with Thanksgivings past, no involvement with extended families or any real stress to speak of. Dinner was enjoyable, but once it was over my son and daughter both separately left the house to visit friends, and then it was just me and the dog. I ate pie, drank wine and read, maybe watched a bit of TV before bedtime. And during this solitary period, which normally would have been fine and dandy if I could have sunk further into wine inebriation, I was dreading the morning and putting off going to sleep early because of it. When I finally did turn in, I set the alarm clock for 3:30.

What followed a few hours later had all the trappings of a waking dream or nightmare. I slept fitfully for approximately five hours and awoke with a creeping alertness. I downed some coffee and left the house. The highways were already abnormally busy with traffic for this hour. I reached Best Buys at around ten minutes to 4:00, only to be greeted with a horrifying sight beyond my expectations, the line elongating around the building like some enormous Chinese dragon, its tail poking into the adjacent parking lot. Hundreds of people! I parked far in the back of the store and followed the snaking line around to the front entrance where a crush of bodies pressed and shoved against the locked glass doors as if they were storming The Winter Palace or The Bastille.

I managed to reach the front entrance of the store a minute before the doors were opened, and once opened the scene was reminiscent of the Running of the Bulls at Pamplona. I had wrongfully thought that I would still be able to help people with answering questions about printers, but not this morning. My primary task in the belly of the beast named Black Friday was to stand at the head of the printer aisle and make sure the mob only headed down my aisle in one direction, guiding them, keeping everyone moving—not unlike herding cattle—toward the gleaming altar of cash registers. The herded shoppers could not turn against the current for risk of being knocked down and trampled. And looming above the murmur and writhing river of bodies, was that giant, impossible-to-be-ignored, poster (a few of them, in fact, strategically placed throughout the store): “Seinfeld: The First Four Seasons on DVD” Jerry, George, Elaine, Kramer—the Beatles of Sitcom TV. A treasure indeed. Why, the entire Black Friday scene would have made a great Seinfeld episode.

I also helped fetch printers and photo paper when those items were out of reach, loading them into some thankless shopper’s cart (any politeness, civility, or decorum had been cast to the winds). In this capacity I was really working for the store and not my brand. I realized that, out of six or seven regular store reps who sold printers, there was only one other rep who’d shown up with me, and all of the reps had warned me not to bother coming in at 4:00am because you wouldn’t really be able to do your job. Nonetheless, my district manager had insisted I be there, merely a smiling presence, so we could gain a slight advantage over our competitors whose printers were basically selling without any human intervention at all.

It ended around 7:00. Three hyper and adrenalin-fueled hours. I left the store and drove home for a long break, but I would be returning some time late morning and then another shift in late afternoon. At home I made a large breakfast and drank several cups of coffee. I walked the dog, my senses felt somewhat cleansed but I was spiritually drained in the way you feel after a night of tripping on acid or mescaline. And there was something oddly triumphant about having gotten through the past four hours. For people who make a career in retail sales this was certainly no big deal, but for me it had been, because for whatever strange reason I had needed to experience a cultural and social ritual that I found largely repellent. It was the role of desperate worker who needed money that had brought me out at 4:00 in the morning, and it was only in that role I had been able to understand and appreciate the mob at Best Buys. Consumers had chosen to be there, to get the sale on a high-ticket item, especially a popular one that everyone coveted. I would have still been in bed, sleeping off my Thanksgiving excess. I had never come out early on Black Friday to shop.

I was transported back to the Catskill Mountains, taking walks on the mountain road in the morning and early afternoon. Deer season had started and you could hear random gunshots all along the ridge. By early afternoon my friend and I would begin splitting more wood and commence building a new fire, sometimes from a few hot coals at the bottom of the ash heap in the huge stone ring. We talked about a range of subjects in a kind of stream-of-consciousness dialogue—the best kind—and Thanksgiving weekend in the early winter forest, chopping wood and pressing cider, was the perfect time and place for talking. When the first kindling caught and crackled, and it was only around noon, I knew I would have several more hours of the country, the fire, and apple cider with rum, Irish whiskey, and turkey leftovers and pie with tea or coffee. Was there really anything better than to be with your children and wife and friends, and everyone is in good spirits and having a wonderful time? How is it that Thanksgiving can be so vastly different across the years? I guess Christmas is capable of such differences too, but I never felt quite the extremes as I did here, and while New Year’s has hit some exhilarating highs and miasma lows, you somewhat expect that from New Year’s, not Thanksgiving.

I worked many hours over Black Friday weekend, around 10 hours on Friday, and then another six on Saturday. As I was driving home following my second shift on Friday afternoon, my cell phone rang and I pulled over. It was my 14-year-old son calling from Montana. It felt great to hear his voice. He had just taken a chair lift to the top of a mountain somewhere near Glacier Park where the view was spectacular. The weather was bitter cold and windy of course, and my son was enjoying a cup of tea with his mother and aunt, and having a great time overall. I had spent time in Montana and could picture the scene as he narrated for me. I was happy for him; I had thought it would be a worthwhile experience at his age, something he wouldn’t forget or dismiss later in life. But at that moment he sounded so far away—not just in physical miles, but in the reality of his Thanksgiving and mine. His Thanksgiving was closer to those of the fire and cider press, and this time in the Rockies instead of the Appalachians, but definitely closer in spirit to where I presently was—suburban shopping malls in South Jersey.

The rest of the holiday season was pretty much a blur as far as selling printers, but it was okay. I worked up until Christmas, and I had also spent a very long day at the hospital with my oldest son when he had undergone knee surgery for a torn ACL. And I still had my day job with no time off. Toward the end of the month the home computer died, and we didn’t have another, so on top of everything else, I shopped for a new one, which I finally purchased at Best Buys. The irony was not lost on me that almost all the money I had made selling printers during Christmas season was now being used to buy a new computer—at Best Buys, no less! So I never really got ahead, but without the extra part-time work I guess I would not have been able to buy the computer.

The computer had a desktop image of my son in Montana on that Thanksgiving weekend in 2004, a decade ago to the day. He is standing in front of a glacier lake edged on one shore by Lodge pole pine. The sky is dark gray but with a pearly sheen, threatening snow fall, and the mountains in back of the lake are mostly covered with snow. My son is wearing a warm jacket and he’s smiling. The date on the photo is 11/26/2004, and looking at it I was often reminded of that year of divorce and Black Friday, and how that year pointed the way back to the cider press, and to an earlier but not necessarily happier time.