As I sheepishly place my fingers on my keyboard with my deadline looming just a couple of hours away, I sit pondering what topic I might cover for this week’s opinion piece, knowing it will publish a week from now.
Then I remember that today is Black Friday, when experts predict more than 164 million frantic consumers will be shopping for the “best deals” of the century.
I recall the one and only time I came face-to-face with Black Friday — regarded as the beginning of the country’s Christmas shopping season — was in 2004 when I worked as a kids’ train driver inside a large mall, located in Burbank at the far east end of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, where I was expected to survive unscathed a gauntlet of high-income, single-minded shoppers bent on getting those one-day deep discounts or else.
With some slight exaggeration, this is my story:
The Pretty Train of Potential Mayhem, as I called it, due to the fact that I was responsible for safely driving a 2,700-pound electric locomotive pulling four cartoony cars behind it through the hallways of a downtown mall filled with unfocused teenagers, dashing children and possible gang members with a “This is my hallway,“ attitude, not to mention scores of oblivious shoppers.
I couldn’t resist feeling somewhat disdainful at that particular job, but the Mall Zombies and their first cousins, the Dead Heads, roamed up and down the hallways, unmindful to the potential danger that awaited them as they rounded corners or suddenly appeared from behind support columns.
The horn blows constantly and the bell clangs — but no one seems to be at home. So sudden, unexpected stops are inevitable.
But Boss Lady expected us to maintain our customary smiles regardless of any potential pandemonium that might ensue. This was about customer service after all, and those fives and tens feeding the kiosk. Fear is not an option.
And so I rolled with the punches and strived to restrain my dagger stares at the pedestrians who crossed in front of the steel-bellied locomotive in their mad dash to save a few seconds in their store-to-store stopovers.
The Walking Dead trolled the mall on a daily basis, texting to their significant others or yammering into their cell phones over the loud cliques of young females, giggling at full volume while staring into store windows, absorbed by a dress or new boots they couldn’t afford; all the while tons of train barreling up on them; Special Effects horn Wailing, Special Effects sound of Steam Blasting, train’s bell Clacking and Clanking.
Impatience and inattentiveness is at the root of any accident waiting to happen. So I remain intently focused along my predestined route.
Subsequently I would hit the atomic-powered “last-try” button inside the cab that emits the sound of an obnoxious death horn. But they remain oblivious.
Mothers push strollers through the hallways, and even wheel their kids close to the steel-jawed cowcatcher that threatened to ingest their precious brood.
I saw the delight in the faces of parents: “Look at the train, Maryann! Watch mommy zip across the path of the train at the last second!“ pulling their kid’s arm like stretched taffy.
Those were the typical days.
On Black Friday of 2004 the sliding glass doors of the mall opened at precisely 5 a.m. — releasing a flood of 10,000 desperate housewives and househusbands through the esophagus of the tiled hallways like whisky through the throat of a drunken sailor.
The complex trembled at the offensive, I recalled, support columns threatening to buckle under the sudden weight.
The human-bison stampeded, unstoppable, easily capable of overwhelming even the US military. Was this what the Zombie Apocalypse would be like?
I sat in the Pretty Train of Potential Mayhem, battle helmet secured.
Clearly the potential for fatalities was at its zenith now, I surmised. I knew maintenance would work overtime, cleaning viscera from the grout.
But so far no children had made an appearance at this early hour and I could witness the bloodshed from the safety inside the cabin of the locomotive.
Every entranceway saw shoppers entering in droves, pouring in like a deluge from a broken dam. The mall filled to capacity and then some.
The building groaned under the overweight of uncompromising consumers.
I glanced at my co-worker, who sat on one of the benches next to the kiosk, wearing an expression of fear and loathing. He knew that survival was questionable now.
Where was mall security when you needed them? Those cowards!
The stream of bargain hunters flowed past the train, the sound of their boisterous voices overriding the blare of the PA system announcing this sale or that.
Then all too soon, a gaggle of giddy kids appeared mid morning, filling hallways dense with toddlers and tweens ready for their train ride through the horde of discount-hungry patrons.
My joints stiffened. Now was the time to bring my driving skills to the forefront. I braced myself for the onslaught. My senses became extra fine-tuned like an eagle or a wombat, or whatever. I resisted the impulse to make a run for it. Boss Lady would not approve.
My co-worker, who as a spotter would walk forward of the train in an attempt to create a clearing, filled the train cars with the overly-excited tykes, and with the clanging of the bell and the sound of the special effects horn, we were off.
Why didn’t the designers of the Pretty Train include more soft surfaces, I wondered? Clearly a shortsighted design flaw when speeds of up to five miles per hour were possible.
I realized that a collision between the steel locomotive and one of the Gargantuans at these blistering speeds could result in a nuclear detonation.
I pressed the pedal to max and headed deeper into the staggering and stumbling crowd, where chaos reigned and somewhere an insurance representative wept.
Plowing through a throng of grasping, single-minded “zombies” is like walking through a minefield. You never know when you might roll over a foot or challenge someone’s sense of right-of-way and invite an explosive rebuttal.
The clanging of the bell was almost constant, warning all within earshot that over a ton-and-a-half of locomotive was approaching. But the threat rang empty as people ignored the ringing bell and rushed to the next storefront.
My skill level had become sublime over the months, dodging excitable children who, upon seeing the Pretty Train approaching scampered unaccompanied headlong toward the front of the locomotive.
Thank goodness for the regenerative brake system!
Nevertheless, months of stop-and-go inflict havoc on the nerves.
My attention kept returning to the impending completion of my six-hour shift, which would miraculously end with no one injured.
“Only five more hours to go,” I thought to myself, trying to keep my spirits up — only five more hours to go.
There was no reason that the Pretty Train of Potential Mayhem should not have been covered in blood and small, dismembered limbs at the conclusion of my shift.
However, possessing quick reflexes honed over the constant challenges of my unique employment, I avoided ending up on the front page of the local newspaper featuring the headline: “Mean Train Driver Mows Down Tomorrow’s Progeny.”
Instead, only countless tiny fingerprints on the train’s metal and wood surfaces required some polishing and food wrappers removed from inside the train cars.
I hurried to complete my final task so I could hand over the reins to the next pitiful, foolhardy driver and quickly leave.
It had been a long day of dodging the bullet, with a final tally at zero kills, 438 close calls, 17 yelling matches, 1,409 possible zombie encounters, and an unknown but significant amount of psychological whiplash.
I swam against the torrent of indefatigable shoppers toward the front doors and to my car.
Finally, at home, exhausted but alive, I splashed water on my face, washing away the stench of mindless consumerism.
“Never again,” I cried out dramatically, lifting my arms heavenward, fists clenched tightly. “NEVER AGAIN!”
The pledge seemed sincere but short-lived however, as I would soon have to prepare myself for my weekend shift the next day.