"Let's have a black celebration. Black celebration tonight. To celebrate the fact that we've seen the back of another black day." - Depeche Mode
The first snowfall of 2009 in the greater Cleveland area occurred on November 27, at 4:54 a.m., at least that's when the first snowfall occurred approximately 3 miles South of downtown.
I know this, because I was standing outside, in line, right behind my newly made friend Sharon, outside of a Target store, when the first flurries started coming down. In fact, I was about 60th in line, which I was pretty dang happy about. When I first saw the flurries -- first big, dustball-sized, and later wet slushy ones -- I was listening to a man in Target bull's-eye apparel, perched on a stationary Segway, giving a speech, imploring me to "take it easy and be kind to my fellow man. Don't push. Don't run. And don't worry. All side doors will be locked until you are all inside for at least a minute."
This year my alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. in the morning. Years past I had taken shortcuts, set it for 5:30, set it for 4:45, set it for 4:30 but snoozed away an hour.
If I were writing the rules of Black Friday -- and of course we can only be talking about Black Friday -- the first rule would be that, absent a Black Friday veteran (a "BF Vet") to mentor you, you are going to screw up your first several Black Fridays. Mastering Black Friday is like ... it's like figuring out how to cook pork ribs or brisket just right as an adult, or learning to smoke a cigar as a teenager or learning to do nearly anything when you're four. While at first glance the task may appear simple, you only need to try it once to realize how deceptively difficult it is. Trying again and again, you never really know if you are making any progress at all in figuring it out until, well, you one day just understand it and all is well.
And those first years, when I came home with fifteen dollar DVD players, even though a minority of me truly felt "woo-ahh" for scoring not one but two fifteen dollar DVD players (even more sweet because of how Limit-1 policies had forced me to buy the fifteen dollar DVD players at two separate stores), a majority of me knew I was just a pretender. I knew I had dragged my ass out of bed early, had braved the elements, had ruined a decent portion of my day-after-Thanksgiving and, perhaps most importantly, had abstained from alcohol on Thanksgiving, all for the privilege of coming home with fifteen dollar DVD players that Radio Shack had paid nine bucks for and that I could've paid twenty-five or twenty-seven for a week prior.  [endnotes are at the bottom]
I mean, my first year, I really didn't get it at all. My first year I had dreams of going to Best Buy, and -- -embarrassingly only waking up after Best Buy had already opened -- had driven for 5 miles to the highway and hopped onto it for the final two mile stretch. As I closed down on the exit ramp I could see the looming blue and yellow logo, not a tenth of a mile off the highway, calling out, but my peripheral vision seized. Snippets all around me made it clear it wasn't quiet -- like it should be in the middle of the night -- but instead gave the unmistakable sense that there are things going on here. A quarter-mile from the exit, peering down, the size of the crowd of people milling about outside that I could see from the highway scared me out of the exit lane and back onto the highway, scurrying a mile ahead to the next exit so I could meekly loop around back to the Radio Shack that opened 90 or so minutes after the real Black Friday Stores had opened.
My second year I was still out of my depth, boggled, arriving at Circuit City at 5 a.m., not comprehending why the parking lot, in the midst of a shopping district, was more crowded at that time than on any Saturday afternoon I had ever been there. And after shuttling the car into a space at the far end of the crowded parking lot, there I stood, hanging on my open car door, looking confusedly at the line of many hundreds of people stretched under every poorly-roofed walkway of the outdoor strip mall. I could do nothing but just confusedly stare and soak it in for a minute until I broke from my trance and shunted myself off to other second-tier Black Friday stores, going aimlessly to the ancient relic of the mall (the indoor kind), ending up at Sears, this time paying $18 for the privilege of owning a crap $30 DVD player. And later on hitting up OfficeMax and buying the doubly crap office chair (that I sit in now) for $50 to make myself feel like I accomplished something. This same chair that I tried to make more impressive by holding it back and making it a Christmas gift to Daddy from Santa, a strategy that never came close to working and just made everyone a little sad, the idea that Santa has all year to plan and all he ends up giving to fathers are crappy office chairs.
This year my Black Friday prep commenced as Black Friday prep can only commence, really: with a stroll down the driveway to claim the Thursday morning paper. Indeed, the penultimate Black Friday experience is the one or two or three hours spent touching newsprint. Spreading out the circulars, accumulating the Kohl's and the Michael's and the Joann Fabrics and the bizarre local photography store into the "don't bother" pile, sticking the Sears and the Walmarts into the "if I'm not inspired" pile and returning again and again to the electronics, the crown jewel of Black Friday, the jungle domains of the HH Greggs, the Circuit Cities (R.I.P.), the COMPUSAs (R.I.P. again), the WIZ's and Fretters (trips R.I.P.), reading some of them a fifth and sixth time to confirm in your turkey+wine-addled brain that "yes, it does have the same amount of RAM and memory but is still $60 cheaper than Office Max."
And OfficeMax can go to hell for that (among other things), by the way.
"And it's OfficeMax's doorbuster deal and Best Buy don't even have it in the paper! Not even a good enough deal for Best Buy to put it in the dang circular!" That's what the guy -- a fellow customer, kind of -- at OfficeMax told me in 2006 (while I was getting my chair). This guy, waking up early on Black Friday, heading off to OfficeMax, apparently did so for the purpose of milling about OfficeMax and standing around, talking shit about the deals OfficeMax was offering. And while Black Friday had impressed me up to this point -- the commercialism, the bit of naughtiness of waking up early, the electronics fetishizing, the fun for the male-non-shoppers-getting-to-shop-hardcore-once-a-year, the rushing around, the father tugging the arm of the 8-year-old son almost out of his socket, imploring "c'mon" racing through the parking lot (but with their racing destined to end in 45 seconds at the end of a hopelessly-long-for-an-8-year-old line) -- this was great. It had all impressed me previously, but I hadn't previously understood that under the surface there was an absolutely immensely beautiful social aspect of Black Friday.
This is the second rule of Black Friday: one-quarter of the people that leave their houses in the wee hours knowing that they aren't going to buy a single thing because they aren't going out for the merch. If you were to view a Black Friday line, seeing the groups of threes and fours chatting, you would assume that these were groups of threes and fours that know one another and had arrived together, and you would be completely wrong. The most sullen withdrawn individual, stuck into a Black Friday line, will suddenly become chatty , befriending everyone five groups to the front and back of him in his line (although this love only extends so far; those far ahead in line are jealously despised and those far behind are mocked or at least pitied).
And certainly, out of the 365 days of the year, this was the only single one of those days -- and these were the only hours --when a man could stroll into a store and reasonably strike up conversations with complete strangers to talk shit about the products they were considering buying. This guy, a left-behind from approximately sixth grade or whenever the social sorting commences, a casualty of that sorting -- probably for not adopting deodorant or toothpaste quickly enough or for not maintaining any pretense of coolness or for just being too poor to be able to not wear vinyl too much -- and now, here he is, and you're chatting and you see he's finally getting comfortable in his 40-maybe-year-old skin (but who knows with these types .. maybe he's 70 or 25 or whatever), and he's just there, having his day, explaining to a guy he might be there with but probably just started talking to randomly (like he did to you) that OfficeMax's Sandisk 1-GB flash drive price even today, Black freakin' Friday, isn't as low as a regular price he could get you on the internet or even down the street at even HAR HAR Radio Shack (!) HAR HAR, and while a part of you is even a touch proud of him for being out of his shell, it only takes about 90 seconds for another part of you to just start to revolt and you find yourself walking away from him, past the long checkout lines and through the exits and ... trying to sneak back in, of course, for your $50 office chair that is actually worth around, well, approximately $50 (the furniture equivalent of the McDouble from a value perspective, which isn't bad, actually). But you didn't have to bother sneaking. You cared way more than he did. He was already on to the next guy, chatting away.
And so, in 2009, the year of doing it right, it's 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. and you have done the winnowing and you have the four or five Circulars of Possibility ("C.O.P.") spread about you on Thanksgiving night, and you have choices that are not so different than the choices faced when choosing a mate.
Best Buy is, hands down, the homecoming queen. Maybe an average guy like you could score, but it would be all luck, you stumbling into the party with her drunk and breaking up with her boyfriend and randomly venge-fucking you. Anyone going after Best Buy deals better be finishing their turkey and heading straight to their cars and hitting the Best Buy parking lot with that new-style folding chair with a footrest and with thermoses of coffee, with parkas and sleeping bags and ziplocs of homemade gorp.
In 2009, Wal-Mart is a whore. For BF Vets, however, Wal-Mart was this year a true godsend, a real sucker-magnet, something trashy for the dumb boys to chase to keep them away from the girls we really want. Anyone driving into a shopping complex with a Wal-Mart in it in the wee hours of November 27 got sucked in because it was already open. A Wal-Mart greeter got trampled in a Black Friday store opening in 2008 on Long Island (no, really). Wal-Mart managed to use this as an excuse to ruin their workers' Thanksgivings by opening up all stores late Thursday. Although open late Thursday, the doorbusters still weren't available until 5 a.m., and were apparently shrinkwrapped so many times as to render the transparent plastic nearly opaque from to all the layers, so people had a very hard time figuring out what they were lining up for.
But Wal-Mart was in fact wide open by 12:01 a.m. to accommodate the huddled massed yearning to at least avoid the 4:54 a.m. Cleveland snow, of which there were many, judging by the parking lot. I'm sure it benefited Wal-Mart (and Toys R Us and Old Navy, the two other stores that fucked their workers and likewise opened up at midnight) by being the only store of its kind open on the block. But by lowering the level of pain of standing in line, they simply increased the number of hours people were willing to wait. And so the shoppers got there at midnight and stayed. As the 6'6" guy seven spots behind me in one of my Black Friday lines said to raucous group laughter: "I got there [to Walmart] at 2:30 a.m. and wandered around and there were lines everywhere, so I got in a pretty long line and it was for $3 pajamas. And then I finally thought 'damn, it's just pajamas' and I had to get out of there ... [laughter] ... I'm too old for this shit. [double down laughter]" Despite being the clear crowd favorite and having won the "loudmouth comedy directed to total strangers event" -- an event normally conducted in mens' restrooms at athletic events -- after winning hands down, he still found it necessary, after everyone stopped paying attention, to add a disclaimer: "Of course, I got my electronics last year," not wanting the BF Vets to think less of him, and apparently having participated in Black Friday this year solely to wallow in his purchase echo.
The truth is that -- unless you were willing to drift into the creepy club scene of BJ's, Sam's and Costco  -- Best Buy and Wal-Mart dominated the scene in 2009. Everyone after them in 2009, however, just seemed second-rate.
And this is where we smelled our openings.
This year I got up, snoozed once at my 3:30 alarm (but got up before the snooze expired, which never happens), early enough so I could move purposely and deliberately, put on some overly warm clothes, and grabbed some pre-printed disposable reading material, copies of the C.O.P. -- this last decision making me nearly celebrity level popular fellow in my lines later on. And of course my cheat sheet, which I had written out before, distilling onto one page the specific items of C.O.P. important to me.
I got to my car, chose the urban cookie-cutter shopping strip option over the multiple suburban cookie-cutter shopping strip options, and drove toward downtown Cleveland, over the collapsing bridge over the Cuyahoga River, and then down the three mile stretch of highway South of downtown to the Steelyard Commons ramp. Driving down that ramp, like every time I go there, I was struck by the location of the Steelyard Commons shopping center. Looming immediately behind the big box stores is a 60 foot+ towering Home Depot-punifying steel mill. And next to it is a whole damn switchyard full of trains. It's all a little weird.
Steelyard Commons, your basic new-breed outdoor shopping center (with its Applebees, et al), was built on the same land that had once been used by the big Cleveland steel companies, and the shopping center had been comically pitched to the City of Cleveland as an economic replacement for the lost heavy manufacturing, as if buying and selling something could somehow ever be comparable to building it. This is the kind of economic fantasy that those on the coasts might be tricked into believing with fancy studies and words; those of us in the Rust Belt would desperately love to believe this fantasy -- it's the only economy fantasy we're being offered these days -- but we just know too much, know that nothing is better than building something.
When I arrived, I had not yet chosen my particular destination. My plan was to get off the highway, size up the competition and make my decision in real time, which this year was 4:14 a.m. Best Buy and Wal-Mart were plainly a mess. Target was closest and it beckoned. I drove in and got in the line, which started at the Target doors but wrapped away from the Target around the corner, without much thought.
4:17 a.m. About 50 people in line ahead of me. I had poorly chosen a pea coat, and the scent of wet wool was already upon me. But I had my cheatsheet, I had my copies of the C.O.P.s
My mood? I was then and at all times resigned.
A third Black Friday rule: no one without real inside information really knows what to do. The C.O.P.s might say "at least 10 per store" but if the assistant manager wants to let in his family 5 minutes early and sell 6 of them to his brother-in-law, or just never let them out of the backroom, there's no 911 number for that. You get there early, you pick your stop and you just hope.
It was about 36 degrees and it was raining (the snow hadn't started yet). I, along with a handful of others with fortuitous placement in the line, was under the awning of a Jimmy Johns sub store. I began to aloofly read my dampening pre-printed Sports Guy column. About 45 seconds into my reading, I heard Sharon (not that I knew her name was Sharon at that point) whisper, in perhaps the only time she whispered the entire night, to the girl beside her: "I think that guy has a copy of the ad." I pretended to read a few more seconds and then nonchalantly decided to look around and see what I was up against.
I wanted to know who was talking about me, so I started by looking in the opposite direction, behind me. And I apparently had woken up three minutes too early, as, three minutes into my 43 minute wait, there was absolutely no one behind me. People never get in line behind you as quickly as they were getting in line in front of you when you got there.
Nonchalantly swiveling around I immediately met the eyes of Sharon, a late-50-something chain smoker of slims, averagely overweight for her age, white, wrinkled, a bit tan, wearing a red hoodie. Sharon gestured to my Target C.O.P. "Can I see?" I paused but, lacking options, turned it over (this would not be the first time my C.O.P.s would be borrowed that night) and Sharon began to whip through it lightening fast, each page being dotted with raindrops (Sharon was standing slightly outside of the Jimmy Johns awning, not caring for some reason that she could move two feet and be under it with the rest of us).
Looking through the line later that night, I appeared to be the only one with my C.O.P.s at hand, which made little sense to me. Not only was I one of the few with C.O.P.s, I may have been the only person participating in my Black Friday area to have adopted A.D. technology by picking up a writing utensil and using it to assist me in my shopping by taking the extraordinary step of writing an actual list.
Maybe some Black Friday shoppers were trying to recreate the surprise of Christmas morning for themselves, allowing themselves to walk into the store -- "woo hoo, a TV on sale for $399!!" But later it seemed that most simply had no need for lists because they knew exactly and precisely the reason why they were there, were there for something specific, something they had stared at and memorized so that they even knew exactly where it was on the pages of the C.O.P.
After four or five seconds, Sharon had found in my Target C.O.P. what she was there for and was pointing at it. And this white middle-aged (old, really) intense woman was there for ... what's this? It looked like Pokemon card knockoffs? Eh?
"Got kids?" Sharon asked.
"Yes, I do."
" 9, 6 and 3."
"Then you know! They just love that Bakugan, don't they? I got the whole arena. Magnets and everything."
I had no idea what Sharon was talking about. "Oh, really?"
"Do you even know about it? They roll the balls on the cards and they pop when they hit the magnet! Kids just go wild. At Toys R Us, just one of 'em is $7." Sharon moved the relevant C.O.P. passage closer to my face: "Check this out! 6 for $10!" I had not reacted sufficiently. "That's ... $30 I'm saving on this one pack. And maybe I'll get two. You gotta get some. Kids just love these things. Your kids will love them."
My experience in line with Sharon was harmless, which isn't always the case.
Indeed, about an hour later, after exiting Target and realizing it wasn't even 5:30 yet, it struck me that I could attempt the "double opening" on Black Friday, where you wait in line, shop at one store, nab your doorbuster, and then get in line at a different store and get a second doorbuster. The "double opening" is Black Friday mythology, often discussed by the BF vets and often accomplished, but rarely accomplished impressively. You can open a 5 a.m. store, but you normally end up wasting extra time in the store (soaking up as much doorbuster afterglow consumer buzz as you can, just wandering around smiling in the florescent light), and then the checkout lines are often scandalously long, so by the time you're out it's way too late to think about opening another good store. Your double-opening options are then reduced to 8 a.m. bullshit openings, things like The Gap and Marshall's and other worthlessness.
Here, it was actually 5:19 a.m.! I could head over to a store that opened at 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m.! The 5:30 lines would be maxed out, but the 6 a.m.'s were ripe. Staples was the pick here. An OK chance at a cheap laptop and a decent chance at a cheap big computer monitor so I could give up the crap 15" screen I had. Realizing the unique nature of the opportunity, speed was of the essence. Staples was only a quarter-mile down the strip, but I had to drive because (aside from the fact that I'm American and that's what we do) I didn't want to risk having new electronics get wet. No time to find the snowbrush, the sleeve of the wet pea coat made quick work of the slushy mess on my windshield and I was off and in the Staples line by 5:24 a.m.
Just 30 seconds after I got there, a 15-year old black kid came running up, who would soon appear to be the stereotypical Hollywood black kid with a heart of gold, polite as hell, who had dragged his saint of a mother out that morning to drive him around so he could shop (she appeared 2 minutes later, having dropped him off and then parked the car to potentially save a place or two in line, classic Black Friday teamwork in action). I listened to them banter for 10 minutes with a respect and a familiarity and a closeness that teenage boys and their mothers aren't supposed to have, a closeness that suggested that maybe they had been through a lot of crap together. If one of them had played a trick on the other, they probably would have called it "joshing."
This kid varied from the Hollywood stereotype of the black kid with a heart of gold, however, by being an enormous nerd.
Eventually, even though I had taken to hiding my C.O.P.s to prevent unnecessary weather damage, it is impossible to hide a C.O.P. from a serious Black Friday shopper. And so Black Teenage Nerd asked to borrow my C.O.P. I acquiesced, happily for the only time that morning.
He muttered to his mother "There it is. Twenty one POINT five inch full HD Monitor. NineTEE dollars. Minimum 10 per store." Over-enunciating words out of sheer hope and joy.
A pit of guilt opened in my stomach.
Now he's up on his tiptoes, neck peering. To his mother: "How many people are in front of us?" There were about 40, I figured. "I think about 60." Maybe there were 60..
Don't ask don't ask don't ask.
Continuing to his mother: "I hope they aren't all here for the monitor." Now to me, handing back the C.O.P.: "Here you go." And then the awful question: "So ... what are you here for?"
I was there for the same monitor he was there for. We were Black Friday competitors, and this immediately changed our relationship, except at this point, only I knew this. What would happen if we got in the store and there was only one left? This was fantastically unlikely, right? I shouldn't worry about that. Still, I needed to be prepared for things like this. What if I got the last one and he was all bummed out and I felt sad for him. Would I give it to him? No, that would be condescending and racist. Best to be non-racist.
"I'm here for ..." maybe I should lie. Just tell him I'm here for something else so he doesn't get all jittery on me. Argh. That won't work. The store isn't that big. He's a nerd, so he's smart so he'll find the monitors fast like me. He'll see me with a monitor and know I duped him.
The truth was the only option. "I'm here for the monitor."
Fear in his eyes. "The Acer Twenty One POINT Five?"
Sheepishly: "Yes." I had just lowered his odds of getting a monitor by 10%, and he would naturally be sad.
But maybe not. 5'11" 225 pound 37-year old males such as myself do not have people's eyes on their bodies very often, but I did now, as Black Teenage Nerd was sizing me up. The phrase "I can take this guy" was very clearly written across his face. I shifted my weight ever so slightly, leaning my shoulder in the direction that made it clear that, yes, I am ahead of you in line, stuffing my C.O.P. back into the pile with my others, finally breaking eye contact.
At around 5:40 a.m., Staples Ticket Guy came out, handing out high-value-item -tickets on four items: "the Garmin," "the HP laptop," the "eMachine laptop" and "the camera." This is how they were referred to, and no one had any problem with this. No one needed clarification. We all knew exactly what he was talking about, and here is where I realized that maybe I was the only one holding my C.O.P.s because I was the only one that hadn't memorized them.
The passing out of the tickets caused an immediate culling of the line, with some of the "winners" heading to their cars to wait the last 20 minutes out of the rain/sleet/snow mix and cold and with some of the "losers" heading off to see if they could steal a 6 a.m. doorbuster at another store. Having convinced myself earlier that scoring the laptop would be too good to be true, I felt no pain even though the laptop tickets ran out only eight or nine ahead of me in line.
Black Teenage Nerd and I both began to smile. We had both realized that whatever the reason for the line culling, it meant that people were not aiming to get their hands on the Twenty-one POINT Five ahead of us, so any line culling could only help us. As Staples Ticket Guy worked his way down the line with the tickets and fielded a few questions, we heard no one even ask about the monitor. Our odds were going up.
And just like that, Black Teenage Nerd and I were friends, able to chat a bit over the next 20 minutes (with Black Teenage Nerd using nerd shorthand, posing one-word questions to me like "Gamer?" to which I responded with hip retorts like "Pardon me?").
And we were right to lose our fear, because we both eventually got our Twenty One POINT Fives once we got into the store. In fact, we were the first and second people to get the Twenty One POINT Fives. This was mainly because, in Staples' attempt to sell overpriced monitor protector screens, they had taped large "Monitor protector screens for only $14.95" flyers on holiday green paper in big letters onto each monitor in the stack at the back of the store. While about 10 people were standing in front of the monitors when Black Teenage Nerd and I got there, they were zombie-like staring at the pile, all trying to figure out if the things in the boxes were the monitors or were the $14.95 protectors, those there with a friend talking animatedly and waving their arms and looking around for Staples customer assistance, no one wanting to be the first idiot to pick up a monitor protection screen thinking it was a real deal Twenty One POINT Five.
Navigating around the pile, Black Teenage Nerd and I were possibly the only people there able to think to actually look at the box and see that yes, these actually were the Twenty One POINT Fives. We apparently were also the only two able to read the giant "21.5 INCH ACER MONITOR ONLY $89.95!" sign above the pile. After Black Teenage Nerd and I each grabbed one, the entire crowd's eyes locked onto us, herd mentality pushing them to grab one, but not strong enough yet.
I had pity. I think I said a quick "yes, these are the monitors," but maybe I just telepathically communicated it. Whatever the communication source, the damn broke and several hands lurched at the pile to claim Twenty One POINT Fives while I walked away (looking closely at the box in hand a third time to make sure I wasn't going to the checkout with a $14.95 monitor protector), managing to be first in line at the Staples checkout.
But back to Sharon and Target.
I had decided, based upon the line, that Lego Troll Warship was an appropriate purchasing goal for this Black Friday. My six-year old son loves complex Lego sets and excels at putting them together (and my wife and I are bizarrely proud of this) and we had struggled a bit with ideas for what to buy him for Christmas and this was right up his alley. Normally retailing for $90, unavailable anywhere on the internet even -- when you search for it, you get the weird result "unavailable in the United States."  I mean, with Lego products rarely discounted, grabbing it for $50 felt like a steal and would let me lock in a guaranteed $40 savings.
At the time I decided this, I hadn't realized that this was an utterly ridiculous thing to strive for. It was basically no different than Sharon's Bakugan-based Black Friday strategy. I was setting my sights too low, repeating the error I had made in my Black Friday Cheap DVD Player phase. Managing Black Friday expectations and setting Black Friday goals properly is the largest part of the mental game of Black Friday. Black Friday shopper expectations are all over the board. You have fools that appear five minutes before store openings, thinking they were going to score real merch. Compare those fools to those that are fourth in line at Best Buy and worry that they won't get what they came for. The fifth rule of Black Friday is that you can determine whether you are an optimist or a pessimist in life based upon whether the merch you get on Black Friday is better or worse than what you expected.
I justified my Troll Warship strategy to myself based upon the store map. Did I mention that there were maps? At about 4:30 a.m., a hunchbacked Target employee, whose age I would estimate at 94 years old, could be seen slowly working his way up the line, passing out something. What was it? This was the only topic of conversation in the line for the next five minutes. All the BF Vets were sure that it was high value merch tickets, but some of the signs were off just enough to make them doubt themselves, the fact that the man appeared to be handing the somethings out indiscriminately, that he didn't seem important enough to be entrusted with such a task. When he finally worked his way back to us for our handout, we discovered that it was just a map of the store (identifying where the doorbuster merch was) and a free target bag.
This caused some consternation amongst the BF Vets. Stores that "ticket" for high value items favor the old and infirm (as can be seen at Staples, because you get your ticket, then you can go sit in the car and you can wait until the rush all gets in the front door if you want). Whereas "no ticket" stores will draw the vicious and pushy that can improve their position via nefarious means once in the store. I think most stores that don't use tickets do so because it helps staff morale to see the idiot customers running and tripping through the store. In any event, the lack of tickets was apparently why Target Segway security followed closely behind Map and Bag man, to lecture us (this a guy who probably got into department store security due to his lifelong desire to fire a Taser) about love for our fellow man.
The map only confirmed my inclination to be a conservative pussy about the whole thing. The maps showed that Lego Troll Warship was to be located reasonably near the front of the door, at the Western edge of the Boys' clothes department. I could grab it, lock in my savings, and then turn to the next item. You see, deep down I wanted an HDTV, even a small crappy one, and I figured I was probably the only thirty-something professional male in the United States that enjoyed sports that did not yet have an HDTV, as I had been depriving myself in a puritanical and masochistic fashion, stemming from a retarded impulse to prove to my wife how easy it was not to buy things you want. In any event, the HDTV was not the primary strategy. Lego Troll Warship was the primary strategy.
The next 20 minutes went quickly. My reading material helped; I handed out my C.O.P.s a few times. A drunk man came up and yelled at his wife because he thought she was supposed to be in the Wal-Mart line and he had been looking for her for 30 minutes, "and it was fucking crazy over there, and here you are in line at Target, bitch, without even telling me?!?! Give me the damn keys; I'm going home!" Of course, the most important part of this rant to us in line was how it validated in our Target decision by confirming the insanity of Wal-Mart. But the solidarity of the crowd allowed the wife to roll her eyes and turn her back on her husband. He never got the keys, nor did he get in line with her. As we were all trudging ahead in line, he was standing there, leaning against a trash can in the snow. Good for you Black Friday!
Finally, at 5:00 a.m. on the nose, the line began moving.
As the line of those waiting around the store got sucked inside -- if the a blimp were overhead, this would've looked to it like Lady from Lady & the Tramp (Target) devouring the spaghetti (the line of BF Vets) -- my linemates and I began to reach the mouth of the store. As we did, however, several groups of vicious line-jumper gangs were sprouting from everywhere, running up from their cars (where they had apparently waited in warmth) popping up alongside of us, seeking to join the line wherever they pleased. Despite prior promises of justice, Target Segway Security was standing by blithely, talking to Target Non-Segway Security, discussing Segway performance characteristics in snow. In the snow, with snow falling, lights flashing, pained faces on dirty women, carrying inappropriately dressed children in crappy coats (why are you waking up the kids for this?), I immediately termed the line-jumpers the refugees.
I got into the doors of the store and the natural order of the line began to splinter further into those that wanted carts and those that didn't care. It struck me that if I could just get my hands on Lego Troll Warship quickly, I could probably get to some of the other merch. I was now faced with the choice of my means of getting to the place where Lego Troll Warship was. What I was really asking is: Would I run? Was running OK? A number of people plainly found running to be acceptable; indeed, everyone physically able to run appeared to be running, although this was in fact only about 15% of the crowd. In the course of about 20 feet, I tried out running, dropped it, tried out walking casually -- realized that trying to act cool after waking up at 3:30 a.m. in order to shop at Target for Legos was a touch pointless -- and ultimately settled upon something of a speedwalk with moderate arm action.
Within 45 seconds I was in the western edge of the Boys' clothing section but, looking around, I could see no Lego Troll Warship. It was all Boys' clothing. I spied a bunch of boxes over there on some shelves; but those were Candy Land and other board games (why were these in a clothing section!?). Looking around some more, nothing resembling a box of Legos could be seen.
The map! I knew I hadn't gotten this wrong, but there was nothing else to do but look at the map. Mine, which had gotten wet, had ripped in half in my pocket. After reassembling the puzzle, I confirmed I was in the location where the Lego Troll Warships were supposed to be.
There was singing. An unseen man was freestyle singing "This is a great day. What a lovely glorious day" to a tune he was crafting on the spot. Hearing others' victory cries while my plans were turning to dust doubled the tension level. I must just not be seeing it! I turned around looking, spun some more, looked around again, finally noticing that my arms were flying out from my body from the centripetal force of the spinning, first a 360, then a 720 and more.
The red target carts began appearing the aisle. Were those small sized carts? They looked smaller than normal. No, the carts were normal sized. Those were just large sized HDTVs.
Where is Lego Troll Warship, dammit!?! Maybe there is a Target worker I can talk to. There's no Target worker anywhere near me! Actually, there's no one near me at all!
Indeed, despite the fact that the store was filling up, no one was within 30 or 40 feet of me in any direction. I thought: if any other BF Vet had been looking for Lego Troll Warship, they would have been standing there with me, confused like I was. But there wasn't anyone else there. And it became very clear me to that this was because I was the only idiot that had woken up at 3:30 a.m. for Lego Troll Warship, and that Lego Troll Warship was still going to be available (if it was available at all) in 30 minutes. Lego Troll Warship plans were scrapped. But what to do next?
HDTV? According to the map, the epicenter of HDTV land according to the map was far from the electronics department, wedged in near women's delicates, actually, only adding to the mystical allure of high definition. But the map was unnecessary. The carts full of HDTV's had an almost gravitational power. It was soon apparent where to go through a simple reversal of the vectors of the carts sprouting off in all directions. But I felt I had little hope now. I could see at least a dozen people with televisions and there couldn't be that many more. My Lego Troll Warship escapade had wasted only two minutes or so, but at this point people that weren't even in line at 4:55 a.m. were probably getting into the store.
Approaching HDTV epicenter, it got crowded. I started to use maneuvering skills I hadn't employed since roaming the halls back in junior high and high school, even breaking out a spin move to avoid a cart, a move I had previously only ever employed in jest. The first palate I could see had 2 boxes on it, but they were tiny, not televisions at all. Next to it was a palate stacked with televisions, but they were the 40 inch plasmas that weren't really all that good of a deal. On the other side is where people were coming from with the real bargain: the $246 32" LCD HDTVs.
The cheapest 32" inch in the country on Black Friday.
There was a woman who wasn't quite yelling, but was definitely not using what parents refer to as an "indoor voice" either, attempting to get across the plasma palate to the LCD palate, imploring passersby for help, as if we were to toss her a rope or something. As I ignored her and went around plasma palate I saw five $246 32" LCD HDTVs left.
You have to hand it to Target . The five $246 32" LCD HDTVs were on the palate vertically, standing up on end, as placing them horizontally would have required the person with the $246 32" LCD HDTV above yours to remove it before you could remove your own $246 32" LCD HDTV, which would have been sheer chaos, but these five ... make that four ... now two ... were easily grab-able.
I was twenty or so feet away now, but, adrenalin now coursing, senses sharp, I could see that everyone closer than me already had their prize and was walking away with their $246 32" LCD HDTV in hand. I ducked and weaved, sucking in my gut as much as possible, feeling the rack of women's clothing tilt as I pushed past it, praying it wouldn't topple. About five feet away now. A hand appeared out of nowhere, claiming the second to last $246 32" LCD HDTV (six rule of Black Friday: touching with any part of body = ownership). I was past everyone, through the clothes, my feet were on the palate now and I took one large moon step across the palate and my hand landed on the final $246 32" LCD HDTV. My pinky immediately felt pressure, as another hand hit about a second after mine. I took two steps forward and was now straddling my $246 32" LCD HDTV, riding it like a wild stallion.
Whatever downsides in life I have experienced in recent years from being a large man were rectified, as today it was only upside. Feral, I turned to the scrawny middle-aged line-jumping refugee whose hand was on my pinky, watching her withdraw quickly before even spoke. I got my arms around my $246 32" LCD HDTV and lifted, stepping off the palate and carting my prize off as quickly as possible from the crowds.
Instead of trying to go back the busy way I came, I decided to go deeper into women's clothes and work back to the aisle indirectly. Immediately it was clear that my initial directional choice was a bad one.
"Make her give me one!!" one woman wailed, hands on the arm of the supervising Target employee with responsibility for the palates, the other hand pointing at a woman standing by the wall with four televisions.  "It's limit one! how come she has four!"
Hearing "she has four," others began to gather. "Why does she have four?"
The Target employee was aging before our eyes. "The limit will be enforced at the checkout."
"She has to give three of them back."
"The limit will be enforced at the checkout. The 40 inch plasmas are still available, you could get one of those."
"We don't want one of those."
"The limit will be enforced at the checkout."
"Well, what are we supposed to do, follow her around?" This was clearly a threat, and it seemed to me that it could apply to anyone walking around with a fresh, mint condition $246 32" LCD HDTV. I turned around and headed in the opposite direction.
The $246 32" LCD HDTV was heavy, and even when I wrangled a cart -- good job again Target! by sticking carts throughout the store -- the $246 32" LCD HDTV sat in it awkwardly, and you had to keep one hand on it to steady it, at least that's what I assumed because everyone else was doing it, and then I realized that maybe it was a refugee protection trick or the pleasure of just handling the merch.
I basked in the glow for three minutes, wandering around the store with a smile, seeing what the hubbub was here, figuring out what people were rushing to buy there.
I made my way over to the toy section. Sharon, having no idea who I was, came rushing past wild-eyed but smiling with her shopping cart, the cart entirely empty but for a small Bakugan package at the bottom. Wading into the toy section, after much aisle wandering -- a task becoming more and more difficult with a $246 32" LCD HDTV in a cart in a quickly filling store -- I finally located, in the single empty aisle in the entire toy section, a grand total of three Lego Troll Warships. But they were there, and they were priced as advertised at $49.99. Not a single box was missing. No one had touched them before I did.
I checked my cell phone for the time. 5:12 a.m.
In my lifetime, this may have been the earliest time of day at which I could state with certainty that no matter what else happened that day, when it ended, I was going to look back on it as a good day.
 Black Friday not only screws up Thanksgiving day to some extent, its effects also ripple through the week. Because Black Friday occurs on a holiday weekend, even a BF Vet may have no reason to wake up on Saturday morning or Sunday morning early. Getting to Sunday night, they mindlessly flick the "ON" switch, with thousands BF Vets across the country finding themselves awakened at 3 a.m. on the Monday following Thanksgiving, having forgotten to reset the time.
 At this second HAR HAR, I was laughing too, except I was laughing mostly at the continued and inexplicable financial viability of the business of, and linguistic viability of the words, Radio Shack.
 Continuing the whore analogy waaay too far: it was open for all comers; anyone could just come up and walk right in, greeted by something old and wrinkly at the entrance.
 This fact about the shrinkwrap I learned in line. Indeed, a large number of the facts in this story have not been directly sourced or substantiated, but are facts I learned in line from BF Vets. And most are from conversations not really directed to me, but which I overheard while pretending to look at my C.O.P.s.
 These club stores really do have Black Friday deals, but I keep thinking that there's going to be some kind of nasty or tawdry catch involved, so you'll need to find out about them somewhere else.
 A word about Black Friday circulars. A few years ago, I took my Cleveland Plain Dealer out to my folks' house -- which is only 60 miles West of Cleveland -- and compared its circulars with those in the local paper. Many circulars were identical. In others, the pictures and layouts in the circulars were nearly identical, but the prices weren't even close. BluRay players that were $329 in one were $289 in the other. TVs city folk were required to pay $799 for was just $749 for the rural folk, leading me to think that rule number four would have to be: Geography matters! You need to wake up even earlier on Black Friday to drive the 60 miles away from civilization if you really wanted the deals.
I like to think that the pricing has to be adjusted down in rural areas because rural shoppers are savvier, won't be tricked by OfficeMax-style fake-doorbusters where the doorbuster price is worse that someone else's normal price. I like to think of this as a testament to some fundamental deep-seated superiority in those of us raised in small towns and in rural areas. I imagine dark rooms in the bellies of Arkansas (Wal-Mart) and Minneapolis (Target), giant rooms with hundreds of computers, running algorithm after algorithm, and at the end of a room a meeting room full of serious men listening to the presentation being given by the smartest of the smart. One of them points at the midwestern area of the map, stressed to the point of tears. Another unleashes an anguished cry: "we've discovered that if we raise the price by only 2% to get more profit, they just completely stop buying! They're uncannily brilliant! Damn you Huron County!!!!"
On the other hand, with cheap land and cheap labor, maybe it's just cheaper to run a store in the sticks.
 Doorbusters are always at the back of the store, as the hope is that whether you nab a doorbuster or not, you will fill your cart on the walk back to the front.
 With the Danish Lego corporation apparently afraid of what would happen if their proprietary pirate technology became available to young Americans.
 As you shall see, I am apparently a pessimist.
 At least I hope he was drunk, because someone that is that much of an asshole whilst sober would have no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
 I expected some serious reactions to the line-jumpers from those of us in line (my blood began to boil a bit), but the Target crowd -- true to its left-liberal roots -- showed that it doesn't mind cheating, so long as it is done by poor people.
 Yes, I know it doesn't exist. But this isn't science class. You know what I mean.
 In Junior High, two classmates and I had written a dozens of pages on the "Laws of the Hall" with diagrams showing how to best navigate the crowds, particularly in our school where we shared the halls with the much bigger and scarier high schoolers. At that time, I had no idea that my study and preparation would develop skills that, after 25 years of dormancy, would come alive.
 Nevermind about the brand. Why is that important? It's just labels, man. Labels are for phonies is what Holden Caufield would tell you, were he here right now.
 But not like a Wyld Stallyn.
 Little considered is how Black Friday is a black day for cable companies as well, as the hordes with new HDTV's (including $246 32" LCD HDTVs) descend upon them to exchange cable boxes, doing you the favor of allowing you to stand in line for an extra 30 minutes to remind you of how you got to stand in line earlier that day.
 What's the play here? Hang out at the checkout and, like a teenager outside a liquor store, try to get people to buy the $246 32" LCD HDTV for you? Maybe call your family and get them to Target and then, once you have four people, check out? I guess there are options.