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'Black Friday' was an illuminating experience

Getting that big-screen TV? It was secondary to enjoying some time with 'Friends in Low Places.'

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A woman wearing a pink fright wig was walking through the crowd, handing out plastic cups of Chex mix dipped from a five-gallon pail.

I’d already eaten the cold turkey sandwich I packed, and gladly accepted a cup of Chex mix.

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It was unusually warm for late November. The snow that had fallen earlier in the week had melted, and fog swirled around the lights that illuminated the parking lot.

Black Friday excitement was building.

I’d set my alarm for 3:30 and had gotten to the store at four o’clock on the advice of a friend who’d turned Black Friday into a daylong outing and promised that the waiting was often more entertaining than the shopping. I’d only been waiting for half an hour, and already recognized the best parts of a tailgate party, Mardi Gras and Woodstock.

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It was a time before retailers began their Black Friday sales on Thursday afternoon or stayed open around the clock; waiting and anticipation were still big parts of the ritual.

My curiosity had gotten the best of me, and I felt drawn to see for myself what made Black Friday such a cultural phenomenon. But even though I’d arrived an hour before the store would open, there were already more than a hundred people in line ahead of me.

Somewhere in the crowd a guy with a guitar did a pretty good job with “American Pie,” and by the end of the song he had nearly everyone singing along. He graciously accepted their applause and asked if there were any requests.

Someone shouted “Free Bird!"

Instead, the guitar guy launched into a rendition of “Friends In Low Places.” It needed some work, but was still a pretty good sing-along song.

Near the front of the line, two people wearing matching workout suits were jogging in place. I was pretty sure I knew who was going to get to “Electronics” first.

I slipped a hand into my coat pocket and felt the shopping list I’d scribbled on the back of an envelope. It was a short list, but I thought it might be best to have it on paper in case I got caught up in the excitement:

  1. 32” flat screen TV
  2. Doritos

The television took up most of the front page of the store’s Black Friday sales flyer. The price was absurdly low, and was printed in a font significantly larger than the bottom-of-the-page disclaimers that announced “Limit 1” and “No rain-checks.” I was hoping “Limit 1” wasn’t a reference to the number of sale-priced televisions allocated to each store, but I was optimistic enough that I’d already cleared space on my home entertainment center and rented a movie known for lots of car chases and explosions.
A shadow moved as someone passed through the bright light that spilled out from inside the store, and from the head of the line someone shouted, “They’re opening!” It triggered a countdown; only a few people on “ten … nine … eight …”, but the whole crowd -- by now more than three hundred people in a line that snaked into the parking lot -- joining for a raucous “three … two … one!”

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The doors were thrown open and Black Friday began with a frenzy -- “Running Of The Bulls” meets “Mosh Pit.” It made a lot of people in the crowd laugh, and I was one of them.

The joggers dodged their way to the front of the line, and from behind the protective barrier of the cart corral employees in bright red smocks encouraged shoppers to “take your time!”

No one did, and by the time I got to the electronics department the shelf reserved for the sale televisions was empty. A hand-written sign taped to the now-vacant shelf mockingly reminded me that there were “No rain-checks.”

I left the store with a family-sized bag of Doritos (not on sale), drove home, put my old TV back on the entertainment center and had a tasty-but-probably-not-healthy breakfast while I watched the car chase movie.

I only crossed half the items off my shopping list, but I was glad I got to experience Black Friday first-hand. It satisfied my curiosity and told me something about human nature. And it was fun.

Would I do it again next year? Nope.

Next year I’m going to get there at three.

Dan Conradt, a lifelong Mower County resident, lives in Austin with his wife, Carla Johnson.

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