Material Girls, and Boys

Are you adorning yourself with the latest and greatest material goodies? But buying "stuff" doesn't even make materialistic people happy.

Consumerism Consumes Us All

"Consumerism consumes us all."

Can Cher Ever Have Enough?
Can Cher Ever Have Enough?

 

"Consumerism consumes us all."

It was written in red and black spray paint across an old concrete bridge that spanned the Little Fork River in Northern Minnesota. It was 1977 and I was 11 years old and sitting in the bow of a silver canoe. The weeds were dancing in the slow moving water and my buddy Willy was sitting in the stern of the boat, doing deft figure eights with his paddle to keep the canoe from floating down under the bridge so we could ponder what the graffiti gods meant.

We sat there, Willy and me, both of us sweating in the mid-summer sun, each of us campers at Camp Thunderbird for Boys, in Bemidji, Minnesota.

And although we were in the same canoe, Willy and I might as well have been from different planets. Most of the kids at Camp Thunderbird were upper-middle class boys from the Midwest. We were from Mission Hills, Kansas, or Shaker Heights, Ohio or a whole mess of the Chicago suburbs. We coveted Richie Rich comics without an ounce of appreciation for the irony of the content.

But Willy was poor - probably one of the poorest kids I ever met. His folks lived on the Lake year round and his dad was a good man with strong shoulders who taught school in rural Minnesota during the long cold winters and worked for the camp in the summer. Willy attended the camp for free in exchange for his dad's summer work. He had yellow-blond hair and bright blue eyes and he mostly towered over the rest of the kids in our cabin. Hell, he had at least half a foot on me, and his voice hadn't even changed yet. I doubt we shared much common DNA.

But Willy was also my best camp friend, which made him my best friend altogether for all eight weeks of sleep-away camp for the past three years in a row. For July and most of August, we were pretty much inseparable.

On canoe trips, it was always the same. Willy took the stern and guided the boat and I would sometimes just shut my eyes up there in the bow. You just got to paddle if you're up front, Willy said. He didn't trust city kids to properly pilot a river.

And so it was that my eyes were closed that summer day when we approached that bridge on the Little Fork River, and it was therefore Willy who saw the graffiti first. What an oddly prescient message it was, one that I think he immediately realized had special relevance for our unique and unusual friendship.

"Consumerism consumes us all."

Willy read it out loud and I opened my eyes and saw black at first, the way you always do when you've let the sun shine bright on your closed eyes.

The words then came into focus for me, and Willy had already started that figure eight motion with the paddle. The canoe was holding still. He was gonna make us ponder that gospel for a moment.

"Schloz," Willy asked. "Whadya think it means?"

I turned around to look at my buddy and he was smiling like a fox. I thought of all the crap back in our cabin. Cassette recorders with REO Speedwagon, mess kits from the finest camping stores, fishing stuff with hundreds of dollars worth of lures packed messily into the tackle boxes stacked against the back wall.

Willy had a Swiss Army Knife and not a whole lot else. I don't recall that he ever complained, and I know that he loved that knife. He could carve a fair likeness of a Northern Pike from a bar of ivory soap in just under an hour, but for him I think the carving was more an excuse for just thinking. His house actually used one of those lamps that we all made at camp with stuff scavenged from the Bemidji dump. His was an old Schmidt beer can, a wire strung up through the middle and connected to an 80-watt bulb at the top. He used it to read books at night, he told me.

I shook my head and went back to studying the sentence. Whoever wrote it either stood up high in his boat or leaned out of his car to get it right. We were in the middle of freakin' nowhere, but the message was worth the trouble to whomever it was who left it there. The letters were all capital and written well above the river line. That sentence was meant to be read.

I know I read it and I know I remembered it well.

I recalled that message today like a dream as my family wandered in one store and out of another at the local shopping mall this afternoon.

"Consumerism consumes us all."

Do you remember Dawn of the Dead? For my money, it's maybe the best horror movie ever. Certainly it's one of the smartest. Wall up the survivors in a mall, give them everything they could ever want, and damn it if they don't think that they're happy at first despite the zombies that are banging on the doors.

What do those zombie want? They want to consume. They want to swallow the people who have allowed themselves to become the embodiment of the stuff that they covet - the toys and mattresses and all those gadgets from special stores. Who's mindless now?

Then, by some trick of creepy coincidence, I stumbled this afternoon on a DVD of Network at our local library. Boy, if you wanna be scared, go watch that one again. Watch Ned Beatty's infamous rant:

"There is no third world. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems; one vast interwoven, interacting, multivariate multinational dominion of dollars. Petrodollars, electrodollars, Reich marks, rubles, rin, pounds and shekels. It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today. It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things."

Network came out in 1976, and Willy was already smiling about its message in 1977. I certainly hadn't seen the movie yet, and I doubt Willy had either. It's just that the sentiment of Ned Beatty's gospel, of Romero's message in Dawn of the Dead, was captured for Willy in the simple sentence on the bridge, and he of all people didn't need a movie to tell him.

"Consumerism consumes us all."

That's what Willy was gently prodding me to realize. There's probably nobody wiser for one kid than another one from a different world. Willy was teaching me stuff, so my hope, I suppose, is that he'll see this post and get back in touch. I know he joined the Coast Guard ("Never trust a city kid to pilot a boat") and maybe he and I can grab lunch or a beer. I'd love to talk to him again about what consumes us today.

Schlozman's first novel, The Zombie Autopsies, is now available in pre-order in audio format.

 

Material Girls, and Boys