Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Devotion Bought In Bulk



Register columnist

We long ago let our membership to Costco lapse. Hubby and I did the math and figured that $50 was too much to spend every year for the privilege of buying toilet paper. But lately I realized that choosing not to be Costco members was possibly the most un-American act we've ever committed.

Costco is like the United States itself: vast, overwhelming and seemingly teeming with options that are just this side of necessary.

One toothbrush might be good enough for a Chinese peasant with bleak prospects for the future. In this country we buy 'em by the fistful.

And how about those glorious packages of paper towels? Oh, man. Those golf-cart-size mounds that you just want to throw your arms around and squeeze? Is it me, or do they scream, "This is America! And we have a lot of sopping to do!"?

Pardon my jingoism but I recently set foot in Costco for something other than a flu shot for the first time in several years, and I'm feeling a bit awe-struck. I had this idea to accompany my mom to Costco in Huntington Beach for a column about how she visits the warehouse superstore as often as some people visit their refrigerators.

The store is set up for, at best, monthly trips, so I don't understand what she does there every few days. But my writerly conceit vanished as soon as I walked upon the hallowed grounds of this Grand Canyon of savings. From the mountains of cereals to the prairie-style dinette sets to the ocean of children's toys made of foam - I knew I was someplace blessed.

Standing in the home entertainment section, with the sounds of "Ice Age" mixing in the air with the hum of the floor-cleaning Zamboni and the scent of free chicken tender samples filling my nostrils, it was all I could do to keep from placing my right hand over my heart and pledging my allegiance.

NSA, forget cell phones: Target households that don't buy their kiwis in bulk. Because if you haven't bought into Costco, you haven't bought into America.

One of the beauties of Costco is that it plans your life for you while tricking you into thinking you have options. Like an immigrant who believes the streets of America are paved with gold, a naïve Costco member will walk into the store, thinking they're going to buy cleaning products and produce, but leaving with a $1,600 children's treehouse.

The gorgeous treehouse display will make you believe that you've been in the market for a treehouse for quite some time, and, well, golly, aren't you just glad you came across this treehouse in the nick of time? You know, before you bought that other treehouse you'd been eyeing somewhere else.

This is how my mother came to own an outdoor patio set that is slightly too big for her back yard, a digital camera she barely knows how to use and a grandfather clock.

"A grandfather clock?" I remember asking her.

"Yes, I always wanted one," she said.

"You did?"

The other bit of Costco genius, the one that squares nicely with the American way of life, is that nothing sold there is meant to be used in its entirety. We, the people, do not take kindly to running out of things - be they Listerine or crude oil.

So we don't look at a 36-muffin flat and think, "There's no way I'm going to eat all of those." We look at it and think, "I'm going to have kids someday. And one day, one of those kids is going to want a muffin. If I buy these now, I'll be prepared."

During our trip, Mom filled her cart with a shirt for her brother, baby clothes for my cousins' kids, a package of three large bottles of hand cream, vitamins, blackberries, flats of water, a henhouse's worth of eggs, toilet paper (for me! I was so excited), paper towels and a few other items. Grand total: $174.

I've spent that much on groceries. But there's a difference - and I guess that difference explains why I didn't march over to customer service and renew my Costco nation citizenship right there and then; why, even in these post-9/11 times of heightened patriotism, I'm destined to roam the wide streets of suburbia as a downtrodden, one-toothbrushed expat: When I buy food, I buy food.

As we were leaving, my mom wanted to brainstorm a plan for the rest of the day.

"Let's drop this stuff off and get something to eat," she said.

"Didn't you just buy $174 worth of groceries?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, examining her cart. "But there's nothing to eat."

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