We have a nice time, our family. We get about and do things, here and there, but I can never rid myself of the suspicion that not only do other families know a great deal more about what is going on, but they buy tickets, know where to park, and actually manage to participate in the things that are going on.
By the time I read in the newspaper that the circus is in town, the tickets are sold out. In June last year I hired a babysitter, drove to a mall in Virginia, and presented myself to an salesperson as one in need of a bathing suit. The salesperson’s elegant nose lifted 45 degrees, “You can try looking over there,” she said, gesturing scornfully towards a rack of dowdy one-pieces, ” but really, it’s a little late in the season.”
In June, it is too late to buy a bikini. In August, the flights for March are fully booked. School places for September are allocated in December–February at the latest. If you really wanted to rent that tiny coastal cottage this summer, you should have put yourself on the waiting list three years ago. We know a wealthy couple who spent ages on a waiting list to join a famous golf-centric country club, and who will only be eligible to whack the little white pill down the fairway in their golden years.
What is it about modern life? Are there, in fact, too many of us, as Malthus and Paul Erlich predicted? We can feed ourselves fine, thanks; as a nation we grow fat and hulking. Living standards and life expectancy are still climbing, yet by the time you need some seasonal item, it is sold out. By the time lousy weather makes you think, “Should we go somewhere nice?” the place is already gone.
Last Friday, I realized I had not laid in sugary supplies for Sunday. I popped into a supermarket, found my way to the Easter displays, and stood there agog, in genuine amazement. Apart from three absurd bags of purple plastic Easter “grass” and nine unappetizing pecan-studded marshmallow ovals, almost every other bit of seasonal paraphernalia was sold out. There was a lone, dented Cadbury’s Creme Egg. There were four bags of “premium” jelly beans. There were half a dozen empty cardboard boxes gathering dust, but not a single egg-dyeing kit left. Three days before the Resurrection, and it was Ash Wednesday all over again.
“You’re a little late,” the cashier shrugged, as I jumped up and down in front of her. “Try the drugstore.” I dashed down the block, and there found myself in competition with a small crowd of grabbing females for the last four packs of pink bunny Peeps. One woman’s tanned arm kept shooting out, her gold charm bracelet jangling savagely. Her cell phone went off, playing Mozart’s “Alla Turca,” but she ignored it and beat the rest of us to the last hollow egg with one of those pretty pastel sugar turrets.
We live amidst material plenty unheard-of in human history, apart from that enjoyed by pashas and emperors. Supply arises at the merest whiff of Demand. Yet in America, mankind is not in chains, but in line.
Perhaps clever plutocrats are forever leading us by the nose just ahead of where we want to be. If so, I applaud them; “The Fever Swamp” endorses capitalism. But I fear there is a larger question, linked to economics certainly, but larger, even, than that grim science: Why is it that you can’t just show up for anything anymore?
I suppose I am still smarting from what happened the next morning.
Beep! Beep! Bee–!” I smack the alarm clock and slip silently out of bed, into my clothes, and out of the house. It is pitch dark, and I am walking briskly downtown with a head full of giddy nonsense. At 7:30, I happen to know, tickets will be distributed at a Park Police station on the Ellipse–that bit of lawn between the White House and the National Mall–to the annual White House Egg Roll on Easter Monday. Walk, walk, walk. The birds are beginning to chirp; the streets are deserted. Scurrying along, I entertain happy little fantasies. What if I’m the first person there, hours before the kiosk opens: Do I sit down, or what? I imagine a jolly chat with a policeman, along the lines of, “Well, M’am, aren’t you the early bird?”
A car swishes by, and I quicken my pace. What if its occupants are hoping to get tickets to the Egg Roll, too? Rosy fingers of dawn reach up from the horizon, and around me deliverymen begin thwacking newspapers at townhouses. I imagine an upsetting scene in which I am offered three tickets, yet have four children. “Triage?” I hear myself saying piteously to an unfeeling bureaucrat, “You want me to perform triage on my own children?” I speed my steps still further, haunted by the sudden vision of buses pulling up alongside the Ellipse, disgorging hundreds of tourists who have flown to Washington in order to get in line to acquire the coveted, staggered-time tickets to the White House Egg Roll. Walk, walk, walk. Lafayette Square across from the White House is deserted, and I exhale with relief. Don’t be silly, I think; no pedestrians, hardly any cars. Beside the Treasury building I pass a small Peruvian hawker erecting a souvenir stand where over the course of the day visitors will buy FBI and CIA and “Future President of the United States” t-shirts, sweatshirts, and onesies, respectively. Otherwise, the place is deserted. Nipping around a final security barrier beside the Treasury, I emerge into the open and there is–
–a SEA of milling faces. It is like Exodus. It is like the Sermon on the Mount, minus the fishes. A toiling crowd of refugees is already walking away from the throng, some carrying bedrolls, folding holding camping chairs, all with drawn faces.
“Guess we shoulda come at 3 A.M.,” said a defeated-looking brunette.
On the other side of me, a woman is laughing to her companion, “Well, maybe God doesn’t want us to waste our time waiting in line.”
It turns out that just as I was fatuously congratulating myself on the emptiness of Lafayette Square, the Park Police decided to “cut the line,” and clear out all the losers who hadn’t the faintest chance of rolling eggs on presidential lawns. Hundreds of eager patriots had arrived the night before and had actually spent the night in the queue that I was too late to join. “We had three thousand people here at 5 A.M.,” a Park Policewoman told me, opening her arms wide and backing away, as if, instead of one bemused individual, I was a rampaging mob.
The point is, how do people know? Do they sense that the circus is coming to town? Do they, in January, develop an organic feeling that it’s only six months to swimsuit season? What inner voice tells them to show up eleven hours before the sanctified distribution of tickets for an Egg Roll that will require them to line up yet again two days hence? I trudged back home in the thin light of dawn; weary, footsore, and feeling like a chump.