Shop Till You Baaah

On the year's busiest shopping day, sheep flock to Union Square, and aliens inhabit the oxygen bar

I know the day after Thanksgiving is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. In economic theory. I've never really experienced the "mad rush" firsthand; usually traumatized by overconsumption of food and family, I hole up in my house with videos and leftovers, quivering as news reports of vigorous spending roll over me like a vague tryptophan dream. But this year is different. I have a mission. Fortified by sweet yellow squash and agreeable conversation, I step into the brisk morning after. It smells like fall. The air is thin and sweet, tinged by the mossback fragrance of burning wood from the only fireplace in the neighborhood that hasn't been replaced by a dirt-brown gas heater. I huddle under my Russian fur cap and breathe in the warmth of my wool scarf, pretending the seasons have weight, imagining the flat gray sidewalks to be icy and treacherous. Except for two old men sipping coffee at the local bagel shop, there's not much to challenge the fancy. It's quiet. A winsome character in a stocking cap and long striped scarf pedals by on his bicycle, weaving down the middle of the road in broad, indulgent sweeps. He waves.

"Pretty nice, huh?" he calls like an old friend. I nod and shamble toward BART.

There's a line for tickets. Strange.

Down below, the platform is teeming with people shifting their feet, conducting loud, anxious conversations. They seem busy. I wonder dimly if they walked through the same morning as we push onto a warm train heading downtown. In the brief ride I try to prepare myself.

I am not prepared.

There are thousands of people, rushing, pushing, shouting, weaving in and out of doorways, swinging bags and purses, following some unseen migratory tide that swallows me in an instant. Street vendors wave and bellow, competing with panhandlers who wield salutations from God; invisible horns blare through steam rising from grates on the street; the smell of hot salted pretzels dissolves over hot idling car engines; music pours from all directions. In the windows, lights are twinkling, tinsel is shimmering, and fake snow abounds. Everything is as it should be.

But not exactly.

I watch an awkward teenager -- pants floating an inch above his spindly ankles, ink-stained backpack hanging too low over his wrinkled T-shirt, stringy hair barely hiding his overlarge ears -- shuffling a few feet behind his stylish and determined mother. As they approach Old Navy, the boy quickens his shuffle and tugs on her leather coat sleeve.

"Uh, Mom, I don't think we should go in there, maybe," he says indicating the horde of shouting protesters blocking the sidewalk with clothesline. The shirts strung along the line spell out "S-W-E-A-T-S-H-O-P B-O-Y-C-O-T-T."

"Really?" she asks as if looking over a mental catalog of necessities.

"Really, Mom. Please." The mother frowns and turns on her heel, pushing back the way the pair had come.

Farther up Powell Street, there's an altercation, not between protesters and police, just between two people caught in each other's way. There's some shoving, and uninvolved bystanders can't get out of the way. Some flower bins are knocked over. And the tide carries on.

Near Union Square, pro-Bush activists line the street facing Macy's, shouting, "Gore is a cheat!" A police van arrives. On another corner, members of PETA(People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) wave giant signs that say, "I love anal electrocution." A line of people dressed in eerie sheep masks files into Union Square, bleating, "Bah-bah-bah-uy," with fake money hanging from their downtrodden sheep mouths.

The sheep were asked to leave Niketown, but they seem undaunted. Collecting under the giant Christmas tree, they pass out "Boycott Christmas" stickers and T-shirts that depict sheep saying, "Consume."

The sheep giggle and funnel back onto the sidewalk. "Bah-bah-bah-uy," they bleat, dragging shopping bags through the crowd. Some shoppers laugh and point before they hear the chant: "Black sheep, black sheep have you any stuff? Yes sir, yes sir, but not near enough."

"I don't get it," says a young woman clutching a bag from Saks Fifth Avenue. "Things are weird down here."

The sheep flock is momentarily scattered by another fight, this one between a young gutter punk and a large woman with security-guard backup. Nearing a Starbucks, I am tapped on the shoulder.

"Is that real fur?" asks a young PETA activist with long blond hair and large blue eyes. I touch my hat and nod.

"You are a fucking asshole! A fucking asshole! What, you think that makes you look good or something? It doesn't. Nothing could make you look good. Do you know how those animals die?"

"Do you want to tell me?" I ask. But she doesn't. She tells me I'm stupid, and an asshole. She calls her friends over. PETA follows me, following the sheep. The sheep carry on, quietly bleating their message to passing shoppers. The girl from PETA suggests loudly that she should just punch me in the face and get it over with. Mario Zapp, a young reporter from the Media Alliance, tries to defuse the situation and the girl screams in his face as shoppers push by. One of the sheep suggests leftist infighting is not the answer. The girl storms, "You think you're fucking protesters; you're idiots." Zapp suggests the girl might just be overprivileged and angry at her mom; the girl calls him a queen. The Bush supporters march down the street chanting, "We have the White House!" The anti-Old Navy clothesline lurches past, impeding traffic on all sides. Cops blow their whistles and wave their arms, trying to keep the wallets moving. Somewhere nearby a chorus begins singing "Deck the Halls."

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