When we were first living in California, in the late 1980s, I had a little baby to take care of and stories to write for Maclean’s magazine and the need to feed and clothe the family for as little money as possible. I scouted the charity stores and the thrift stores until I found this amazing chain called Ross. Everything was in there, waiting to be discovered. There might be ten pairs of badly made jeans for $14.99 but the eleventh would be a Liz Claiborne or a Donna Karan or something, for a ridiculously low price. It was addictive. We came back to California in 1995 and I vowed to stay out of Ross (partly because I had discovered Target, which we don’t have in Canada either) but by the time we went back home a year later I was going into Ross far too often. It’s the same instinct that makes me stop the car when I see wooden furniture in somebody’s garbage. The bargain-hunting instinct.
At least that’s what I thought it was. My Ross ardor has cooled in recent years, partly because the stores don’t feature quite the same bargains as they did. There’s that same overtaking of the sales racks by Made in China jeans like Levisse or Calvin Kleinburg that I see in the snack brands at the local Walgreen’s. But I have been in one store near here three times in the week and a half we’ve been in Berkeley. They have a charity campaign going where, if you donate a dollar to the heart and stroke foundation, the staff will yell out your name over the loudspeaker followed by a lukewarm Yi-hoo! I did the Ross Flip through the racks as I always have (it’s like the Queen’s wave, only strong enough to move entire racks of sweaters). The music seemed different from a decade ago. I started to listen.
Some guy was whispering, Baby, baby to heavy bass guitar notes and telling me we could have a good time. Okay. I like a mix of music as much as the next person. All around me women were looking for bargains, doing the Ross Flip, maybe spending a little more time in the store than they planned to. The next song was something about I like a woman who treats herself like a queen, a woman of substance with some sway to her sassy . . . Was this music intended to do something? Attention shoppers, My name is Randy, and I believe just you and me should sit down and get to know each other. Periodically the Yi-hoo chorus would break in for shoppers like Clementine Josephson, who spared a dollar from the bill she rang up buying five pairs of designer shoes and is now going home to have a bath. Back to the music. My name is Lance, and you know I’ll treat you better than that schmuck you’re living with, all to the sexiest sound you ever heard in retail.