Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Stepping out into the shade

A few weeks ago in this space, I lamented the overabundance of options when it came to shopping. We were talking about gifts at that point – namely, how not-so-many years ago, something like a pasta maker would have made for a unique gift; today, the only way you could find a unique pasta maker is if it was emblazoned with the logo of a defunct minor league basketball franchise. (And even then, there are probably 20 Hamden Bics pasta makers on eBay.)

But there are times when overabundance, or even abundance, are fine. If you’re shopping for Pop Tarts, say, it’s nice to be able to choose between “Frosted Strawberry” and “Brown Sugar and Cinnamon”. And if you have to browse past the “Strawberry Milkshake” flavor to get to your Pop Tart of choice, well, so be it.

My needs are fairly modest. And with a metro area population of one-and-a-half million, I thought Milwaukee was excellently positioned to have a fair selection of just about anything I might desire.

And so, about a week ago, my sunglasses went missing. My guess is that there’s someone who went in to have blood drawn at the Froedtert Lutheran Memorial Hospital, and walked out with a somewhat-used pair of sunglasses that a previous patient (that’d be me) left on top of a 1998 issue of Newsweek. But they could also be underneath the driver’s seat of the car, among the gas station receipts, graham cracker crumbs, and travel brochures that temporarily occupy our 2 ½-year old, and which somehow migrate from her car seat to the front of the car.

Anyway, my office is in the basement of a downtown mall. So you’d think I’d be in an excellent position to procure a replacement set of shades. My overt goal was to get a cheaper set (you could actually put together an interesting line graph, charting my increasing age and the declining amount I’m willing to spend on sunglasses), but frankly, my real goal was to stop squinting when I walked outside.

As it turns out, sunglasses are not an easily obtainable commodity in Milwaukee in mid-January.

I brought along a co-worker with good taste in eyewear, mainly so I wouldn’t return home with a pair of sunglasses that would cause my wife to melt on the floor in a puddle of laughter.

My first stop was the T.J. Maxx located conveniently at the top of the stairs in front of my office. This is a store that sells everything from faux-zebra-skin throw blankets to reversable belts to Brett Favre jerseys. And yet there was only one sunglasses display, it was in the women’s section, and it was mostly empty.

I skipped the idea of going to a department store, partly because I thought the chances of finding inexpensive sunglasses there were small, and partly because despite the fact department stores have 17 entrances, I always manage to enter either through the perfume section or the women’s lingerie section, and both those sections frighten me.

So the next try was Walgreen’s, which I thought would be great, because then I could come back with not only sunglasses, but Tylenol, postcards, and Fiddle Faddle, too.

My co-worker and I split up and fanned out around the store. Found the cheap reading glasses. Found the eyeglass repair kits. But where the hell were the sunglasses? We flagged down a sales clerk.

“Oh, sorry, we don’t have sunglasses this of year,” she informed.

And then it dawns on me. After seven years in Arizona, in a city that gets 310 sunny days a year, I’m living in a place that’s just not that sunny, during a time of year that’s even less-sunny than usual. For a time in Arizona, I had three active pairs of sunglasses – the ones that were always around my neck, and a pair in each car (along with the pair of unknown origin that floated from car to car and was so ugly that it would only be used in a sunglass emergency, such as if I missed my exit and ended up driving into the sun). In Milwaukee, a person permanently wearing sunglasses around his neck would be pegged as an extra-cool librarian.

There turned out to be a sunglasses kiosk in the mall, operated by a person from some Eastern European country that probably isn’t all that sunny either. But all the sunglasses were $12, and we managed to find me a pair that my wife noted, “wasn’t really thinking much outside the box for you.” But I’m thinking I’d look like a pretty cool librarian.

Then, on the bus this morning. The Number 31. As we rounded the corner onto Wisconsin Avenue, a brilliant sun, just rising into the Milwaukee morning burst forth from behind the downtown buildings. And then the other epiphany hits me. On the rare occasions when it’s this sunny in January, the last thing you want to do is make the sunshine dimmer.

So the sunglasses stayed in my pocket. And of course since the forecast for the rest of the week is for increasing clouds, with rain, snow and sleet, they’ll probably stay in my pocket for a while.

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