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Book Excerpt from 'Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present'

Before the black Friday dawn, the sky is still a mix of dark blue and the sick sodium-vapor saffron of the suburban night. I park by the Beijing Chinese Super Buffet and walk across the lot to Best Buy, where hundreds of people—some in their twelfth or thirteenth hour of standing in line—await the day-after-Thanksgiving doorbuster sale. Best Buy will open at 5 a.m.

The shoppers are wrapped in their fleecies, hoodies, and wubbies. They have their grande lattes and their Krispy Kremes. Some pitched tents and now have their butts planted on portable reclining chairs that were purchased for the specific act of waiting around, waiting all over America, waiting as they’ve learned to do when Harry Potter novels are released, or when new generations of video game systems come out, or when reality TV producers hold auditions.

The line wraps around the big box. A news helicopter flies overhead to show the world itself at the beginning of another holiday season, and the theme never changes: See what it’s come to. Everyone looks up at the sky. Christmas is at our throats again.

This is the Centre at Preston Ridge, a mammoth retail strip mall, one of several “power centers” (as the real-estate guys call them) in Frisco, Texas, a boomtown outside Dallas. I walk past chain restaurants, box stores, and boutiques—including Fetal Fotos, a place to get ultrasounds-on-the-go, a Baby Jesus moment right there. So smitten were the developers with their site’s pioneer lore that they incorporated it into the design: Bronze sculptures of cattle roam the landscaped berms between rows and rows of parking spaces. Three limestone obelisks bear never-read plaques telling the story of the Shawnee Trail, which ran through here a century and a half ago. It’s the mythic saga of the millions of cattle driven through this very land and the difficulties faced by homesteading settlers, as if gently chastising happy consumers, Just you think about that hardscrabble life next time you’re wandering through Old Navy. Over another short hill, by the Hampton Inn, more bronze sculptures of longhorn steers are on a permanent stampede toward the Target and the TJ Maxx.

Several of the Best Buy employees (corporate calls them “blue shirts”) are imploring those of us in the crowd to stay calm. A couple of cops are here, too. I’m hanging back with a mother I’ve just met, who’s in her late forties. She has straight, shoulder-length brown hair, a nice, nervous laugh, and a look of determination in her eyes. Her daughter, who is ten, is wearing a fuchsia shearling jacket, her long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, and she twirls around and around with caffeinated anticipation, talking and talking. The girl tells me she wants a pink iPod nano for Christmas. She tells me she’s going to be Lucy in her school’s production of A Charlie Brown Christmas. She sees a Hummer H3 parked nearby and wishes her family had one. “But we drive a Taurus,” she says. The girl tells me her name is Marissa, and I write it down. (“Why do you write everything down?” she asks.)

The mother tells me her name: Caroll, with one r and two l’s. Caroll tells me what she’s here to buy today: a computer for her own mother, a washer and dryer for her older daughter and son-in-law, and a laptop for her son. I ask Caroll if it’s going to be a big Christmas for her family this year.

“Well, I don’t know,” she says. “What’s ‘big’?”

Excerpted from Tinsel by Hank Stuever. Copyright © 2009 by Hank Stuever. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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