Economic downturn and the return of the BlueLight special

In a time when the gulf between the rich and the not-so-rich has grown greater than ever before, the American collective identity has deluded itself into thinking we’re a nation of soon-to-be-millionaires. One almost expects Feivel from “An American Tail” to jump out at any moment with an exuberant chorus of “There are no cats in America –“

When a Westport catering queen took over Kmart, and even The New York Times was on its knees every time Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) so much as redecorated a store, it’s pretty obvious we were at some sort of economic zenith. With even discount stores being appropriated by the culture of the wealthy, it’s no wonder so many Americans are surprised to find the economy to be worse off than we thought.

We’re catching whispers of an economic downturn, albeit via an Ari Fleischer-run game of “Telephone.” A “Saturday Night Live” rerun this weekend had President George W. Bush addressing the issue of recession, to which he responds, “If the weather’s nice, can we have it outside?”

Indeed. But I can’t admit to being any more knowledgeable about the economy. I get nervous with more than a twenty in my wallet, and my portfolio says “Trapper Keeper” on it. Pinch hitter for Alan Greenspan I am not, but even I can see signs that our economy’s ready for a little nap — or maybe hibernation.

Example? At the peak of the Great Depression, Yale replaced dorms and rooming houses with luxurious residential colleges. Completely irrelevant present-day corollary? The Pierson dining hall just got a fro-yo machine and replaced standard-issue plastic cups with real glasses. Make a run on the bank, kids.

Seriously, it’s hardly time to start stuffing Benjamins under bunk beds. The age of crazed computer-driven wealth is dead, yes, having succumbed to a pink slip-wearing reality. But before you start weeping, remember that for the middle class and poor of this country, Internet boom times didn’t make groceries cheaper, a nice place in the Hamptons closer in reach or Fifth Ave. boutiques any more relevant.

For so many of us, the economic boom of the late ’90s didn’t improve our lives. Worse, it might have left us with less than before. A joke used to make the rounds of the witty elementary school set: “What did the bird say when he flew over Kmart?” “Cheap cheap cheap!”

Alas, no longer is Kmart seen as a haven of hillbilly deals. For a few years now, stores of the Target-Walmart breed have redirected their energies towards captivating the ever thrifty but increasingly wealthy American consumer. Thanks to Martha Stewart’s virtual absorption of it into her evil empire, Kmart has undergone a recent image improvement. The change resembles Gourmet Heaven versus Krauszer’s on a macro-scale, but squabbles over $1.89 Pepsi seem minor compared to the gentrification of middle class America.

I’m not in a position to criticize — my bedroom is so Martha Stewart Everyday-ed, it looks like it fell out of the Sunday white sale circular. But that doesn’t make me any less offended when I read the style pages of “W” and see that the $9.99 T-shirt I bought at Target because I can’t afford anything else is being lauded as the perfect “throwaway” accessory to go with a pair of $900 Jil Sander leather pants.

I don’t want to hear about the Hudson Cafeteria’s $10 macaroni and cheese. To the rest of us, it’s not “comfort food” or “nostalgic” — it’s Kraft dinner and 59 cents with a Shaw’s Rewards Card.

But just when you thought consumerism was poised to smother middle-class America, Chuck Conaway, chairman of Kmart, has some good news. Attention Kmart shoppers: The BlueLight special, the Kmart Corporation’s weekly mega-deal on some random piece of merchandise, replete with the accompanying flashing blue lights in aisles and frequent intercom announcements urging customers to buy, is back.

Sending shockwaves through middle American households everywhere, it was announced Sunday that the BlueLight special will return after being discontinued 10 years ago. For those who didn’t grow up in strip mall-lined suburbia, let me explain this is on the level of returning “Thundercats” to the after-school cartoon lineup or giving the Coca-Cola deal back to Max Headroom. It’s the restoration of a cultural institution — or something.

Hopefully Kmart’s reincarnation of the BlueLight special heralds the return of a more sensible ethos of American consumerism. Sooner or later we had to tire of clothing our dogs head-to-toe in Old Navy and shelling out a year’s tuition for the Eddie Bauer version of a lumbering SUV.

Sure, it won’t be easy trading in bull market-driven fantasies for the reality of my middle class existence. I’ll miss my dreams of one day owning a matching set of ostrich-skin luggage and a nice South Beach condo, but I’m pretty excited about the first special of the second coming of the BlueLight: Pepsi at an impossibly affordable 31 cents.

Take that, trendy Upper East side retail imports. Let the economy take a break — I’d rather practice for Tang next year than send out resumes anyway.



Sarah Merriman is a junior in Pierson College. Her columns appear on alternate Thursdays.

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