Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Shopping with Zizek, at Walmart

This is a pretty good story, and yesterday as I was telling it to a student I realized I should write it down.

It happened a couple years ago when Slavoj Zizek was in town. Before Zizek's talk at Loyola, I went out to dinner with him and two of my colleagues, John Clark & Josefa Salmón. For some reason John or Josefa asked me if I could drive the group to dinner. I don't really like to drive, or even be in cars. But of course I said yes; maybe that's the only reason I'd been invited, after all—so that I could drive the rest of them. In any case, I picked up Josefa, then John and Slavoj, and we headed to one of our wonderful restaurants on Magazine, Lilette. Travel and Leisure had named Lilette the "sexiest dining room in new orleans"—so where else would we have taken Zizek?

We had a narrow window for dinner, because Zizek's talk was scheduled to begin at 7:30. Our dinner reservation was for 6:00, but we got to the restaurant at 5:30 thinking we'd get a drink first or just eat early, playing it safe to have plenty of time to return to campus for the talk. But when we got to Lilette it wasn't open yet. We started meandering along Magazine to find another venue where we could kill 30 minutes, when all of a sudden Slavoj semi-blurted, "Can we go to a Best Buy?!" I remember looking frantically at John and Josefa in the rear-view mirror, like "Did he just say what I think he said?", and I started racking my brain to conjure the nearest Best Buy store, but couldn't think of where one was, so I asked, "What do you need to get?"

"An ee-pod!"

"What?" (all of us asked simultaneously)

"An EE-POD!!"

"Oh, an iPod!"

Josefa just then remembered that there was a Best Buy out in Harahan, but there was no way we would have gotten back to dinner (much less the talk) in time. So at that point I suggested Walmart. Then John got excited, because the Walmart on Tchoupitoulas was where some of the infamous looting had taken place after Katrina, so he thought it would be the perfect place to take Slavoj pre-dinner. (Apparently, Slavoj was supposed to get an iPod for his son, or a friend of his son, or something—and they were far cheaper stateside.)

So next thing I know I'm driving down Tchoupitoulas, the street that makes a sound in the car like going over an infinity of miniature cattle guards, headed toward Walmart.

As we walked toward the store, perhaps exuding a bit of guilt or shame, Slavoj launched into an expostulation about the sheer visibility of consumerism, and how the warehouse-y, cavernous-feeling Walmart was so much better than high-end places, like for instance Dolce & Gabbana stores that conceal consumerism behind a sheen of glamour and minimalism. We were standing on the threshold of the store, taking in Slavoj's tirade and watching him gesticulate and begin to dominate the space, when I remembered that we were on a tight schedule. So I grabbed Slavoj's arm and I led the way back to the electronics department, because of course as a human raised in the U.S. in the 80s I have a built-in sort of GPS that automatically kicks on when I enter any big box store.

The iPods were behind one of those glass cases that have locks where the doors slide open for employee-only access. So first Slavoj had to peer through the little doors and select which model of iPod he wanted, and then we had to flag down a blue-vested worker to open the case and dutifully hand Slavoj the slim, plastic-wrapped Apple box. We all stood in line behind a couple buying pirate-themed earbuds; and then it was our turn, and Slavoj paid for the iPod with cash. Our conversation had turned from cultural critique to recent Hollywood movies, as we were surrounded by DVDs marked down to $3.99.

As we left Walmart the sun was setting, and the sky was that empurpled milky orange unique to the Gulf Coast. The dinner was good. And so was the talk. But the highlight of the night was shopping with Zizek, at Walmart.