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Aletha Soule


Waiting for Scarlett Johansson

(originally posted June 23, 2010) Sofia Coppola made a sweet little film a few years back called Lost in Translation, where an incandescent Scarlett Johansson meets a morally exhausted has-been actor played by Bill Murray in a hugely impersonal skyscraper hotel in Japan. Needless to say, the terrain they find themselves lost in is not just Japan.

I’m thinking of this movie on Wednesday, standing in the middle of Target in Rohnert Park, when it suddenly occurs to me I’m in the remake playing the Bill Murray role, with Target standing in for Japan. Scarlett Johansson is nowhere in sight. A good number of exceedingly large people are however, gliding around me with shopping carts, some motorized, as I stand stock still with what feels like a classic Bill Murray look on my face ~ bemused, baffled, slightly demented.

The carts have no trouble navigating around me because the aisles are inordinately wide. Wide enough to swing a cat. They are also very clean. In fact the entire enormous store, as big as side by side football stadiums, feels like one big clean country. I know I am lost in more ways than one, and I’m pretty sure I don’t speak the language.

The journey which lead me here actually started on Tuesday in another Target down the road in Santa Rosa. My good friend Bonnie Z and I left Healdsburg just after nine heading for a nursery to buy chef flats of basil and peppers for our gardens. As I also needed umbrellas for the front dining patio, and Bonnie needed a large grill for Dragonfly, we agreed on a ‘brief’ foray to Target and Costco to see if mega store America couldn’t fulfill our needs.

Contrary to popular opinion, I am not a shopping snob. I will shop anywhere when the mood strikes, the Salvation Army, Ross, Barneys, Bergdorfs ~ bring it on. My usual litmus test for purchase is that sweet spot where beauty meets quality. But since I opened the restaurant and the gallery and began in earnest to meet the people who grow my food and make things I choose to sell, more and more, before I make any purchase I find myself wondering how an object came to be sitting before me in the first place.

Like most of us I can play fast and loose with the word ‘need,’ when desire strikes, rendering its true definition useless. How many pairs of shoes does a woman really ‘need?’ As far as I’m concerned it’s an unanswerable question, right up there with angels on the head of a pin. The frustration around sourcing a decent American-made umbrella every summer has lead me to make peace with the fact that until such a time as I start hand-looming them, Chinese umbrellas live in my world. It was the name right next to the words "Made in China" that took me by complete surprise.

If you haven’t been following the sad tale of what happened to Smith & Hawken, once one of the most wonderful companies in America, here it is in a nutshell: In 1979, Dave Smith and Paul Hawken opened a shop catering to organic farmers in Mill Valley in order to sell beautifully designed, handmade English gardening tools. That they were equally mindful of ecological and social justice issues made them visionaries for their time in developing what we now call a sustainable business model. The shop grew in its product line, and then into many shops and then into a corporation. But it held the line with its original ethical model. I still have the English bench (same one as Kew Gardens!) I bought from the flagship store. It has survived 28 years of storms and intense summer heat, yet managed to age to a beautiful smooth gray patina, yet with an integral strength which is rare for a garden bench (except for the ones in Kew Gardens!).

Smith retired after a few years to open a bookstore in Ukiah, but Paul Hawken soldiered on at the company, in addition to writing a number of significant books on his journey trying to create a mindful but profitable business in America. So far, so good. Then, in 1993 when Paul Hawken retired, the company began to change hands. It went first to a retail conglomerate that expanded the line and eventually went bankrupt, then was bought in receivership by a private investment company that quickly unloaded it to the Scotts Miracle-Gro conglomerate. Scotts Miracle Gro is a corporation at the top of a merchandising food chain quaintly known as "Grow and Kill" (to us layman, that means a company that sells gardening and chemicals). The irony of this purchase was not lost on anyone, except perhaps the GM at Miracle Gro, who blithely told the SF Chronicle that his company had only purchased Smith & Hawken to “make us seem more green than we are.” As if that wasn’t unintentionally droll enough, he concluded, “We want to enter categories less chemically oriented and much more female."

The first thought that occurred to me as my hand hovered was that perhaps the fact that Smith & Hawken had landed at a company known for using great design to move merchandise wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hadn’t great design been an indisputable part of Smith & Hawken’s original précis? Isn’t getting companies to acknowledge that things need to be designed well before they are sold a first step toward the redemption of production? The back-story on Target lines like Michael Graves and Issac Mizrahi is that their contacts with Target saved these iconic designers ~ both of whom had expanded too fast and had lost (or were about to lose) control of their creative empires. Designers need to keep working if they are to survive but it's valid to ask if this kind of pseudo design ultimately does more harm than good. It wasn't a question I was going to be able to solve with this one purchase however, so with a 'what difference can two umbrellas make' shrug I slung them in my basket, paid for them, and Bonnie and I got the hell out of dodge.

What happened next was a perfect ‘you can run but you can’t hide’ experience. I had not bought enough umbrellas. This necessitated yet another trip to Santa Rosa the next day, where I was belatedly informed that during the night gremlins (my word) had crept into the store and fiendishly marked all the remaining umbrellas in stock on close-out to make room for back to school gear (in June?) Since that morning they had been selling like hotcakes ~ that’s Target shoppers for you the salesgirl helpfully informed me ~ and they were all gone. Except for the floor model which they agreed to sell me. That’s when I made my fatal mistake. I asked if she might check to see if any other Targets had more umbrellas.

What commenced after that I am not completely sure. Target strategically places a popcorn machine at every entrance to their stores, so the first thing you smell when you pass through their doors is comforting. It’s a clever marketing ploy to make you feel relaxed, to slow time, and now that I’ve subjected myself to it I can attest to the fact that it really works. For the next forty minutes, life as I knew it went into suspended animation. I suspect this is where millions of Americans get lost in our country, some of them forever. The longer I waited the more I felt compelled not to give up and thus squander the time I had already wasted.

They located the last Made-in-China Smith & Hawken umbrella in Northern California, also a floor model, down the highway in the Rohnert Park store. This meant time spent in horrendous traffic because THEY WILL NEVER FINISH WIDENING HWY 101, then involved getting lost looking for the right shopping center. I found it but then had to park a mile away because, incredibly, all the spaces in all the rows directly in front of the store were marked handicapped. There simply cannot be that many handicapped people in Rohnert Park, can there? According to a clerk I asked once I finally reached the front door, if you count obesity as a handicap there certainly are.

Helpful as he was on this issue, neither he nor three other team members could tell me where Backyard World transitioning to Back To School World was located. So I began to wander, more Andy Warhol than Moses, but still a woman on a mission. I did not find umbrellas. I found: a row with 14 different toaster models (every single one made in China), two rows of shiny trash cans (ditto), picture frames, pickled things, Target sheets, hampers, rings for the shower, and row upon row of plastic this and that (ditto ditto ditto). I contemplated for far too long a close-out sale that included some very attractive lamp shades. I steered clear of the sections I knew were outright wrong ~ food and drugs ~ though by now the word drugs was starting to sound pretty attractive. It wasn’t until I found myself in the George Foreman aisle for the THIRD time that things started to unravel. I love George, but I do not want to be alone with an entire row of his grills again in this lifetime. Where had I gone wrong? I knew better then to get lost in translation.

I knew better because for me, at this point in my life, there is no middle ground left for pragmatic decision making when it comes to what I purchase and what I eat. I don’t have a large family to feed anymore. I know too much about how things are made. It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that when an object like a toaster is put together on the floor of a Chinese factory, then packaged and shipped and tracked and trucked and stocked on the aisle of your megastore of choice, it shouldn’t cost “only $12.99.” Something is seriously wrong with that equation. If you have any doubts about where our greedy dependence on cheap fossil fuel driven products has lead us, turn on your TV and take another good look at the oil burbling up from the depths of the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico.

Still, it’s possible that the aroma of fresh hot popcorn or even Scarlett Johansson might have saved me from this dénouement, which I know full well will bring a world of tsuris for me in the future. The thing is, only a few aisles away from where they pop their corn at Target, the lovely smell dissipates completely. From there on out, as far as you can smell, all you get when you sniff the air is the vaguely synthetic odor of guilt.

Links: Paul Hawken has a number of wonderful books really worth checking out.

Go Local is a Sonoma based co-op that supports local businesses and runs a number of exciting educational programs throughout the year. Join them!

Consider alternatives when you make purchases, especially big ones for your home. Friends recently demurred buying a foreign made fridge and bought a Sun Frost instead, beautifully made right here in Arcata California. They love it.

Or how about giving Pottery Barn a pass the next time you need dinnerware. Most of the best designs you see in catalogues like Crate and Barrel are stolen from small but talented designers. For gorgeous pottery that will grow old with you check out Aletha Soule, whose studio is right down the road in Sebastopol.