Conspicuous consumption — What don’t we get?

Not long ago, I happened to be standing next to a guy at the Apple store in Century City. I was waiting by the register to pay for a new charger for my laptop; he was in line to buy the new iPhone. He looked like he was in his 60s and had had a few facelifts. When I asked, he said this was his second day of waiting in line: The day before he had waited 12 hours and finally “got” a phone for his daughter. I think he thought that meant he was a good, caring parent. He had returned and spent nine hours — so far — to “get” a phone for himself. Did he realize he was paying for the thing, and not “getting” it for free? I asked. He said he had the 3G, and wanted to upgrade to a 4G — which wasn’t really an answer to my question, but never mind. I asked if he had a job. He said he’s a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills — which, again, may or may not have been an answer to my question.

Now, I’m a huge fan of all things Apple, and I love my iPhone and MacBook almost as if they were human. And I knew it was none of my business what the guy does with his time, but I still went ahead and asked if he thought the 4G was going to sell out for good, or if he expected the first batch that goes on sale to have supernatural qualities — like giving a guy eternal youth, or something of equal value. He looked at me like I was fresh off a goat farm somewhere and said, “No, but I wanted to get it the day it goes on sale.”

Not that it made an impression on him, but I’m reminded of that conversation every time I hear about people standing in line to buy something in this country. I grew up with stories of people standing in food lines — the Jews of Esfahan during the great famine at the turn of the 20th century, my French grandmother in Paris during World War I, the Jews of Europe in concentration camps, the little African children with bloated stomachs in the early ’70s and thereafter. So it’s always a shock to me when I hear of crowds gathering outside Best Buy in the freezing night to wait for the store to open the day after Thanksgiving, or of all those rich and beautiful women outside Saks Fifth Avenue on Wilshire at 6 in the morning the day after Christmas. I’m stunned that a grown man on Long Island would get trampled to death in the stampede toward a plasma TV or a digital camera, or that women in Beverly Hills would fight tooth and nail over something from Chanel until the cops have to be called in to separate them. And I was saddened at the sight of all those women earlier this month being reduced to a heaving, sobbing, genuflecting mass over a bunch of handouts from Oprah. This, in the richest country in the world. Before television cameras and reporters’ eyes, on the evening news and on the front page of the Times, and isn’t it all so great? Everyone coos. Isn’t Oprah just grand? The queen of the talk show handing out cake to the studio audience! Isn’t it so good for the economy when people with 70 pairs of shoes get to buy seven more pairs at 70 percent off the original $700 a pair?

What do we look like, I wonder, to a mostly hungry, underprivileged, forever striving world? A nation camping outside Kmart in the snow, taking the doors off the hinges at Walmart, beating each other up at Saks and Neiman Marcus when our stores and closets are overflowing with things no one really needs to survive and our supermarkets are packed with food.

I know I’m being judgmental and self-righteous and generally unpleasant, but I really think a country’s decline or rise depends on the values its people uphold. I doubt many of the men in line at the Apple store, or the women outside Macy’s on Black Friday, would wait half as long in order to vote, say, or show half as much passion about most anything else in life. I know brisk sales help create a robust economy, but an economy based on creating and selling and owning things — an $1,800 leather belt, a $6,000 cotton dress, a $130,000 bag — at overly inflated prices, a culture that reveres the handing out of diamond earrings instead of (I’m sorry; I really believe this) coupons for old people to pay their electric bills, a rich city like Beverly Hills that can’t or won’t sustain a single bookstore, but where jewelry shops are a dime a dozen, is destined, I am convinced, for something much less than the kind of greatness this country once achieved.

I see the plastic surgeon in and around Beverly Hills all the time. Once, he sat at a table next to mine in a restaurant. I asked him if he was happy with his new 4G. He had no idea what I was talking about, but I’m willing to bet he was among the first to line up to buy the iPad when it came out. 

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.