January 17, 2020

On Black Friday, Who Dwells in Tents?

Photo by Getty Images

It is the central irony of American life that the national holiday about gratitude anchors the biggest shopping frenzy of the year. Here’s what I have, here’s what I want. Or to be more precise: Here’s what I’m so thankful for that I’ll break bread with my most quarrelsome relatives, and here’s what I’m so desperate for that I’ll spend my day off waiting in line.

I, too, am guilty of deal hunting, perhaps guiltier than most. I tell myself that I’m only doing it to be one with the zeitgeist, among the hungry masses, buzzing from store to store with a kind of nostalgic retail enthusiasm that for much of my adulthood has seemed bygone. I’m looking for a new phone and new socks and I’m not sure which I need more. But I’m also just looking.

Reporting on Black Friday in 2017, I interviewed “sneakerheads” who take it far more seriously than they take Thanksgiving. Setting up shop outside a boutique as early as Wednesday, they endure two full nights in the cold to keep their place in line. A few of them — the more experienced, perhaps, — pitch tents on the sidewalk and host Friendsgiving inside.

My days of camping out for discounts are behind me. Nevertheless, this Black Friday, I surveyed the wares with a couple of friends visiting from out of town. The four of us walked along Melrose and then down Fairfax, catching up and catching some rays. Two boys with payot, standing on a corner in black suits and white shirts, invited us to wrap tefillin. But I already had, and my friend, despite my nagging, was too cool for it. “I had no idea you were so pious,” he said. “Not pious,” I cautioned, “only observant.” (And hardly that.)

The juxtaposition of these contrasting American attitudes — gratitude and wanting more — is also present in Judaism. In prayer, we mix our pleading with praise, thanks and literal bowing. As we count our blessings — the same ones, every day — we remind ourselves to ask for things that matter. I’m not sure that the proximity of Thanksgiving to Black Friday has the same effect, but who’s to say that flat screens and nice kicks aren’t the things that matter?

Just off Fairfax, we passed by a tent surrounded by a mess of personal belongings still soaked from yesterday’s rain. It struck me that the tent, an essential motif in the book of Genesis, has possessed unusual staying power both as technology and as a symbol. The biblical tent is a site of hospitality and news breaking, a recovery unit, a hiding place and a crime scene — and that’s just in sefer Bereshit. Generations later, a tent becomes our spiritual core while we nation-build in the desert. 

On Black Friday in Los Angeles, a tent embodies the paradoxes of late capitalism. On the same block one can find a tent being used as housing of both privilege and last resort — used by a person who can wait two days in line for free Nikes, and by a person who has been waiting months to receive Section 8 housing. Our prosperous, international city produces these disturbing scenes of extreme inequality everywhere you look. Yet when we’re feeling distraught, society tells us to go shopping. And I did: I bought a pair of socks.

On more recent assignments, I’ve been interviewing Los Angeles’ unhoused for stories about the city’s failure to prevent homelessness. The people I met were strung out in a dozen different ways, and were on the streets for reasons well within and way beyond their control. All of them deserve of our fullest humanity. 

The day after Black Friday, we read in the weekly Torah portion that Jacob, unlike his brother Esau, a fierce hunter, was an ish tam — a man, Rashi says, who was not inclined to chase deals. The verse further describes Jacob as yoshev ohalim, a man who dwelled in tents. 

Maybe the nonmaterialistic satisfaction Thanksgiving elicits is so unfamiliar that we eagerly bleed out our wallets in search for something to show for it. If Black Friday momentarily turns us into fierce hunters, we should remember that our roots — the Jewish imperative of past and present — are in the tent.

 Louis Keene is a writer living in Los Angeles. He’s on Twitter at @thislouis.