Monday, November 9, 2009

The Costco Effect, Hong Kong & The Kindness of Strangers

My husband said it was crazy. So, of course, I had to try it.

It's all part of my Challenge Myself Campaign. And this time the Challenge is a trip to Costco, which may not seem like much of a challenge.

But instead of renting a car, as my husband and I usually do, I'd save that money and simply take a hand cart on the DC Metro to Pentagon City in Virginia, the nearest location, with my four-year old son.

The trip began smoothly enough. The Metro wasn't crowded. My son sat happily in the empty hand cart. And Costco wasn't teeming with Grandmas from thirty different countries engaged in some twisted version of an Olympic shopping event. Easy-peasy.

As usual when I'm feeling a bit too pleased with myself, things turn.

I soon fall under, what I call, The Costco Effect. The Costco Effect renders all cautionary voices useless. Logic and reason are no longer applicable. (Please consult my accompanying scientific graph for further study.)

Even my very level-headed husband came home once with an 8-foot high restaurant-grade shelving unit and a Little Giant ladder. Not so strange except for the fact that we are apartment dwellers who already own a ladder.

The Costco Effect.

For my part, I ignore a faint but stern voice warning me to perhaps not get everything on my list. "Umm, Girlfriend, maybe now is not the time to get a gallon of olive oil and a 6-month supply of laundry detergent."

Huh? Who said that? Ooo look. A quart of grade A maple syrup ...

The Costco Effect also skews one's concept of weights and measures. Every item I place in the vast expanse of the Costco shopping cart looks so tiny and light. And practical. We do use a lot of A-1 sauce, I reason.

The checkout sobers me up. I see my dilemma ride by on the conveyor belt. Two jars of kalamata olives. Two pounds of coffee. Four pounds of butter. A restaurant-size container of soy sauce. These all seemed like wise purchases a mere ten minutes ago. Now they taunt me.

My God. What have I done?

But there's no turning back. As I sign the receipt, the cashier looks at me with concern. Or maybe it's pity. It's so hard to tell those two apart.

I load everything into my hand cart, all 106 pounds. (I know the poundage because I added up every ounce, milliliter and quart and converted them to pounds -- a separate Challenge in my Challenge Myself Campaign.)

I watch as the back left wheel begins to bend outward under the weight.

"Don't you do it. Don't you dare break off."

I stare at that wheel, the wobbly, rickety wheel, and push the cart gingerly, inch by careful inch, past the receipt-checker person and out into the parking lot.

That's where it hits me. This is all so familiar. Haven't I learn this lesson already?

Exhaust fumes from a fleet of SUVs cloud my vision and suddenly the year is 1994. I am leaving Mainland China via a secured pathway into Hong Kong, still a British Colony, and everything I own is on a small, cheap wheeled cart.

I'm heading to my favorite Hong Kong hostel in the now demolished Chungking Mansions near the Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry, when a tiny pin holding the wheel on pops out. A thin, tiny, insignificant-looking pin puts the kibosh on all forward progress.

Luckily a stranger on that congested Hong Kong street gives me a safety pin. I MacGyver it into a makeshift pin that holds the wheel on long enough for me to buy a new cart. That whole "a chain is only as strong as it's weakest link" concept, as corny as it sounds, is so true. Back in the parking lot, my weakest link of a wheel is barely able to rotate, an important feature for a wheel to have if it's to be of any use.

It's decision time.

I could catch a cab and give up the Challenge. Or trudge onward pushing a 106-pound cart and a four-year-old who is growing tired and suspicious that we are not, in fact, on a secret scavenger hunt. Also we are now heading into rush hour on the Metro, a very different animal indeed.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” I say out loud in a deep slouch. My son looks up at me with his earnest, blue eyes, furrows his brow and says, "You can do it, Mommy!"

I shoot upright. Yes. Yes! I CAN!

I regret my decision immediately.

The weight of the cart makes turning nearly impossible. I execute ridiculous 5-point turns to simply steer the damn thing in and out of elevators and around corners. I swear to myself to never again take the advice of a four-year-old in matters of transportation.

To complicate matters to a stupid degree, the doors of the Metro cars are vicious. They close on anything that doesn't clear its path in time. Suddenly those annoying, half-audible recorded messages reminding me of this mechanical fact are decidedly pertinent. Personal.

The doors open. Passengers get off. I have seconds to get the behemoth of a cart and my son safely onto the train amid a crowd of commuters. Then it hits me. I can't get the cart over the gap between the platform and the train car.

"Doors Closing," warns Ms. Train Message.

Suddenly a man, weathered and bone-thin, jumps in front of me and lifts my cart high enough for me to board as I simultaneously push my son onto the train.

I touch his arm. Thank you, Mr. Stranger Sir.

I want to offer him the pound of peanuts from my cart. But he's already gone into the crowd. The cart creaks. The wheel bends further outward. But we are on the train.

Now we just have to find a way to get off.

Eight stops later at Columbia Heights I recruit a young man in headphones to help me and he graciously agrees. Everyone is being so nice. Several fellow travelers joke and commiserate with me about my Challenge. I wonder if residual remnants of The Costco Effect have infected those around me. Or maybe it's because I look so vulnerable, so out of place on a rush hour train.

I still have to walk about 3/4 of a mile from the Columbia Heights Metro station to get home. But there are taxis everywhere should that wheel decide it's had enough. And there's also my husband waiting for me in a pub with a tall pint of Guinness. (This is an actual picture at the pub. That's my husband, my child and my shoulder.)

But I did it. With the help of a very agreeable child and several strangers, that is. And I'm fine with that. I'm also fine with the fact that I spent more on Guinness to repair myself than I would've spent on a rental car. Money well spent, I say.

And anyway...

I did it.