The Great Metropolis face-off! Burning Man vs. the Big Apple, round 1: Costco

In honor of Burning Man’s 2010 theme of Metropolis, I’ve decided to run a series of comparisons, some light-hearted and some serious, between Black Rock City, aka Burning Man, and New York City, aka the Big Apple. The former has been a temporary home since 1998 for me; the latter is currently my permanent home.

Costco in East Harlem, NYC, 2009
This past Sat., as late afternoon turned into early evening, I walked through East Harlem toward the new Costco, passing by community gardens sponsored by various big box retailers and a dog alertly sitting beneath a “beware of dog” sign. From a distance, the new building blazed with blinding lights, drawing in the curious, some of whom gripped special postcards that waived the store’s membership requirement for the day. Costco occupies the ground floor of a new multistory complex that will soon have a Marshall’s, Target, and Home Depot stacked on top of each other. When transplanted to space-starved Manhattan, a sprawling mall strip of big box stores is vertically upended, a literal totem to consumerism.

As I navigated the aisles, I became reacquainted with what Americans find desirable – wide aisles stocked with large quantities of frozen food, bulk items encased in excessive packaging, and a sea of clothing stacked on tables. Unlike other chain stores in NYC, which often have shortages that bring to mind Soviet era austerity, this store’s shelves were well-stocked. After checking out the aisles and going through the cashier’s line, I finally remembered one of Costco’s quirks. The store does not provide shopping bags, presumably because customers will dump their bulk items directly into a car trunk, rather than walking home with their purchases in hand. So I packed my own bags, not realizing that the staff by the exit wanted to first compare customers’ receipts against the items in shopping carts. A moment’s thought about this guard against “shrink,” a not uncommon practice at other big box stores in NYC, suggested that stores may not only distrust their shoppers, but also their own cashiers.

Costo Soulmate Trading Outlet in Black Rock City, 1998
Black Rock City’s version of Costco is, well, more interesting. Rather than entering a big box to shop for bulk goods, you duck into a large tent. Under the shade and seated in a chair (much appreciated amenities in the middle of a desert), you complete a survey that enables you to make a connection with your playa soulmate. I patronized this service during this theme camp‘s first year. Guided by an earnest “employee,” I filled in answers to questions, had my photo taken for the Costco card, which was then printed and handed over to me, and I went on my way to other adventures. This camp’s quirk was that a member would only get the name of a soulmate and his/her camp location, but it was up to the intrepid to locate the soulmate at Burning Man. While working with fellow volunteer RonJon to erect the dome structure for Media Mecca, I had my first Burning Man experience – my soulmate Moondog, adorned in Elvis-style sunglasses, a Hawaiian print shirt, and a necklace of shark teeth (or something similarly pointy), came running up, with gift in hand. 10 years later, RonJon still chuckles about this unlikely meeting in the desert.

What’s preferable: pushing an over-sized shopping cart around, or making a memorable connection? Thanks for the memories, Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet. Big Apple: 0, Burning Man: 1

Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet, San Francisco Decompression, 2009
Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet, San Francisco Decompression, 2009

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