I used to get coffee at Pret a Manger almost every morning. It’s a noisy and bustling shop in Union Square, the sort of high-impact environment that teaches people how to shout at one another without sounding unfriendly. (“No, I said I would not like cream cheese!” he yelled at the cashier, smiling with his eyes.) The staff there has been rigorously trained, and no matter how large the crowds are, you can expect to get in and out in just a few minutes. Obviously this is because you’re gently shepherded through the stages of a scripted consumer experience, with the store’s layout, color scheme, music, temperature, and copywriting all doing their part to vectorize you. Later I would learn that Pret, which has more than 350 locations worldwide, holds its employees to stringent standards of affective labor, demanding that they touch one another frequently and display signs of authentic happiness, but I was only intermittently aware of this when I visited regularly. Usually I emerged (my coffee cup snug in its cardboard sleeve, to keep my hand from burning) with the prideful sense that I’d mastered the form of the transaction, with its nested sets of thank yous and predetermined courtesies. I knew the questions the cashier would ask, always with a brittle rictus of corporate-mandate cheer, and I knew the exact order of the questions, and how to answer them. The only bumpiness came at the end of the script, after I’d declined a receipt and the cashier had said, “Thank you, have a great day.” For a while, I responded, “Thanks—you, too,” and the transaction ended there. But I discovered that a slight tweak to this response could advance the dialogue to a third, hidden stage. If I said “You, too—thanks,” the cashier would say, “You’re welcome. Come see us again.”
I tried for several months to find some rejoinder to this, something to elicit some unscripted reaction. “Count on it!” Or, “Don’t mind if I do!” Or, “You know I will, you see me here every morning, five days a week!” Even my best efforts got me nothing but canned laughter (very lifelike canned laughter, it must be said) or another perfunctory exchange of thank-yous. But I was after a human moment. I wanted to parry one rote cordiality against another until the cashier, at last, gave in and acknowledged the ruse. “Look at us,” he’d whisper, “dragooned day after day into this hollow pas de deux of late capitalism.” Then we’d go rob a bank together.
I never cracked him, but even now I think of these Pret exchanges often: usually, oddly enough, when I’m trying to find a good gift for someone. I’ve never excelled at giving gifts. I’m not very considerate—it’s not always plain to me, even with a lot of thought, what my friends might like or find useful. There are people who take note of any modest expression of desire from their friends, who file the knowledge away and, for birthdays or Christmas, furnish the appropriate gift. I envy these clairvoyants, and I’m glad I’m friends with some of them, but I’ve never shared their talent, nor have I cultivated it, though maybe it wouldn’t even take much effort. Someone I’d dated once told me, a few months after we’d broken up, that my failures as a gift giver demonstrated my essential thoughtlessness as a person. I found this hard to argue with then, and I still do, even if I’m writing in large part to dispute it.
If you accept that giving and shopping are roughly synonymous now, then most gifts, as an expression of care and solicitude, can feel inadequate—tainted, even, by the same puffed-up sense of the transaction that marked my exchanges at Pret. Since everything we give and receive carries a whiff of the commercial, and because even our most intimate connections have come to be described in the language of the marketplace, I often feel a deep anxiety when someone unwraps something I’ve given. The recipient, after all, is inclined by etiquette to disguise any disappointment or indifference, so who knows how she really feels? I always imagine that the meaning of my gift, even if it’s a success, is outstripped by the images surrounding its purchase: of me going into a store, browsing, picking the thing up, and paying for it, or, even worse, clicking around online until I find something suitable, zooming in on photos of the thing and gauging its value to the recipient, typing my credit card number into the little box, willing the thing to arrive from some faceless distribution center with dubious labor practices.
When I was young and my relatives gave me packages with sticky residue from the price tags still on them, I would think, Why didn’t they do a better job of scratching it off? Ideally, it seemed, a gift would violate the first law of thermodynamics, materializing from nothing, bearing no traces of the excursion into the commercial world that produced it. Sometimes my relatives, reading or anxiously projecting some sign of displeasure on my face as I opened a present, would say, And if you don’t like it, I kept the receipt. What an admission of defeat! You might as well say: Sorry, I misgauged your desires as a consumer, because I’m not you and I don’t live inside your head, but I’m willing to venture back into Commercial Land to atone for my mistake.
To give is to shop, and I find it embarrassing to be caught shopping, or even to be imagined in the act. Where you shop and for what and why—there’s too much revelation there, too much of the raw material for resentment and judgment, especially in a culture fixated on status and privilege. The fact is, all stores are hell. They’re designed to put us in touch with the most craven parts of ourselves, to encourage us to cross the line from aspiration into delusion. They advise for flagrant dereliction of duty. I don’t like to feel that I’ve walked into hell only to pay for permission to bring a piece of it out into the world—and then to give that piece to someone I love. Stores are flatteringly lit, they play music and bombard you with emotional cues, they’re arbiters and limiters of desire, teaching us how and what to want. There’s nothing like them in nature. In a retail environment, where every cubic inch has been assessed for its earning potential, anyone who resists the merchandise can only feel like a waste of space.
In college, my friend and I would get stoned and go to Walmart, where the vastness of the consumer experience metastasized into something too big for words. Once I observed—very profoundly, I thought—that even in the farthest corners of the store, you could hear the fat blooping sound of the electronic scanners registering items as cashiers rang them up. It was an ineluctable part of the ambiance, louder than the music or the cavernous thrum of the room: the sound of a company making money. You could imagine (and it was very easy, if you were stoned) the sounds of all the blooping scanners at all the Walmarts in the world, raking it in. I wonder to this day if it was an intentional part of their design, intended perhaps to allay the fear that no one in the place wanted to buy as much as you did.
But of course, any savvy, quasi-Marxist critique of shopping is undercut by the fact of my susceptivity: I can, with a few tweaks to some algorithm or marketing strategy, be impelled to part with lots of my money. My favorite thing to do as a kid was to go to the mall. Stores, then, felt like centers of possibility and pure ideation, and I saw so many things to want that I prided myself, around the holidays, on my ability to remove the guesswork from giving. My Christmas lists were exhaustive, dilated, meticulously constructed testaments to the power of advertising. They sometimes ran to multiple pages, with asides, qualifiers, subdivisions. I wanted very specific things, and I wanted a lot of them. Most were expectable—videos, games, toys. But what good use, at age eleven, did I expect to get out of a pocket watch? What Freudian weirdness compelled a prepubescent boy to yearn for a bottle of Gucci cologne? And was it really necessary for this boy to place the requisite ™ and © and ® symbols next to their respective products, and to specify the stores where they might be bought? Seeing these lists now—my mom saved them—I’m ashamed and a little afraid of the kid on the page. He was such a precocious consumer: so good at taking cues to want things, so ready to assume the mantle of the manful shopper. Of course I’d like to pretend that I’ve extinguished every last ember of that juvenile greed, but I haven’t. I still want to buy a lot of shit.
Everyone shops, but in the national imagination only women shop (men are encouraged to tag along when large appliances hang in the balance) and, by extension, women do most of the giving. Men, at least heterosexual cisgendered men, are expected to age from the unslakable material lusts of boyhood into the rarefied, almost pious condition of being “hard to shop for.” Just as bacteria eventually eludes antibiotics, the man recedes into a resilient isolation in which every desirable object becomes ungiftable. Advertising encourages us to find this a charming foible of masculinity: What to give the man who has everything? In the deepest recesses of this giftless space you’ll find middle-aged white dads, for whom, if ads in the subway are to be believed, good gifts are as rare as chances to ogle the babysitter. In the end there are three acceptable gifts for our nation’s dads: watches, shaving kits, and bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue. Every straight white man is headed to, and perhaps deserves, the purgatory of sex, sports, and gadgets to which the entire male gift market reduces. I once heard a friend say of her father, He always loves the latest gadgets, and with that always my heart sank. She’d wanted it to sound ironic, but there was an uncomfortable amount of sincerity in it. At that moment, this guy and his history and his desires had all boiled down to a Samsung Galaxy S6. And next year, God willing, an S7.
Until recently I’d thought being hard to shop for was a kind of compliment, a tribute to one’s antimaterialism: there’s not much about you that maps easily onto the world of commerce. Good work! But the likelier truth is that anyone who has reached hard-to-shop-for status has attained complete satiety, and satiety is boring. Dad already has a tractor. Dad owns chinos in a spectrum of neutrals and earth tones. And Dad’s TV … witness the rise of the man cave, that monument to bourgeois complacency. This is life in the leisure class: you peg your desires to goods and services, and having attained all of them, you retire to your man cave and make it impossible for other people to demonstrate a certain kind of real affection for you, because you can no longer be shopped for. If the middle-aged white dad still carries, somewhere in him, traces of desire, they’re only in reach of black markets, itches that may never be permissibly scratched. I love you, Dad. I got you three nights at a brothel in Phnom Penh.
Just as men withdraw to a place where the pleasures of gifting are unrealized, women, in pop culture, are burdened with a deep need to buy, to go for the doorbusters. What a cute weakness, we’re supposed to think—how delightfully frivolous! And though this is perhaps even more pernicious than the concept of the hard-to-shop-for man, I envy it about women, about the social construction of femininity. Sometimes I feel like they can give more freely; what’s depicted as a mania for shopping, as retail therapy, is part of a broader openness. Shopping has embedded itself among the rituals of female friendship, as one of many social avenues forbidden to men.
I know there are reams of scholarship about reciprocity in our culture, about the role of giving, but in my (admittedly brief) lifetime the gift economy has always appeared more or less indifferentiable from the regular economy. Giving itself is too often an act of affective labor. We give from a sense of obligation, because we’ve always given, because advertisements implore us to give, because we know we strengthen the economy with our giving, because we’ve all been made to walk around in a world full of storefronts of objects whose sole purpose is to be coveted. I understand that you covet x, so I buy it for you. And giving can all too easily become an invidious display of power: insisting on settling the check, on proffering something exorbitant and luxurious, on being the sugar daddy. Generosity so easily becomes a form of control. Even a small gift, properly deployed, can create a persistent notion of debt.
I don’t mean to pretend that I’m categorically unmoved by gifts—I can still bring myself to tears by remembering the thoughtfulness of others—or that I don’t enjoy the singular feeling of giving someone I love exactly what he wants. It’s just that the beast of the transaction is always nearby, moving its slow thighs. Loved ones never seem more like strangers to me than they do with presents on their laps, surrounded by the nervous secrecy of their desires, of how they shop. How to give gifts in some way that isn’t inflected with the chipper transactional logic of the Pret a Mangers of the world? We shop because we love, and what else can we do, what else can we give? Something homemade, you might say. A charitable contribution in someone else’s name. A trip, a night out. All well and good, but at a certain point this is naive: you can’t deny the power of objects for sale just by ignoring them. You can only claim for so long to be beyond their thrall. Questions of affordability aside—and that’s a whole other essay—imagine refusing to give a child of the nineties any of the things he’d seen ads for, any of the brand names. You’d have a sad kid on your hands.
One day I noticed something that made me resolve to stop giving Pret a Manger my business. It was a croissant with a small sign in front of it that said, “I’m new!” Seeing the first-person pronoun encroaching on inanimate objects, on things that have no claim to personhood at all, always makes me angry. It’s a relatively recent marketing innovation, this tendency to anthropomorphize everything. We have enough trouble endowing other people with personhood; now Pret wanted me to believe that this new take on the ham-and-cheese croissant had a consciousness. Even our baked goods are more covetable if they have personality. It reminded me of those late-model ATMs you see in some bodegas that say “I’m processing your transaction … I’m dispensing your money now!” Or, creepier still, an ATM I’d seen once in a Chinese restaurant, branded with the slogan “Always by your side / Create your true values.”
I started to frequent another coffee shop. Its card swiper is made by a corporation called First Data, a “global payment technology solutions company.” Their business comprises nothing but processing transactions. Their slogan is “beyond the transaction.”
I’d like to do it—to create my true values, beyond the transaction. A friend of a friend told a story: after an arduous breakup in which she discovered that her partner had cheated on her, she was overcome with the urge to shop. She wound up crying while wandering the bright, fragrant maze of Bed, Bath, and Beyond, on Sixth Avenue. Everything there, she said, seemed so valuable. Tears streaming down her face, she carried a big glass wall clock shaped like a thumbs-up from the back of the store all the way to the checkout before realizing she didn’t want it. She left it by the humidifiers in a dense mist.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.
These images, with the exception of the ATM, are drawn from Christo’s “Show Windows and Store Fronts, 1963–7,” an exhibition at Craig F. Starr Gallery through January 23, 2016.