News

Harvard Law School Makes Online Zero-L Course Free for All U.S. Law Schools Due to Coronavirus

News

For Kennedy School Fellows, Epstein-Linked Donors Present a Moral Dilemma

News

Tenants Grapple with High Rents and Local Turnover at Asana-Owned Properties

News

In April, Theft Surged as Cambridge Residents Stayed at Home

News

The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Assault on Filene's Basement: A Christmas Fantasy

By George K. Sweetnam

It had been an ill-conceived idea, I can see now, but it was a fixation. Once that notion had grown up like a mirage in our minds, there was no choice but to pursue it, to track it down and lay our hands upon it, no matter how far we had to go, no matter what the expense. We were after The Bargain, the one truly amazing deal that would please a dear friend to no end but would, after all, be unspeakably inexpensive. You laugh as you read this, I know, you say to yourself that of course this is impossible. The Bargain? The incarnation of an ideal? The one priceless but cheap item that all others have missed? This must be a joke. But no. The look in Namo's eye when we set out was one of fierce determination, and as he clutched his plastic money in his sweaty palm, he drooled ever so slightly.

Mad, you say? Perhaps we were mad. Perhaps anyone who seeks to find the realization of a dream in this workd is mad. No matter. It made perfect sense to us at the time, after countless Christmases of finding cheap and gaudy trinkets to give away, or of finding only simply good deals, not The deal.

The great hunt began when Namo and I awoke on the floor of someone's house somewhere in Vermont. We had been on a bender; that much was clear. Namo smelled of gin, I smelled of bourbon, and all around us on the floor were Strangers. Who were these people? No matter. Some past folly, no doubt. I looked at Namo. He was awake.

Before I continue you must understand who this Name I refer to is--Namo, faithful Namo, the unvanquished, undiminished, gonzo Major loon. He was a great, dark, swarthy Italian with a manner that was usually slow and friendly. But when he fixated, when he seized on an idea like getting druck or getting laid or going fast to someplace far away, he was dangerous. But I liked Namo and I even worried about him--I didn't think he had long to live--so we often travelled together, and we often found ourselves in difficult situations.

Namo looked around then, asked what day it was, and when I found myself at a loss for an answer, we roamed the strange house until we found a calendar buried under some beer cans.

"Holy shit. December 24," Namo said. He had a direct way of speaking.

"Oh, no!" I cried. "Somehow we've reached the day before Christmas only to be miles away from our loved ones, with no presents for them, and no idea where we are. Do you know where we are?"

Namo looked around the room--we were in a kitchen--and sniffed. I think it was the first time that day he had taken notice of his surroundings. "The kitchen," he answered.

"We've got to get out of here, Namo. And more than that, we need Christmas presents--something special. I won't settle for dreck."

It was then, I think, that I first noticed that glint in Namo's eye-that glint I had come to know and feer. He had had an inspiration.

"You're right," he said. "It's got to be something great. Something no one will ever forget." His voice rose in pitch. "Something that transcends the normal, Christmas-as-usual giving of gifts that will be forgotten in a day or two. Gorgo, you're absolutely right. We have to find-The Great Bargain." The fixation had taken hold. "Let's go. Now."

The gas station attendant looked at us sort of funny when we drove up in the Jaguar Namo had hot-wired, and his eyebrows almost disappeared over the top of his forehead when Namo asked where in New England we were. I think the attendant must have tipped someone off about the car, because once we were on the highway we started passing state police cars cruising at high speed with their lights on and their sirens wailing and the officers inside gesticulating madly at us. Madly? Did I say madly? It's relative, you see.

By the time we reached the outskirts of Boston I was positive someone had told the police, because there was a barricade across the highway where it reached Route 128. The barricade looked rather formidable to me, but Namo told me he had dealt with them before and they were really nothing to worry about. We did dent the car rather badly when Namo steered it straight on through the line of squad cars, but we only damaged a few officers in our flight.

If it hasn't become clear by now, I suppose I should say that we were heading for Filene's basement, for the mecca of all bargain hunters in New England. The uninitiated should know that this is one of the few places where one can actually obtain Name Brand Merchandise at Low, Low Prices. You've heard the claim made of many a store, no doubt. Most are simply pretenders, with prices that aren't really low, or brands that aren't quite up to snuff. But Namo and I, we knew just what we were doing.

After we passed the roadblock we decided it would be safer to ditch the car and take to public transportation, which we did, always with the image before us of that one great present. As we discussed our plans with those around us on the train we met nothing but discouragement, but we would not listen to doubters. To much hung in balance. While we talked I grew nervous, and Namo's palms were sweating. At this point Christmas was less than nine hours away.

When we reached the bargain basement itself, Namo passed into a trance--like state, staring at the islands of gods-at-slashed-prices, shouldering his way roughly through the crowd of rabid shoppers, and stopping now and then to pick up an item for closer examination, or to give it a trial squeeze. I followed Namo, partly because he seemed to be onto something, and partly because he was unstoppable. The apotheosis of the rational consumer, he weighed and considered, clutched tightly then stepped back, fondled and dismissed. I began to get the sense that nothing would please him.

"Namo," I cried, as he rejected a sweater of pure Scottish wool for $6.98, "you're crazy. You can never do as well as you hope to. You've got to settle. You've got to take what's here."

I had said the wrong thing. He glared at me and said abruptly. "You're crazy. I never settle." It was hard to argue with such logic.

Namo started to force his way toward a distant department that he had not yet checked out, and to get there he decided to take a short-cut through ladies' lingerie. I sensed trouble, but it was no use. He struck out as though he were a bulldozer blazing a trail in the woods, knocking over women with his wide shoulders.

I saw the accident coming before it happened. Namo turned blindly down an aisle where a woman was trying on a Jane Russell Special brassiere. She was smack in the middle of the act when Namo smacked her, but she countered with a quick left job to his lower ribs. The blow wasn't enough to stop him or knock him off his feet, but it certainly slowed him down. Then she started to shriek something about being molested and Namo started thrashing angrily through the; crowd, knocking over displays and beheading scores of mannequins poised ever so carefully along the aisles.

About this time, the police got back into the act, only now with more success. It took two balding plainsclothesmen in leisure suits and two uniformed officers to wrestle Namo to the floor, where they handcuffed him, read him his rights, and led him out the door. I had been too stunned to act, and now without Namo I found myself at a loss for direction.

I started buying things-ridiculous things. I got a Zippo lighter with scenes from the Mardi Gras painted on both sides. I got $1.50 athletic shirts that had been made up for teams that never claimed them, and bore obscure and worthless insignia. I got jackets in styles that were so passe they were almost chic again. And on my way out I got that pure-wool sweater for $6.98, in quiet tribute to a dream deferred.

And, ultimately, I did get home to New York for Christmas eve, arriving barely half an hour before midnight. Family and friends judged from the gifts I had brought home that I had become an utter wastrel, but on Christmas morning I remembered a more severe case than myself, and phoned Boston to find out where Namo was, and what I could do for him. And so, when Namo awakened on Christmas Day in the Charles Street Jail, it was a candygram from me that first greeted him.

And I hoped that Namo, if he knew where he was, would appreciate the irony. But then he was never much for subtlety.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags