Dennis Persica: Holidays bring out a different crowd _lowres

 

There’s something both strange and magical about holiday shopping.

When I say “magical,” I don’t mean the usual advertising hokum about “the magic of Christmas.” And when I talk about holidays, I mean more than just Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.

Years ago, my wife and I became intrigued with the people we’d see shopping in the supermarket around Halloween. We noticed that they were different than those we usually saw out and about during the rest of the year.

They seemed older and a little lost, like people who spend most of their lives shuttered at home but who felt the need to get out to buy candy for trick-or-treating kids. Halloween drew them in the open, where they wandered around almost like zombies unaccustomed to being in the world of the living.

I’m sure that people in retail will tell you they see a different type of customer during the holidays, maybe a little older and a little unsure as they navigate the aisles.

On Saturday, I noticed a lady in line at the supermarket who seemed older than the customers I usually see there. She was a little frail, and she was buying only one product — a half-dozen bottles or so of bubbly wine. Obviously, a little holiday entertaining was in her immediate future. She appeared to have trouble figuring out how to use the credit card reader, though, as if it was something she didn’t use often.

Incidents like those make me wonder where these older customers hide during the rest of the year. Do they buy their groceries in bulk and then hunker down like survivalists and not come out again until they’ve used up their larder?

The other part — the magical part — about holiday shopping for me is that I usually bump into people I know but never see any other time of the year.

A few years out of college, I would invariably find myself in the same shopping center as Rick, who had been a student at the University of New Orleans when I was there.

Rick and I never shared a class, but we were part of the same cafeteria clique that hung together at lunchtime. Sometimes, he’d bring his guitar.

For two or three Christmas-shopping seasons a few years after graduation, I’d bump into Rick at the mall, as if he were a jolly spirit summoned just for the season. I don’t know where he spent the rest of the year. I only know it was never anywhere I happened to be.

A few years ago, while grocery shopping around Thanksgiving, I ran into Mrs. Scott, who had lived with her husband in a neighborhood I moved out of the year before Katrina. It was the first time we had seen each other since the storm.

Her husband had died of an illness some time after Katrina. That didn’t surprise me, since he hadn’t been looking well even when I still lived in the neighborhood.

Mrs. Scott told me she was living now with relatives in a country parish I’ve forgotten the name of but was back in town to stay with other family for Thanksgiving. We both told our post-Katrina stories and shared what we knew of some of our neighbors, including an elderly Cajun couple who died in the days after the storm.

I wonder now how many other people may have done the same thing while holiday shopping in recent years, coming across someone they hadn’t seen since before the hurricane and interrupting their season of joy to share sad tales of loss and destruction.

Dennis Persica’s email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.