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Sign(s) O’ the Times

Has anyone else noticed more and more of those giant billboards along roads and interstates showing advertising for the billboard company, or just a blank white face? I’m not a big fan of roadside advertising, but the fact that there’s less and less of it does seem to reflect how bad things are right now. Of course, it’s also annoying to see the energy that is still being wasted to light up these empty signs, yet another example of how dysfunctional our society is…

There are also a lot of businesses sitting empty. One day when we were driving back from Hendersonville up Highway 25, I counted the empty storefronts along the way. By the time we were in Arden I guess my pointing out vacancies with rain man-like thoroughness got a bit old and Joy suggested that I might find something else to occupy my time… but the point here is that there were a frighteningly large number of them. There are several brand new strip malls in Arden that already have restaurants that have closed, and yet developers still are chugging ahead with more of them. I don’t think “if you build it, they will come” applies in this economy. More like, “if you build it, you will lose your ass” but no one seems to be listening.

Last week I had to drive to Tazewell, VA and stopped at one of those big truck stop plazas for a restroom break. I always feel bad using a store’s restroom without at least buying something; as I scoped around for a bag of nuts or something else at least vaguely healthy I noticed that the shelves were strangely empty. Maybe they were restocking? Or the store looked pretty new, maybe they had just opened? I made the mistake of asking about it when I paid for my nuts.

“We’re goin’ bankrupt, hon,” the tired-looking lady at the counter replied.

What do you even say to a statement like that? I floundered a bit and said I was sorry to hear it. She kind of shrugged in a ‘what can you do’ gesture and said they’d get through somehow, and I wished her luck as I left. I noticed that all of the gas pump nozzles were covered with plastic bags. It was very sobering.

A day or two later I went into the West Asheville co-op and noticed that they were out of what I came in for. Then I noticed they were out of a LOT of other things as well. I asked about it and the guy at the counter said that there were some budget problems. Again I was at a loss for words and just kind of wandered out of the store feeling unsettled and perturbed. All of the news reports about businesses going under due to the economy just don’t quite hit home until it, well, hits home.  I hope the co-op isn’t at risk of closing, it’s a really neat place and they’ve worked so hard to make it thrive.

Frightening as it is to watch the economy contract, to a large extent it needs to happen as our current way of life is unsustainable and damaging. Hopefully what emerges on the other side of this mess will be a better society less obsessed with materialism. I have trouble feeling bad for the loss of big box stores selling cheap plastic crap – junk that ends up in a landfill within a few years (or even days) – but watching all the little local businesses that are getting crushed in the carnage is very sad.

Living in interesting times

So… I had to go to K-Mart to fill a prescription yesterday, and noticed things were a bit… odd, compared to past visits. Granted, I avoid big chain stores like the plague if I can, so hadn’t been in there in a while, but considering it’s 10 days before Christmas the store was freakishly empty. The garden center off to one side, which usually gets devoted to holiday stuff this time of year, was actually being used for stockroom or for selling bulk items. (I didn’t go in, but could see that there were cases of water and toilet paper stacked up) There were sales fliers tacked to many shelves advertising a holiday sale with 50% off or more. Before anyone says “what’s weird about that?” what I mean is that they weren’t official K-Mart fliers i.e. glossy white paper with professional looking colored text but rather looked like someone had made up some ads on their computer and printed them on colored copy paper.

After I got my prescription, I stopped at Lowe’s to look for a small live tree — we don’t like the idea of killing a tree just to have it sit in our living room a couple of weeks so usually if we get a tree at all, it will be a live one. Some of you might recall Newton, who traveled all the way from Arizona to Dallas to NC with us. Newton was retired to the freedom of our backyard on London road the year before last; that poor  tree was definitely worse for wear after 4 years in a plastic pot, and we don’t plan on keeping the next one in a pot indefinitely!

Anyway, Lowe’s was pretty dead too; there were no long lines, few people in the aisles, and the outdoor garden center where the live and cut trees were was a ghost town. I thought it was shut down for the night at first, but the doors were open. I was the only living soul out there, most of the lights were dimmed, and I had the unsettling thought (OK, refer back to my previous post about the insomnia; my brain is working in stranger ways than usual) that some serial killer could jump out from behind the potted cypress trees, drag me down an aisle, bludgeon me to death with a fencepost, and do a little dance afterward, and be completely undiscovered.

Seriously, though; in the half hour it took for me to pick out our little tree, not a single person came out of the building to shop for Christmas trees, or for anything else in the garden center. The little stone pine I eventually chose and took home had been marked down twice and there was a 25% off sale that applied on top of that. I didn’t have to wait in line, which I think is a first for that place. I guess it could have been because it was a weeknight, but usually even on weekdays and when it isn’t the holiday season those stores are insanely packed.  It was a bit unnerving.

Only in the past few weeks have the powers that be actually admitted that the country is in a recession, (though they now also admit it’s been going on almost a year) and most people figured it out for themselves months ago.  Joy and I have been studying the economic situation hard for a while now, trying to determine our best course of action for the future, and from most of the sources we follow, the consensus is that things have nowhere near reached bottom yet. I think good things (maybe finally the end of the SUV fad?) as well as bad will come out of this necessary contraction, but regardless It’s going to be a rough ride. The title of this post comes from “may you live in interesting times” which is purported to be a translation of a Chinese curse (though I think the origin is unverified) and it seemed appropriate; we are definitely heading into some very interesting times.

Link: America’s love affair with the car more of a forced marriage?

No Impact Man has a good post, which includes the above-mentioned article as well as some other observations. There is a lot of good discussion in the comments as well. We’d heard about the GM antitrust prosecution before, in The End of Suburbia. GM was also responsible for killing the EV-1 electric car.  The auto industry has blocked the implementation of emissions and fuel economy regulation, resisted any attempt at regulation, seemingly deliberately stalled on developing alternative fuel vehicles, and of course lets not forget GM gave us the Hummer. And now they want a handout. If it wasn’t for the sheer number of people who would be jobless if the automakers folded, I would say let them rot; as it is I am not sure what the best solution would be. A no-questions-asked handout to bail out their sorry asses is NOT it.