A paranoia has spread across the land, a fear that we’re being monitored and manipulated. Every time we type a word or product into a search engine or online retail site, some sophisticated software tracks our activity and stores it for future marketing purposes. Purchase a box of Frosted Flakes at your local supermarket, and the next time you shop there your cash register receipt will have a coupon for the very same cereal printed on the back. Our transactions, our inquiries, and even our idle curiosities are being scrutinized by someone, somewhere, who wants to sell us something.
Or so they say.
I have the opposite problem. If I go into a store and buy the same item more than twice, it soon becomes unavailable. I don’t mean just at that store. I mean the company has stopped making the thing, or has decided to sell it only at a few specialty shops in the mountains of eastern Paraguay. This is not my imagination. It’s happened too many times. A few months ago, I bought a bag of pretzel rods. Not the short, thin ones. Those are pretzel sticks. I’m talking about the pretzels that look like salted cigars. I ate them while I worked, pretending to puff on them as I stared blankly at my computer monitor. I don’t know why I did this. I’ve never smoked anything in my life. But I found that the pretzel rods satisfied a late-appearing oral fixation, something like a pacifier without the unpleasant rubbery texture.
On my next visit to the same store I bought two bags of the pretzels, but ate them four times as fast, so they lasted only half as long. I went back a few days later to get more. They weren’t there. Not only were the pretzels gone, but the entire floor display was, too. I asked a store clerk. He claimed to know nothing about the pretzel rods. His response was evasive, as though he were in on some dark secret. He wouldn’t look me in the eye, and walked away quickly, pretending that he had something else to do. Within the week I returned to that store yet again, and also tried three other supermarkets, each time leaving disappointed. Had I missed some global event? Was there a sudden and simultaneous shortage of rod-shaped foods and pretzel matter? It didn’t seem possible, but here I sit, staring blankly at my computer monitor and sucking empty air.Okay, a snack food has vanished. A little troubling, but no cause for alarm. Or it wouldn’t be, except that this was not an isolated incident. Candy, cheese, salad dressings, my favorite frozen pizza, a soft drink, personal care items, and an entire line of potato chips. I buy them, like them, buy them again. And then, they’re no longer available. But why?
My guess is that someone’s watching from those weird two-way mirrors they have in stores. They record my purchases, and then, mysteriously, the products disappear from the shelves. There are none to be found in the back room. The warehouse inventory has been depleted. The items no longer show up in those electronic scanning devices. The manufacturers’ websites make no mention of them. It’s as though they never existed.
Here’s the latest. Underwear. Boxer briefs. White boxer briefs, to be specific. Without getting unnecessarily personal, I’ll say that the regular briefs aren’t as comfortable. I sit for a good part of the day — and lately without pretzel rods to distract my mind — so I fidget enough as it is. I don’t need to contend with bunchiness and constraint. I discovered boxer briefs about two years ago, and they were the best of both worlds. I’m not exactly sure what the two worlds were; nevertheless, boxer briefs were the best of them. But they had to be white. Black, blue, and gray didn’t feel right. I can’t explain this, but for me it’s true, just as true as the fact that M&Ms taste different, depending on the color.
I’d bought one package of the white boxer briefs. Six pairs for seventeen dollars. They lasted a long time, I suppose because of the reduced fidgeting. But eventually they began to wear thin, and holes appeared. I bought another package. The cost had gone up to nineteen dollars, and now there were only five pairs; it was still a small price to pay. Several months ago I began to notice a large, vacant space in the store’s wall of hanging underwear packages. The boxer section was fully stocked, as was the brief section. But there, in the middle, was a gaping void. Hooks jutted out from the wall with nothing hanging on them. My eyes darted. I was momentarily comforted by the words Boxer Briefs, but they were all black, blue, and gray. The hooks where the white ones should have been reached out into nothingness, like tiny flag poles without their flags.
“Well,” I thought. “I guess other men are wearing white boxer briefs, too.” It was a revelation, one that had been otherwise hidden from me ever since I stopped going to the gym. “I’ll try again in a few weeks.” But, no, they wouldn’t be there in a few weeks. Or in a couple of months. The hole has since closed. The hooks are filled now with some other style of underwear, something even briefer than briefs, something that makes me fidget just to look at the picture.Still not enough reason for paranoia, I know. But here’s the thing. There are four or five different brands of underwear at these stores. All of the brands stopped selling white boxer briefs at the same time. My mind strains to imagine how this came to be. At the risk of sounding like some kind of conspiracy theorist, there must have been a meeting. The most powerful kingpins of the underwear world assembled at a secret resort, and after gorging themselves on slabs of meat and goblets of wine, settled down and discussed the white boxer brief problem.
“Gentlemen,” said the representative from BVD, “we’ve never liked boxer briefs. But the truth is, they sell. Many of our customers prefer them.”
“Yes,” said the man from Fruit of the Loom. “We need to keep our black, blue, and gray lines.”
“But white boxer briefs,” said Mr. Hanes. “That has to stop. We can’t continue this madness to appease one unstable customer.”
They were talking about me!
“He was spotted again last month,” said the Calvin Klein guy. “Pacing back and forth in Men’s Wear, scratching his head, looking bewildered, gesturing wildly. He seemed out of his mind.”
“And then he wandered into Footwear,” said the man from Champion. “He demanded to know how it was possible that the same pair of socks could fit sizes 6 to 12. He was agitated, I think, because of the underwear situation.”
Then they all rhythmically rapped their knuckles on the conference room table, some sort of secret gesture that signals unanimity. And just like that, white boxer briefs faded into oblivion, destined for a bizarre reunion with my frozen pizza, salad dressing, dental floss, and an entire line of potato chips. When the meeting ended, all of the underwear kingpins stood, slapped each other on the back, and began puffing on cigars in celebration.
At least that’s the rumor. But I know the truth: those were no cigars.