NATICK, Mass. This suburb of Boston is the shopping capital of the “Metrowest” area, with numerous upscale malls. “We have the Shoppes at Natick Crossing, the Towne Centre Mall, and the newest, Plaza Weste,” says property manager Tori Max. Why, this reporter asks, so many unusual spellings? “It is how you distinguish a really classy mall from a strip mall,” she says as she stares with disdain at a shopping center across state Route 9. “Look at how tacky that place is,” she says with disgust. “They can’t afford to put an extra ‘e’ at the end of either ‘Sherwood’ or ‘Plaza.’”
But the current orgy of holiday shopping has left local residents with maxed-out credit cards and a feeling of emptiness of the sort described by Freudian analyst and humanist philosopher Erich Fromm. “To the extent that man acquires things, he becomes less human,” wrote Fromm, “unless he gets a really good price or at least a mail-in rebate.”
So an order of Zen monks is doing a thriving business here with a program of self-discipline for suburban housewives that emphasizes participation in the culture of shopping, but with abstention from the wares and wiles of the retail world.
“A successful shopping trip,” says Saicho, a monk who was ordained at Mount Hiei near Kyoto, Japan, “is one from which you return with . . .”
He pauses, waiting for the small group of women he is leading up an escalator to respond.
“Nothing!” says Beth Opal-Shinsky, a tall brunette whose credit cards were taken away from her by her husband Dan after he checked their on-line account statement.
“This is correct,” Saicho says with calm composure. “I always lead the girls up the escalator, rather than follow them, so that I am not tempted by the sight of their . . . how you say in rural America . . . ‘back porches,’” he tells this reporter.
The group walks into Nordstrom’s, the Seattle-based department store that is known for its customer service, and is met by Karen Carliano, a “greeter” whose job is to personalize patrons’ shopping experience. “Welcome to Nordstrom’s!” she says pleasantly.
“Thank you,” says Saicho, then, turning towards his students, he says simply “Ladies?” with a tone of inquiry.
“We’re just looking, thanks,” says Noreen Dalrymple, a self-described “hockey mom” who has nonetheless developed a taste for shoes that her husband complains will “put them in the poorhouse.”
The group makes a strange sight with the shaven-headed monk leading the three giggly women who have, in the past, viewed shopping as an indoor sport. “We are trying to live simply,” says Myra Florin, the third member of the group, over her shoulder as she passes the greeter.
“Simpler is better,” says Carliano, using the monk’s strength against him, an Asian martial arts technique that she has been trained in by store management after they noticed a drop-off in volume from prior year’s after-Christmas sales. “We have a lovely collection of simple sweaters and tops that make dressing for any occasion a breeze!”
“Think about what is necessary,” says Saicho, growing worried that he has encountered a more formidable adversary than he expected. “I’m just going to take a peek at these pumps,” says Dalrymple as she wanders off course towards a sale table.
“Do one thing at a time, and do things slowly and deliberately,” Saicho says to Florin and Opal-Shinsky, giving them two rules to absorb while he tries to corral the lamb that’s wandered off from the fold. “I’ll be right back.”
Carliano has run a crossing route between the purse and hat racks, and soon has Dalrymple under her spell.
“It is better to have one really nice thing than two crappy things,” she says, a shopping koan she delivers in a monotone designed to lull Dalrymple into spending. “But shoes come in pairs,” she adds, “so you can have two nice things if you buy now.”
The woman is tempted by a pair of backless red pumps for which she has no immediate need. “We might get invited to a Christmas party,” she says to herself, “or not.”
Saicho fights off an overweight family of three, but he arrives too late as Carliano whips out a hand-held point of sale terminal and closes the sale.
“I told you to do less!” he says to Dalrymple with a voice that for the first time all day betrays excitement. “If you had listened to me, you would have . . . ” he begins, but Carliano interrupts him.
“You would have heard the sound of one credit card swiping.”