It had been some time since our last visit--we ordinarily like to have our car towed in spring during the street-sweeping season. But we found little had changed in our absence: the serpentine roads conducive to wandering and musing, the building's squat cinder-block architecture, the greenish fluorescent lighting inside, the smeared bullet-proof glass and the fossilized clerks behind it.... All was exactly as we had remembered it, a venerable and enduring monument to municipal intelligence.

The snow emergency in question warranted distinction in that no snow had fallen for several days. Yet no one in the waiting crowd seemed especially surprised that the civic powers should have deemed such a clear, cold day an emergency.

We arrived with a friend at 11:30 p.m. and took our turn in the queue, while up ahead of us an exasperated man with a bleary beard, enunciated very slowly through the glass: "Whatever. You've been very, very helpful." The office of the impound lot was crowded shoulder to shoulder with about 100 people, mostly young and mostly white. (Whether this latter point disproves the genetic theories of Professor Murray we won't hazard--it's generally agreed upon in some quarters, though, that the city simply doesn't plow in nonwhite neighborhoods.) The elder population was represented by two gentlemen, one as tall and gaunt as Ichabod with nicotine-colored eyes and skin to match, the other was short, stout, and with a complexion so ruddy he might have performed his ablutions with finishing sandpaper. Both of them waited with grim faces, avoiding eye contact.

The remainder of the crowd consisted of a cross-section of young Minneapolitans. A gangly, silent youth read I, Spock. Behind him a casually sophisticated man with a rakish scarf thumbed The New Yorker. A short, pixie-faced kid in a ragged military coat read a photocopied Tikkun article. Nonreaders there were aplenty, an assorted lot of air-line attendants, bartenders, office-drones, mechanics, delivery drivers--even a belligerent tow-truck driver, suffering the reverse effects of his trade.

The sum of this horde's contributions to the city coffers, including towing and ticket charges, approached $10,000--$70 each for a towing charge (with a $10 storage fee for each additional day) plus a $20 ticket. We paid reluctantly and were directed to a sort of holding cell where we were instructed to wait for a shuttle. The labyrinthine lots cover such an enormous tract of real estate, we were told, that our vehicles rested hopelessly beyond our reach. And indeed, it must be so, since for the space of an hour the line seemed not to diminish at all.

It was then, as the hour of midnight passed and time stretched on toward daybreak, that the crowd began to bond--out came the tales of distress and out came the jokes.

"I thought I was being smart coming down here this late," one young man remarked.

"You were," rejoined a plump woman with her hair in barrette who was making her second visit to the impound lot. "When I came down here at 8, I waited two-and-a-half hours just to get up to the window. Then they wouldn't take my check, so I had to go home and get cash." Another woman, who for some reason of her own clutched a fully functional gas mask to her mouth throughout the evening, removed it especially to groan in sympathy. "Couldn't we just push through the doors and make a go of it?" we suggested timidly.

"Oh, yeah," barked a man with the compact psychic of a wrestler, "good idea. That'll show 'em. We'll stand out there until we freeze! Then they'll be sorry!" Behind us, someone watched mournfully while a mini-van passed through the gates on the back of a tow truck. "That looks like it would make a wonderful shuttle bus," he sighed.

At last it was our friend's turn for the shuttle bus, and while she disappeared into the gloom, we gallantly shared our cigarettes in the parking lot with the dashing New Yorker fellow and a woman with improbably stylish hair whose car hadn't started. Later, our friend told us that on the shuttle, the first passenger to find his car in the lot disembarked on the verge of tears--keys at the ready, he turned around and saluted his fellow nontravelers: "I'm going to miss you guys!" Then he drove away into the light snow that had finally begun to fall around 2 a.m. Eventually, reluctantly, we did the same.

--Joseph Hart


Review of the Literature: The latest issue of
Business Horizons contains a feature titled "The Postmodern Explained To Managers: Implications For Marketers" by Bernard Cova, a professor of industrial and international marketing from, where else, Paris. "If you believe the postmodern is an abstract French invention with no interest for marketing or management," reads the teaser, "here is a chance to rethink your thinking and JOIN THE REFLEXIVE POSTMODERN PARTY." Reflexive indeed! Never underestimate the ability of marketers to co-opt a critique. Excerpts follow:

Hyper-reality involves the loss of a sense of authenticity and the becoming "real" of what was originally a simulation. Indeed, there is a tendency and willingness on the part of postmodern consumers to prefer the hype or the simulation to the "real" itself.

Consumers, it is suggested, no longer merely consume products. They also--or even instead--consume the symbolic meaning of those products: the image.

Postmodern individuals reject the dominant values and everything that is normal (or is in the process of becoming normal), and desire to "do their own thing." In postmodernity we are witnessing the emergence of the customizing consumer--the consumer who takes elements of market offerings and crafts a customized consumption experience out of them.

Consumers perceive that the mix of values represented by the Levi's jeans brand is uniquely attractive and different from anything else in the market. This differentiation is not achieved through tangible aspects of the product such as its feel or its price, but through intangible factors such as packaging, name, presentation, and brand personality--a kind of simulacrum-mix of intangible elements.... Customers form an image of the brand from their symbolic and functional use of its products and services. Every message they receive from the manufacturer helps fill in the details of this picture and reinforce the meaning of the brand.

The credo of tribal marketing is that postmodern people are looking for products and services that not only enable them to be freer, but can also link them to others, to a community, to a tribe: products and services that not only have a use value but also have a link value.

We can observe a silent, nonviolent resistance in the domain of postmodern consumption. Like the indigenous natives of South America under Spanish colonizers, who did not resist Christian missionaries but simply adopted the signs of Christianity and subverted them according to their own culture, today's consumers use and transform the meanings of the products that are imposed upon them.

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