Walgreens is an impulse shopper’s paradise.
Established in 1901, after Charles R. Walgreen purchased the Chicago drugstore he’d served as pharmacist, the chain grew slowly, but steadily. In 1926, a hundred stores existed. By 1984, there were a thousand.
Over the years, Walgreens moved beyond filling prescriptions: as a way to accommodate people who needed something to do while waiting for their prescriptions. Greeting cards appeared, along with hair brushes and shaving soap. Eventually, detergent, envelopes, candy, and socks were added to the inventory, and a newer, more modern version of the general store was born.
Even in these days of online ordering and drive-through pick-up, the stores have continued to thrive. People do run out of toothpaste, get sudden cravings for chocolate, or need single sheets of yellow and red construction paper at 9 p.m. on a Thursday night, and Walgreens fills those needs.
Customers know they can count on the staples being there: colored pencils, bird seed, batteries, and milk. Seasonal items abound — fleece throws in winter, flip-flops and straw hats in summer — as well as holiday items that appear months before the holiday itself. On February 15, you’ll find old-fashioned, wind-up Easter chicks that cluck and lay jelly bean eggs. Halloween’s cobwebs and witches will be stocked by August, and the wholly predictable Christmas stockings and candy will be on the shelves long before Thanksgiving.
But not everything is so predictable. Occasionally, lucky shoppers stumble across kitschy, inexplicable treasure.
As I practiced patience in the checkout line one day, a flash of orange caught my eye. It was a fish, swimming for all it was worth inside a tiny plastic bowl. It wasn’t alone. An extraordinarily blue friend followed in its wake, and both seemed to be giving me the eye. Beyond the pair of fish, six tiny bowls lined the counter. Each held one or two plastic creatures — crabs, lobster, turtles, crawfish — crawling, swimming, and climbing over one another as though possessed.
Mesmerized, I asked the clerk, “How do they do that?” “I dunno,” she said. “I know it takes batteries, and the manager gets really mad if we forget to turn ’em off at night, ’cause then the batteries die.” I picked up a box that claimed to contain One BOWL One BASE Two Assorted FISH and looked at it. From what I could tell, a pair of AA batteries and some water would do the trick. I was hooked.
Five minutes and $3.95 later, I had my very own Pet-Quarium, complete with a clown fish, a parrotfish, and a textured rock base. I headed home, to see if I could persuade my fishies to swim.
It wasn’t hard. After tucking the batteries into the bottom of the base, I filled the bowl ONLY to the INDENTATION for fish to function properly THANK YOU and swirled Two drops ONLY of dishwashing liquid into the water. A little experimentation revealed that the Pet-Quarium people knew their business. Too much water, or no dishwashing soap, meant a serious lack of action. with the fish bumping along the bottom rather than circling their bowl.
Once I had the bowl up and running, I put it on a corner of my desk. After a day or two, I no longer heard the faint hum of the motor, or the clicking of fish pushing the boundaries of their world. While I knew vibrations from the base were making the fish move, it was easy to be tricked by the illusion of life.
The fish certainly fooled the cat. She spent hours on a chair next to the desk, watching them swim.
Once, I woke to plaintive, after-midnight murmurings at the bedroom door. Clearly distressed, Dixie Rose led me to the living room, where I discovered the problem. Like a forgetful teen-aged store clerk, I’d left the fish swimming, and the batteries had died. The fish weren’t floating at the top as proper dead fish do. They’d sunk to the bottom, and were lying motionless in their plastic gravel. After I installed new batteries and flipped the switch, the fish revived, the cat purred even more loudly than the motor, and I went back to bed.
One afternoon, feeling a little sorry for my motionless fish, I brought them to life with a flip of the switch and watched them circle the bowl. On impulse, I flicked the switch off. They fell to the bottom, glaring at me from their plastic seabed.
“You silly things,” I said. “You’re not real fish. You’re faux-fish. You don’t do anything unless someone gives you a nudge. See?” I flipped the switch again, and watched the fish stir back into action. But it only was action: not life. No matter how often I filled their bowl with water, added drops of soap, or changed the batteries, those fish weren’t going to swim on their own.
Contemplating my poor, awkward bits of fish-shaped plastic, I couldn’t help comparing them to the tropical fish I met on Caribbean reefs.
Real parrotfish — painted by life with azure, turquoise, cyan and sapphire; brushed with magenta and lavender; touched with emerald, and highlighted with yellows as pure as sunlight — seem lit from within. Glowing and pulsing with life, they set own course through forests of coral and stone, coming and going as they please through their watery neighborhood.
No one needs to throw a switch to make those fish go. They’re go-fish by nature: chips off the old pelagic block, creatures perfectly attuned to their environment and constrained only by the limits of their nature.
Parrotfish ~ Trunk Bay, St. John
Though less striking in appearance, the curiosity, sociability, and responsiveness of the sergeant majors is unrivaled. Flocking to bread crumbs like pigeons in a park, seemingly as attuned to one another as any flock of birds, they wheel and spin through the water in great, flickering waves. Swimming alongside humans with no apparent anxiety, they cast half-humorous glances at their lumbering companions, as if to say, “This is our life. Isn’t it great?”
Sergeant majors ~ Staniel Cay, Exumas
Even the more solitary and shy angelfish, the apparent grump of the reef, shows remarkable speed and agility when it decides not to be seen. Slipping into the narrowest crevice with the flick of a fin, it leaves an impression of independence, and a preference for setting its own course.
Today, while the reef fish continue to swim, the Pet-Quarium languishes in a box: destined for donation. The cat lost interest, as cats will, and the novelty wore thin for her human, as well.
For a time, the faux-fish served as an amusing reminder of the broad range of uses for AA batteries, and the power of marketing. But when fragrant spring evenings fill with the crystalline breaking of glass minnows against the surface of the water, or summer nights resonate with the slap and shimmy of mullet, the comings-and-goings of real fish always satisfies more deeply than any bit of plastic.
The schooling sergeant majors, the pouting, iridescent parrotfish, the grace-filled flights of angelfish: all point to the gulf separating reality from artifice, the “go-fish” of the world from the “faux-fish” of the marketers.
Occasionally, I remember that gulf as I turn to look into the kitchen, and see a 1920s print sitting next to the coffee pot.
A little tattered, still in its original frame, it looks just as it did when it graced a corner of my father’s desk. I remember it from my earliest years, and I remember it from his last years, and I’ve come to understand something of the reasons he kept it at hand.
With the faux-fish grown quiet, and the ceaseless obligato of a million silvery minnows rising and falling through the air, I sit between two worlds: smiling again at words lively enough to endure through generations.