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5:30 a.m. - 2001-12-13

ATLANTA ... WHERE ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE CHRISTMAS SHOPPING

Every family has its own holiday traditions. Some decorate trees on Christmas Eve while others plug Granny full of whiskey and then send her barreling down the snow-covered streets on a trash can lid.

For my family, the tradition has always been waiting until the most inappropriate time to go Christmas shopping and then watching the purple veins bulge out of my forehead while I tremble with impatience. In the past, waiting until 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve to go shopping has always been a long-standing favorite, but we now have a new winner, Vanna show them what they've won ...

Christmas shopping in Atlanta right before Christmas.

At last count, Atlanta was home to umpteen gazillion people. Each of whom wait until the last weekend before Christmas to get their shopping done.

A few years ago I wrote a big huge story for the newspaper about why you should do your Christmas shopping in Atlanta. I went on and on about all the variety of stores, restaurants and entertainment in the area.

Scratch all that. My defense is temporary insanity.

Only people with training in seven or more martial arts should even CONSIDER shopping in Atlanta during the weeks before Christmas. I'd sooner spend a day poking at my eyeball with a fork then even THINK about doing such a thing again.

My trip into shopping hell started innocently enough. Our friend Patricia called from Atlanta a few weeks ago and invited Susie and I up for the weekend to see she and her husband Ehab's new mansion (Ehab just left the coolest job I had ever heard of ... and give it a LOT OF THOUGHT GUYS ... he was a gynecologist at the University of Florida campus hospital. I would have thrown it all away if he had ever asked me to be his assistant). It had been a few years since we had seen the two of them and decided it was a good idea. Kind of like how sailing on the Titanic probably seemed like a "good idea" at the time.

I purposefully put off my shopping when I heard we were going to do this. It just seemed like the logical thing to do. Kind of like how letting Timothy McVeigh borrow your truck probably seemed like a "logical thing to do" at the time.

Regardless, we were off to Atlanta. The only thing that I had to find was something called a "Furby." My nephew said that was all he wanted when I asked him what he wanted for Christmas. The conversation went like this.

ME: What do you want for Christmas?

MY NEPHEW: A Furby.

ME: That's it?

MY: NEPHEW: That's it.

ME: Uh huh. (Short pause) So what the hell is a Furby?

He briefly explained to me it's a furry little robot bird kind of thing and its eyes move. This narrowed my search down considerably.

After arriving at Patricia and Ehab's new home and making all the niceties (I even managed to compliment them on their choice of bagels ... plain) we decided to head to the malls.

I expected a mad and hungry throng of savages everywhere we went. After all -- it was inevitable.

It took us 20 minutes before one generous driver finally allowed us to pull out of their new driveway. We all waved at him with tears in our eyes and Ehab even gave the guy a spare credit card and told him to have a happy holiday season.

We decided to start at Phipps Plaza, a very upscale mall in Buckhead. I was wearing my favorite traveling outfit ... Jeans that are honestly more holes than jeans, a faded black t-shirt and a hooded sweatshirt. We started in an extremely high falootin store that I forget the name of. But it rhymed with Lacy's.

I was as out of place as Richard Simmons at a titty bar. I could feel the sales clerk's collective eyes roll every time I walked past them. A security team stayed five paces behind me at all times.

My wife found a solar-powered toaster that her mother had been wanting for months. Apparently, it takes about four hours for a slice of toast, but just THINK of the electricity you save! I told her to go ahead and buy it and it would be her Christmas present.

Mistake number one: "Go ahead and buy it."

Upon finding a cashier, the line was about 15 people deep. At the rate of one person checking out every two minutes, we decided it would be a 30-minute wait to purchase this gift.

I decided to be a hero and wait in line while Susie, Patricia and Ehab continued shopping.

Mistake number two: "I decided to be a hero."

It was 15 minutes before the first lady in line got her purchases paid for, bagged and ushered out. By that point I had met Maurice and Betty Irving from Kalamazoo, the couple behind me. They were both retired and on their way to Florida for the winter and decided to stop in Atlanta to get some last minute Christmas shopping done. Their children were named David, Deanne and Suzanne and Suzanne was once mistaken for the girl from "Who's The Boss" but none of us could remember the actress' name. But I'll be damned if Betty didn't give it her best shot.

By the time the next person was checked out, the Irvings has agreed to be the Godparents of my second child (Andrew is already promised to Mr. Brett Favre from the Green Bay Packers ... he just seems like he'd be wonderful with kids ...).

By the fifth person, Maurice was on his cell phone to his lawyers getting a quick re-write of his will drawn up to include a large chunk of their estate going to me.

Around the eighth person, things got ugly. Betty and I were having a knock-down drag-out fight over who was the better landlord, The Ropers or Ralph Furley. I had to go with Furley because he was such a ladies man, but Betty stood steadfast by the Ropers because of Mrs. Roper's unusually overactive hormones. Apparently, the character hit close to home for Betty.

By number twelve, I was officially out of the will, they were no longer little Maurice Irving's godparents and the Taliban had gone from fighting to the death to waving a white flag and calling for their mommies. To say this line was moving slow would be like saying nicotine is "a little addictive."

Finally, I made it to the front of the line. With tears of joy streaming down my face I greeted the cashier with a warm over-the-counter hug and a tired smile.

She recoiled as if I had attempted to light her eyebrows on fire.

"May I help you," she asked in a steely voice.

"I'd like to buy this fine appliance," I said wearily.

"Will this be on a (snicker) Macy's charge card," she said, eyeing my hideous wardrobe up and down.

"I'm afraid not my good lady. This will be paid for by Mr. Cash-ola," I said, pulling out my last twenty-dollar bill.

Ms. Kind and Courteous Cashier looked through a couple of notebooks at some sales charts, excused herself, went home and took a bath, drove to the store to pick up some groceries, ran back home, took a nap, fixed dinner for her family, loaded the dishwasher, watched back-to-back episodes of "E.R.", put on some makeup, came back to the mall, walked up to the counter, punched a couple of buttons on the cash register and said "That will be $35.95."

My stomach turned. I looked down at the twenty-dollar bill on the counter, waiting for it to somehow magically duplicate itself.

"The sign on the wall says $15.95," I meekly replied as Maurice let out a loud sigh that was simply uncalled for. "All I have is a twenty."

"That sign is wrong," Ms. Personality sniffed as she grabbed the toaster and shoved it in a safe place behind the counter in case I were to snap and run out of the store with it tucked under my arm.

I turned and looked at Betty and Maurice, who simultaneously began staring at the ceiling.

"Mom? Dad?" I said in a low voice.

"Get lost Furley lover," Maurice said through clenched teeth without making eye contact.

I slinked out of line and met up with the three muskateers who had packages and bags tucked neatly under their arms and huge smiles plastered across their mugs.

"Did you get the toaster," the wife asked with a disturbing look on her face.

"Ummmm ... a wild and rabid boar took it from me," I decided to tell her.

So Mom, no solar-powered toaster for you this year. Looks like you're going to have to keep burning up those energy cells with that old fashioned electric toaster.

And in case you're wondering, next year I'm shopping in a much more tranquil area ... I'm thinking ... Tora Bora.

In case it wasn't obvious, this was an old column of mine from a few years back, updated slightly to reflect current events. Nothing of any interest has happened in the last 15 hours unless you want to discuss a particularly great episode of "Ed". I didn't think so. Have a good 'un!

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