Friday, April 11, 2008

Failed brownie muffins, the bra that looked like bread, and other retail misadventures (At the Mercy Of It All)

I knew better - I haven't baked much in recent years but I used to be an expert baker, and you don't really forget that skill and learning/instinct, or whatever makes someone a good baker - but in hungry/lazy desperation I took a chance on a recipe I found on Yahoo (yeah, a questionable source), in a feature on low-cal 2-ingredient foods. One of the three recipes was baked apples made with diet cherry cola (which should have encouraged me to ignore all 3 recipes), the second was broccoli slaw mixed with Paul Newman ginger dressing (I don't believe a person can go wrong with Paul Newman products), and my new nemesis was Yum Yum Brownie Muffins. My friend Sheila recognized the basic premise - a box of cake mix plus a can of pumpkin - as an old Weight Watchers recipe for low-fat cookies. This new version, from Yahoo blogger Hungry Girl's library, claimed to make a brownie-like muffin from pumpkin and devil's food cake mix - no other ingredients - no oil, no eggs, etc. I told Cousin Amy about it and she tried it within 48 hours (figured it would keep her from eating worse foods), but since she didn't have the original recipe she panicked when the dough looked oddly stiff (which the online version warned about) and added water. Probably that water was a good thing, since when I made it several days later, my dough was too stiff, but I insisted on following the actual recipe so have only my anal nature to blame. Amy said the muffins weren't too bad but she had tried to insert chocolate frosting in the middle (she is an expert foodie/cook and likes to fancy things up to a higher level), which floated up and burned on her pan. I figured I could avoid that mistake but my muffins did not turn out well either - actually the chocolate version was not too bad but I had hedged my bets (and wasted more ingredients) by making a "carrot" version first. I put the word carrot in quotes because I noticed the cake mix box said "carrot flavored" - a creepy term that made me read the ingredients list. As best I could tell from the fine print, the fake-carrot bits were made of a corn derivative doctored up with various dyes and "carrot powder." Sounded nasty but this was an experiment anyway and I figured it would taste like a spice cake, if nothing else. I ate half a Yum Yum (Not) Carrot-ish Muffin and threw the rest away - the flavor did not lend itself well to the gummy texture. At first I thought the gummy texture was OK for chocolate flavored yum yums, since even good brownies are rather gummy, but no...gummy is only good when the ingredients are cake mix and pumpkin do not create a good gumminess. I couldn't figure out why my brownie muffins, made according to the online recipe (except I added some mini chocolate chips...and a spoonful of vanilla...and 1/4 tsp. cinnamon..none of which should have altered the appearance), looked so different from the online photo - but then I realized the online photo was probably not of the actual baked item! Duh! Some web geek just used a stock photo of a gorgeous, slim woman popping a luscious chocolate muffin into her mouth - and I was the zillionth sucker who bought into that particular fantasy. I can no longer find the model&brownie image but I've attached the one that's still online with the recipe - not as glamorous but still presenting a more attractive image than I ended up with. No real harm done...cake mix is cheap, and I'll just fall back on all the other carbs, dessert versions and salty versions, with which I have stocked my home.

I had originally wanted to subtitle the Sarah Bowie blog, At the Mercy of It All, a title that came to me in my early 20s as terrific for an autobiography and/or regular column - whatever way that Sarah would ultimately unleash herself upon the reading world. In retrospect the wording sounds more spiritually-oriented than my typical state of mind, so it's best as just a personal reminder - I've survived 46 years of Sarah goofs and will survive more - and not a public title. There does seem to be a special category of Sarah mistakes, a combination of things other people wouldn't attempt (not that the things are dangerous, just that they're a bit odd) and/or wouldn't get so puzzled by when the attempts fall apart. It's kind of a mix of absent-minded professor, small-town girl, cynic, and undercover journalist.

As an example...earlier this week I went to Target to buy an experimental ottoman for our living room/pub room. I say experimental because in a couple of different conversations and at least one trip to Target, I had been unable to convince Craig that an ottoman was just what we needed in the front window corner, a combination seat and storage chest to balance out the furniture in the rest of the room. I figured I could get an ottoman, position it in the room before Craig got home, and show the finished product - "Doesn't this look good?" If the answer was a resounding no, I would still have my receipt. The end of the story is that Craig did like the ottoman but we're now having to stow it under the pool table (not very decorative) to keep Marley from jumping on it. It only cost $69 but I don't necessarily want it scratched and covered with old-white-dog hair, and I also don't want more vet trips to fix old-dog-Marley's bad back, which gets worse with every jump.

That's the end of the story, but the middle of the story is my actual trip to Target... Of course I never buy just one thing at Target...I also bought socks and underwear. Readers probably do not want to read about my underwear, but there are aspects to the underwear need that are not just embarrassing but also (I think) funny. Recent low-cut pant styles fall below the waist line of my usual cotton underwear. I have few tops long enough to cover the shortfall so I had been limited to wearing my low pants around the house, where there was only Craig to see - and laugh. The especially low pants were a winter-time Target purchase, when in a fit of frustration over pants "shrinking" too quickly I bought two pairs of pants in a size too big in anticipation of shrinkage. The Target pants are super-comfortable and I paid to have them hemmed, but although they shrunk in length they have never shrunk much around the waist. They're OK right out of the dryer but after about half an hour of wearage, they stretch into ridiculous low-riders - I say ridiculous because such low pants look totally silly on a woman of my age and color. During my last night in Tomball I made a late-night trip to Academy, looking for replacement pants for Harvey (his had shrunk too small in washing - this problem runs in the family), and bought myself some pants in self-compensation for having dragged myself to 2 different stores and not found what Harvey needed. The Academy pants fit better than the Target pants (in fact, I wish they were looser in certain places) but the waists are still rather low. Now that I have a total of 4 pairs of low pants, I acknowledged that I needed lower underwear.

Having provided the underwear back-story, I can return to the story I started out to tell in the paragraph above. So...on my recent trip to Target (in Dallas...I should specify that, in case readers are lost with all the locations, dates and discount store names), I tossed two kinds of sock packages in my cart and one package of low-cut underwear. (Not bikinis, nothing really skimpy - just lower cut - picture men who pull their waistband below their belly bulge, and you get the general idea, although in my case I believe, hope, that it is slightly more attractive.) Target did not have such a thing in plain white, so I had to get bright colors, which I figured was all to the better in case anything showed above my pants. If a stranger observes an unintentional edge of hot pink, does that put me at least slightly into the trendy category of girls showing tattoos and G-strings and other once-private objects above their hip-hanging pants? (No response is required for this question - I had some fun just writing it although I know the sad answer.)

I hadn't realized quite how large the ottoman would be, and it took some time to wedge it into my cart. I made sure to position it so the cashier could scan the tag without my hauling it back out at the checkout lane. Of course the absentminded professor aka klutz part of me had not thought to pull the socks and underwear out of the cart before dropping the heavy ottoman into the cart, and I had some trouble pulling the small packages out from under the furniture at the checkout line, but I managed, slightly ripping the packages but what the heck, I was buying them anyway. In the parking lot there was a guy driving a little truck that towed empty shopping carts, and I was glad to see him drive near my car since I needed help with the ottoman - but silly me, he was there only to pick up nearby carts and listening to his Target headset and/or personal phone call, he seemed oblivious to my presence. Although my lower back was starting to have that I-shouldn't-be-doing-this-lifting by myself sensation, I got the ottoman into my back seat and threw the plastic bag of socks & underwear into the front of the car. The car had gotten hot while parked and I had gotten hot, and was getting tired, and wanted to get back to the office and start suffering through the rest of my day. Lunchtime errands always tire me although "getting out" is supposed to refresh people for the workday afternoon - my system must be totally out of whack, or maybe everyone gets as whipped from errands as I do and just pretend they are working hard afterward. I had barely started a fantasy of, wouldn't it be great if I just kept driving past the office and went on home, before I realized I had missed something...I had thrown into my cart 2 packs of socks and one pack of underwear, but I only handed the cashier 2 things besides the ottoman. I remembered setting two sets of socks, one white and one colored, on the counter, but I didn't remember a visual of the must have been stuck underneath the ottoman where the cashier and I didn't see it. The word "shoplifting" immediately came to my mind, which didn't fill me with evil glee but didn't completely disturb me either. I had a subconscious memory of there maybe being a package left in the bottom of the cart (the cart was red, the package front was red, and the underwear was reddish pink) while my under-muscled back and I were wrestling with the ottoman, and if so I might be able to still get the underwear before the cart guy towed the empty cart back toward the store. I was only one block from Target and immediately turned my car around - not to re-enter the store and pay for the underwear, but the proper word "steal"?...the unpaid-for underwear that I was sure was still in the bottom of the cart. Back in the parking lot the cart guy ignored me again, but this time I felt paranoidly that he might be watching me out of the corner of his sunglasses. Even if so, he wouldn't have known I didn't pay for the underwear I was grabbing out of the cart...but when is paranoia ever logical.

I called Cousin Amy, who thought the story was funny, and I told my office friend Sheila, who also laughed and proclaimed what had happened wasn't really shoplifting, but I could tell while retelling the tale that I was feeling guilty...I could tell this because I started weaving into the telling the promise that I would be returning to Target and paying for the underwear. What I was ashamed of wasn't so much that I hadn't paid, because I knew I would pay later (I did some wrestling over whether to pay that day or put it off a couple of days...soon guilty anxiety won over convenience) but that I had so easily slid across the honesty line, thinking I was too hot and busy to go back into the store. I was also disturbed by my experimental (though immediately horrified and guilty) thought that this, though accidental on this particular day, was a very effective way to steal things from a store.

After work that day I carried the stolen? shoplifted? accidentally-not-paid-for? underwear into the store, keeping my receipt and empty bag handy in case needed, but nobody paid any attention to my entering the store with merchandise in my hand. Amy had theorized how I could explain what had happened, an almost-truthful version that I had not noticed I hadn't paid for the underwear until I had left (leaving out the parking lot U-turn and cart grab) and now was making things right. This time I ended up with a different cashier though and her attention was on carrying out the purchase transaction efficiently with the use of only one hand and just a stub at her other elbow. She was very capable despite her physical limitations, bagging my purchase in the bag I brought with me (she didn't question why I already had a bag, probably thought I had just returned something and/or didn't care one way or the other) and counting out bills and coins for change. Despite or because of her efficiency I kept finding myself staring. It only occurred to me later that I had some kind of subliminal reaction to her missing hand. Please don't think for one second I am making fun of her disability, but somehow my brain made an eerie connection to the practice in some countries of cutting off hands as a punishment for...thievery.

I called Cousin Amy on my way home to tell her I had gone to Target and paid, but while talking to her I was checking the amount on my original receipt (whether the price was $5.99 vs. 4.99 vs. 6.99 seemed somehow important to the story) and had a panic seeing that my original receipt was for underwear and socks, meaning with with my second purchase of underwear I had paid twice for the underwear but not paid for one set of socks. The money would have averaged out about the same but since I had tried to set things right, I wanted to have really set them right. I was only driving about 15 mph in traffic but still, while juggling a cell phone and steering wheel, did not take the time to fully explore my purse for receipts. When I got home I checked both the new and old receipt and realized my confusion came from Target's abbreviations - one receipt was for lo-cut underwear and the other was for lo-cut socks (fun colored footies to wear under boring white ankle socks, making two comfortable layers that help my slightly too large Converses fit better). All lo-cut items were paid for appropriately.

How beautifully the themes of this post tie together...continuing confusion coming from the concept of "low-cut."

When I later told Craig the story, despite several variations of Devil's Advocate I couldn't get him to admit he would have completed the theft of the underwear and never paid. I'm not saying he would not have paid, I'm just saying I couldn't get him to say one way or the other what he would have done. His reaction was simply to state that I was de-emphasizing a key part of the story - that I had spent $100 total at Target and then gotten very concerned about a $5.99 item.

While planning this blog entry I remembered another At-the-mercy-of-it-all type retail story, from several years ago. And it synchs even better with my theme(s) than I remembered, since it has to do with pants too big.

From November 2004, here is the email I sent to a friend who works at Home Depot - not surprisingly, his response was that this dilemma was way out of his realm (him being male, and working at a hardware store). I also sent it to a female friend who despite loud long-distance electronic laughs had no real insights.

Last weekend I went to Mervyn's in search of some casual cotton pants. Not to get into gory details of weight, but I am between two sizes right now. Everything I tried on was either too big or too small for me. Finally I bought 2 different sizes of 2 different types of pants, figuring I would wash them all and see whether when they shrank (as most Mervyn's cotton does) they would fit better. Obviously I had to cut off all the tags to wash them, but I saved the tags in the Mervyn's bag. Two pairs shrank too much, and in the wrong places, to ever fit me, so I took those back on Sunday. Mervyn's credited my card with no problem.

Yesterday I decided to take back the remaining two pairs of pants, which had hardly shrunk at all and were thus still too big for me (unless I gain 15 pounds, which I should probably try to do, since that would be easier than losing 15 and much easier than continued shopping for pants). I got a different salesperson than on Sunday, and she immediately balked at seeing the tags were cut off. She said she could give me a credit but "Just to let you know, in future you will not be able to return any items with the tags cut off."

I guess in our mean & nasty present-day society they had to come up with this policy, but I was initially really shocked. Not only have I returned many washed-and-shrunk items over the years at Mervyn's and everywhere else, but I worked for 4 years at Foley's and we took anything back that the customer could convince us had ever hung on a hanger at the store, at any previous point in time. When I applied for a part-time job at Foley's I was assigned to the Lingerie department, which amused the heck out of people who know me well, since nice (or even well-fitting) underwear has never been one of my shopping interests. day there I had to give a lady credit for a once-white girdle that was so old and worn it looked like a loaf of whole-wheat bread. The customer knew how disgusting and ridiculous the return scenario was, and she had wrapped the "bread" up real tight in a wad of tissue paper so we could both avoid looking at it. How badly could she have needed $24.99 or whatever that girdle cost? But that was in Dallas, at the Highland Park store (picture a little old Highland Park lady, with scuffed designer shoes, long hair in a hairsprayed bun, and scary-bright lipstick), and the year was 1986. In Garland in 2004, Mervyn's does not give credits for un-tagged items.

Just to make sure I understood the new policy (I swear I did not have an argumentative tone), I said, "So even if I washed an item and it shrunk, and of course I would have had to cut the tags off to wash it, I could not return it?" Although the pants I had in front of me had shrunk too little, not too much, I gestured at them to illustrate the point I was trying to make about shrinkage. Wrong-o move-o... The saleslady immediately put down the receipt she had been about to do the credit from and started paging her manager. "Well, if they shrunk!, I will have to ask my manager!"

As we waited for the manager, I tried to figure how to explain that these particular pants had not shrunk too much without sounding like a lying, scamming idiot...I had made no progress in figuring out a valid explanation when the manager appeared. This lady looked very rough - frankly, she looked as if she lived on the street until last week and had hired on at Mervyn's to maybe get her teeth fixed and buy some food necessities. This sounds terrible to say, but her face had that weathered look that panhandlers get when they stand outside with cardboard signs. She did not like my "they shrunk" scenario and started spitting out phrases like, "We can't re-sell them like THIS!" and "We have to eat them!" (I knew she meant, the department would have to eat them financially, but the food metaphor seemed ironic, coming from someone who looked so desperate for survival.) She was so vehement that I started wondering (worrying) that her paycheck was going to be $60 short due to my returning these two pairs of pants. I lamely tried to say things like, "Well, I'm not saying they shrunk all that much...they would probably fit other customers near that size, they just don't fit could probably re-sell them, most customers try on everything first anyway." The manager just shook her head angrily and hissed at the saleslady, "You'll have to write them up as M-O-S!"(which probably means, we're mad Over this Shit).

I really thought about keeping the pants and selflessly saving their department from financial ruin, but I was pretty sure the wheels were already in motion for me to get a credit, and I didn't trust whatever kind of half-assed apologetic lie-sounding thing I might have come up with to halt that process. I assured everyone that now I understood the Mervyn's return policy and would not try to ever return a laundered item again. For good measure, the manager repeated one last time, "Because we have to eat them!" I thought I detected a bit of additional attitude as the saleslady rang up the credit, "You want this back on your AMEX, right?", as if there was something horribly elitist about having my purchased an item with my high-dollar credit card that the department was now going to have to eat.

I think I violated my personal ethics at Mervyn's but I couldn't figure out at any point how to turn things around. I am a crummy liar - I think that is the biggest problem in this story. Actually I did something worse than this once, years ago I had a skirt hemmed and then returned it to Sears. I figured it didn't matter that my skirt was shorter than all the other ones like it, maybe a short customer would find it and be happy with it.


Anonymous said...

Reading your Target portion of the blog, I remember you once saying that there should be two prices for Target items: $50 for half a basket; $100.00 for a full basket. Do you remember ever saying that? Or is my memory REALLY slipping?

SarahBowie said...

Yes, I do remember saying that and almost included it in the story - yep, in this case the cart was full and the merchandise (hidden and visible) totaled $100!