My relentless search for The Bargain has led me to some interesting places: Black Market Alley, in Naha, Okinawa; a $99 seat on a flight from Los Angeles to Reykjavík; a shop in Singapore that made paper BMWs and other luxury items to be burned at funerals. The venue I sought out recently, to cash in a $10-off coupon, wasn’t nearly as interesting—just an ordinary Petco at an ordinary strip mall in Austin. Which made it all the more surprising that, immediately upon pushing my cart into the store, I should spy a glamorous man swankily attired in an art-opening-ready black suit and T-shirt. I was almost certain I knew him.
It was the “almost” that gave me pause. I’d once been on a very slow elevator in a very tall building when a woman I was almost certain I knew came aboard. As the car creaked downward, I tried to place her froggy face. I associated her wide mouth and chubby cheeks with a good-hearted, tear-stained encounter involving too much information that had left us both embarrassed. When she responded to my scrutiny with a tight martyr’s smile, I felt I had to patch over whatever the mortifying incident had been. I stuck my hand out, told her my name, and admitted that I couldn’t recall precisely where I knew her from. As the elevator shuddered to a stop on the ground floor, she took my hand, shook it, and said, “Hi. I’m Sally Field.”
So although I was almost certain that I’d seen this ponytailed silver fox within the past few days, I stifled the impulse to ask, “Don’t we know each other from soccer team? Doggy-obedience class? Scrapbooking group?” Even as I paused, he came toward me with his hand extended. “Hello. John Paul DeJoria.”
I was right. I had seen him recently. He and his babe wife and son had occupied four full pages in Vogue promoting his John Paul Mitchell Systems hair-care empire. DeJoria plucked a bottle of dog shampoo from the display at his back and told me how he had created the first salon-quality product for dogs. He asked about my dogs. What were their names? Porgy and True. Did they like baths? They did not. Neither had his dog, Jake, until this shampoo! He’d let Jake pick the fragrance! He’d tested it on humans!
DeJoria seemed to have all the time in the world as he told me about pet pH balance and canine hair cuticle. Meanwhile, skinflints loading up on two-for-one rawhide chews eddied around us, paying so little attention to the flabbergasting sight of a hair-care magnate peddling dog shampoo at Petco that I momentarily suspected I was being punk’d.
The feeling grew as DeJoria leisurely chatted on, his assistant springing forward occasionally with additional products that seemed to have been specifically formulated for my dogs. Did Porgy and True like to roll in stinky stuff right after a bath? Indeed they did. Plop! Waterless Foam Shampoo fell into the cart. Were Porgy’s eyes ringed in dark stains? How did he know? Pet Ear and Eye Wipes to the rescue. Was True’s coat a mass of matts? Oh, John Paul, you’re reading my mind! Instant Detangling Spray was the answer to my prayers. I grew giddy imagining how much my dogs were now going to love baths.
As I tottered away, my cart full of wipes and sprays, I basked in the glow of my brush with celebrity. I pride myself on an Amish-level resistance to sales, but that was no ordinary pitch I had succumbed to. It was a full-fledged consultation with an expert who cared deeply about his products, my pets, and, well, me. So what if the shampoo cost five times what I paid for the stuff I used on my own pelt? I felt as if I had purchased a Model T from Henry Ford himself. And that Henry and I had bonded.
This trance lasted until the moment I herniated myself hefting a forty-pound bag of kibble into my cart so I could redeem that $10 coupon. The blast of oxygen to the brain woke me up to the fact that the only way I was ever going to make my dogs love baths would be to fill up the tub with chicken fat.
I turned the corner into the shampoo aisle for the tiniest bit of comparison shopping, and there I beheld the word that is always and ever my undoing: “clearance.” I might have paid five times what the average pooch suds cost to keep my bottles of foaming fairy dust. But could I pay fifteen times what these clearance items cost? No, fifteen times was too great a violation of my genetic code. I hid the wipes and spray and luxury shampoo behind a display of Dispoz-A-Scoops, where they wouldn’t be found until long after my new best friend had left the store.
Certain that my NBF would be thronged, I headed for the checkout counter. I pushed my cart, now loaded with forty pounds of dog food and some cut-rate canine-care products, past a cage of ferrets and directly into a demilitarized zone between the cashier and DeJoria. It was absolutely devoid of human life. DeJoria’s eye caught mine. Pretending that I’d forgotten something, I whirled around and retreated to the ferret aisle.
After lying low long enough to get creeped out by the furry snakes, I angled my body to block DeJoria’s view of my cart and shuttled to the nearest cash register. As I unloaded my cheapo products, I became acutely aware of their lurid industrial colors: phosphorescent lime and neon pink. Hunching over, envisioning DeJoria’s eyes burning into my back, I waited for the happy dings as the items were scanned and whisked merrily into a Petco bag. But the dings did not come. Leaving the low-rent lathers glowing on the conveyor belt, the cashier completely abandoned her post to scan the beanbag couch of dog food in my cart.
And then, suddenly, a suave, manly voice was at my ear. “Porgy will like these.”
I turned. DeJoria handed me several samples. I followed his eye to the cheapo products flashing radioactively as the cashier finally rang them up and slid them into a bag. Ding. Ding. Ding. DeJoria’s beautiful smile faded. Our moment was over. Forever. I slunk out of Petco.
It is not often, after the braces come off and the hormones stop rioting, that life hands you a Most Embarrassing Moment. This one qualified. Yet, I try to tell myself, like happy, pH-balanced, cuticle-controlled pooches, DeJoria and I were both simply being true to our own most essential selves—his a glamorous, mega-successful, international celebrity salesman, mine a penny-pinching cheapskate. And, really, in the end, isn’t being true to yourself what true beauty is all about?