05 October 2010

Cash Only, Pogs for Change

I would like to reflect, if I may, on the never-ending source of peculiarity that is the PX (post exchange. It’s our version of a general store). Stopping in for socks and batteries, two things I go through at a remarkable clip, I had to marvel at the sub-set of goods with which they fill their very limited shelf space. Much of what seems odd at first blush is, I understand, requisite here. For example, the panoply of knives, emergency blankets, and flashlights is an important supplement to the standard issue equipment. Still though, other aspects remain a bit more perplexing. Remember, please, that this is not a sizable establishment. And yet, there is an entire room dedicated to video game accessories, including a Wii steering wheel and DDR floor pad. Moreover, hanging next to the socks in the cloathing section were several leopard-print bras in nothing smaller than a C cup. Seriously, whose Comic-Con fantasy was responsible for putting the order together this week?

I really do find it a great logical exercise to try and ascertain what, exactly, constitutes a necessity. I mean, I wasn’t really expecting them to have nail polish remover (though my toes are in pressing need of a new pedicure), but if you can only bear to stock one kind of shampoo, do you really need nearly a dozen types of protein powder? Even here, I’m not able to find something I like. This shmorgishborg, proffering protein powder with nitric oxide, with caffeine, with glutamine, with a cherry on top, is entirely composed of whey proteins. There is not a soy product in sight. Everyone here is terrified of the estrogen levels in soy, avoiding even the single-serve Silk in the DFAC for the much more questionable ‘milk-style drink’ that has enough preservatives to be shipped from Qatar. Honestly, most of the folks on base could use a good dose of estrogen. Man-breasts be damned.

The PX also boasts an oxymoronically large but limited selection of greeting cards. For example, there are rarely simple happy birthday cards to be found. Meanwhile, there is always a bundle for grandparents’ day. When is grandparent’s day anyway? Beyond simply acting as a source of frustration, the cards are actually faintly tragic. What really kills me are the children’s cards. The PX perpetually has extensive choices for birthdays 1-3. They know their demographic.

As I was standing in the very long line - this one small store services roughly 5,000 folks – with my six-pack of socks and over-priced batteries - $11 for a 4 pack of AAs! The PX only carries the ‘high performance’ lithium style – I was struck anew by the illogic of the PX. It manages to carry items like single-serve packages of Crystal Lite and Ice Breakers gum, both of which are available for free at DFAC. Honestly, I think that it’s just sometimes cathartic. For no reason I can articulate, it feels so comforting to go through the very normal motion of spending money on a bag of cheetos – for a second, it almost feels like I’m in any convenience store State-side. And I might have then eaten them all in one sitting. I felt a little nauseous, but it was totally worth it.

On the topic of purchasing things you can enjoy gratis, some FOBs also boast the more financially sound if less satisfyingly consumerist “free-x”. These are mostly filled with a miss-matched assortment of snack food and travel-sized toiletries. Donate your hotel shampoo to soldiers! It’s rather like a lower-budget, pocket-sized Good Will, if you can imagine such a thing. I have no right to complain, though. I always manage to forget my towel and shampoo when I travel. If not for the free-x and gym, I’d be hurtin.

No discussion of PXs is complete without a nod to those on ISAF bases. I can’t wait to go back and take advantage of their tremendous selection. You see, the last few times, I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t actually buy anything – just wandered around in slightly stunned amazement. They’re huge, diverse, and have CHOCOLATE! And I mean real chocolate. No Hershey here; just Godiva and Milka. And not only do they carry several different kinds of shampoo and deodorant, but they even have perfume and body lotions. The quality of living is apparently totally different for European forces. For all intents and purposes, their PXs are war-zone duty-free shops, less the alcohol. Even they don’t make it that easy.