In search of the Great American Dream
13 January, 2011

And so my 2010 ended with a desperate search for an ashtray. The day started out relatively slow. I had wrapped all the presents, stuffed them under the giant Christmas tree and I sat back on the couch to enjoy the view. For a broken down economy and sagging sales, we had quite a few gifts under the tree. It reminded me of the time in the Soviet Union, when religion was outlawed and instead of celebrating birth of baby Jesus,

we celebrated New Year and all the goodies (usually vodka) it brought. In the present time Christmas had already come and gone, but keeping with the old tradition, we still gave presents for grownups on New Year’s Eve. The tree looked very nice, since I had in fact decorated it myself, and I had nothing left to do except to pat myself on the back.
As I was congratulating myself on a job well done, my sister ventured into the room and dropped her presents off in the corner. While she was huffing and puffing and separating them according to each family, she suggested I find an extra funny present for two of our relatives. These relatives of our, both women, insisted on smoking when visiting our home. For years we kept hoping they would curb their enthusiasm for stinking smoke, but so far they hadn’t. Tired of finding cigarette buds in the flowerpots we had thought of getting them an ashtray, but somehow it was never on our immediate to do list. I decided my sister had the right idea, and I had just a few minutes to run out and get the ashtray before it was time to get ready for the party.
It was supposed to be a friendly afterthought, but a simple gag gift that should have taken me just a run down to the corner store turned into an Odyssey.
My first thought was to go to Target, it was near by and it offered a variety of selections on everything. Everything, except ashtrays it turned out. The misinformation of Target employees is staggering. One after another the employees would come up and ask me what I was looking for. One after another they would disappear to the other end of Target never to be heard of again. Not until I found a young woman employee wondering around the kitchen isle did I get a final resolution to my inquiry. No, she said after checking on her hand held computer, Target definitely did not sell Ashtrays. She suggested I try the Dollar Store on a different street. And so I did.
The name of the Dollar Store suggested to me that everything in the store was valued at one dollar. I was skeptical of the advertisement and I was right, for even if the value was a dollar, the price tag said otherwise. It was all discounted and unwanted merchandize made in China. Contrast to the Target store, where all its made in China merchandize was in its place, stacked and counted, this store was based on the theory of chaos. The sales staff knew exactly where everything was, even when no one else would have known. It was an organized bedlam and it worked for them. Unfortunately the lack of ashtrays did not work for me.
My next thought was of a gas station. My logic was since they sell cigarettes and lighters, they should sell ashtrays as well. Besides I was running low on gas. After filling just half of my tank up, (when did it become three dollars a gallon again?) I ventured into the gas station to get me my logical ashtray. The gas station attendant standing under a slew of cigarette cartons hanging off the ceiling, looked at me as if I was demanding to buy a blue elephant and not a simple ashtray. No, he said, he had no idea where to buy one. He didn’t smoke, he added with a condescending tone.
I had run out of time. The party was about to start and I had no idea what to do next. On my way home I saw a Tuesday Mornings, a discount store where I had found some interesting things before, and I thought why not try there as well? As I walked into the store I realized a few things. There was no way they had an ashtray, and that I had in fact interrupted a robbery. I should say I interrupted an attempted shoplifting, because the owner of the store came down on the would-be-thieves like a hawk on rats. Not the first surprise of the day, it still left me dumbfounded when I realized that two loud mouthed, middle aged women with southern accent were the shoplifters. The owner did not look surprised, but rather annoyed. He chased the two older women out of the store and threatened to call the police if they ever came back. They knocked into me as they were scurrying for the exist, and shoved a small black bowl in my hand. I was left holding stolen merchandise and one angry looking store owner glaring at me. Thankfully he didn’t for a moment consider me in cahoots with the old thieves. He said he had chased them out before, and this was their second warning, but they never stole anything of real value and he didn’t have the heart to call the police. For my incontinence, having been caught in the middle of their escape, he offered a discount on anything I was going to buy. I said thank you and moved to hand him back the stolen merchandize the thieves left in my hands. I realized I was holding an ashtray.
Later on, as I was wrapping the ashtray with a red bow, I turned it over and to my surprise I saw on its back a stamp - “made in the USA.”  It might have been the only gift I managed to get in 2010 that was made in the USA, but it made me hope just a little that maybe the Great American Dream was not over yet.