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Illustration by Derf

On a recent Monday, I was standing in line at the Pentagon City Best Buy. Ostensibly, I was there to buy a pair of speakers, but my main purpose was to dump $600 worth of dollar bills that I was starting to get nervous about having around the house.

There was, I should point out, nothing wrong with the cash. It had not been stolen from a church collection box, and I was not attempting to launder drug money—although I have to admit that if I saw the pile of bills in someone else’s hands, I would never believe it wasn’t tainted. Collected in stacks of 10 bills paper-clipped together, then placed 10 stacks to an envelope until I had six envelopes each containing a hundred dollars, it sure looked like loot.

It was not even close, as I had hoped, to fitting in my pocket. I had decided to pack it into an old Manila envelope, which hid the contents but added little to my sense of legitimacy. Honest people just don’t carry around envelopes stuffed with cash. I tried to handle it casually, so it wouldn’t attract attention, but securely, because it was, after all, $600.

I had the money because—as embarrassing as it is to admit—I am a member of society’s most derided class of investors: the mattress-stuffers. Every day for the past couple of years, I have taken a buck or two out of my wallet and put it into a box in my closet. I’m not entirely sure why: I’m not frightened of a bank collapse, and I know there are smarter and better things to do with money. I just figure that, because I really have no idea where my cash is going anyway, some of it might as well end up in a box. This reserve, incidentally, has come in handy, seeing me through one or two of those bad end-of-pay-period dry spells.

But by that Monday, it had also started to make me nervous. If it were stolen or my house burned down, there wouldn’t be a lot of recourse, and at some point, a big cash deposit would look suspicious. Sloughing off a pile of it on one of the many useless yet alluring pieces of electronic crap I had long coveted had started to seem tempting.

I picked Best Buy because it is the least pleasant place to shop that I can think of. Best Buy, like most big retailers, relies on a small, largely untrained sales staff. This situation makes buying something (let alone getting a question answered) an ordeal under the best of circumstances, but in Best Buy’s cacophonous, overstimulating atmosphere, it seems nearly impossible. Standing in Best Buy is like being in a ’60s Hollywood re-creation of a bad acid trip: You have a strong instinct to flee but have somehow become too stupid to find the door. The store is huge, but the aisles are so narrow that customers clot intersections, turning what may be a rational floor plan to the night watchman into an ever-changing maze.

But the main reason I hate Best Buy is that they search you on the way out of the store. Cops can’t do such a thing without probable cause, but Best Buy—after you’ve looked in vain for a salesperson, after they’ve wasted your time trying to sell you the service contract, after you’ve stood in an endless line at the register—detains you once more, just as freedom seems so close, in order to match up merchandise in your bag with your receipt. Although Best Buy is not the only store that follows this policy, that does not make it less reprehensible. It is a public accusation of theft that stings no less for being impersonal.

However, I didn’t go to Best Buy to exact revenge. Nor did I harbor fantasies of wasting the time of some poor cashier with 600 one-dollar bills in exchange for all the times they had wasted my time—although I did think it would be amusing if a manager or an extra staffer would have to come over to help count. I mostly just figured that at a place as generally unhappy as Best Buy, the guy in line ahead of you paying for his speakers with 600 pieces of paper would be only one more annoyance among many.

The store was disappointingly quiet on the afternoon of my visit. I made it past the big-screen TVs, the PlayStation modules, and the racks of DVDs to the comparatively dark and calm speaker room in the back. But I was immediately faced with two problems.

First, it had been more than an hour since I had counted the bills in preparation for driving them to Best Buy. I was starting to think of the contents of my Manila envelope as real money, too valuable to blow on something I didn’t need—and something, I might add, that would require an elaborate explanation to my wife, Jan, whom I had not consulted before deciding to make this purchase. “Just pieces of paper, just pieces of paper,” I kept repeating to myself—and I hoped it would work on Jan as well.

Second, the Bose 601s I was planning to buy were not $500, as I had thought, but $600 even before tax. I simply didn’t have enough cash. After some debate with myself—I had started to think of the purchase as a piece of performance art, which not only could result in my arrest for being a suspicious customer but also could be sullied if I deviated from the purity of the exercise and used bills in denominations other than singles—I decided to go to a cash machine.

A few minutes later, $100 richer (or poorer), I returned to the store. The speaker-department manager and I did the timeless dance around the service contract, along with a new one based on speaker wire (“But I already have wire.” “Yes, but is it Monster Wire?”). Finally, I was on my way to the cashier.

She looked bored as she quickly scanned the box, too big to remove from the cart. My heart was pumping; the moment of anticipated confrontation had arrived.

“One sixty-five eleven,” she said.

“What? Are you sure?” I blurted. “The price on the wall was radically different.”

She scanned the box again, entirely for my benefit, because she knew it would produce the same result. “One sixty-five eleven,” she said again.

“Are there two speakers in the box?”

I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Give me a minute,” I said, stomping to the back of the store, more to buy time to think than to confirm the price.

I’ve always been a fairly honest guy. But the idea of spending 20 minutes arguing about the price discrepancy, with the reward being that I would be out nearly $450 if I prevailed, presented, I confess, an ethical conundrum. Worse, the thought of pulling out all my singles afterward suddenly seemed a joyless anticlimax to the real drama—a reverse haggle on the price.

I returned to the checkout register. “OK,” I said, defeated. I pulled a comparatively pathetic 166 singles out of my Manila envelope. The cashier counted them faster than I had imagined she would, much faster than I had an hour earlier. She seemed completely nonchalant, as if people paid with singles—or, for all I know, quarters or pennies—every day. She gave me my change and sent me on my way.

The man guarding the door had witnessed my purchase from just a few feet away, but he nevertheless went through the search procedure, looking first at my tiny receipt, then at my hulking box, finally dismissing me into the corridor of the mall.

Yes, I got an impossibly great price on my speakers. But as I had so many times before, I felt screwed by Best Buy. I had been unable to accomplish my primary goal; I was still clutching a pile of small bills.

Did I commit a theft? Of course not: Best Buy and I were a willing seller and a willing buyer. But should I have insisted more vigorously on paying what I knew to be the true price? Perhaps, but I don’t feel too bad about not having done so. An old girlfriend once told me that she had behaved well as a child because her parents had constantly told her that a “good girl such as herself” would never commit whatever minor crime she was contemplating. They didn’t tell her to behave; they invested her with a good reputation that it was in her best interest to protect. In the eyes of Best Buy, though, I was already scum, simply because I shopped there. The bag check on the way in, cameras while you shop, the stop-and-search on the way out—all indicate that the only thing keeping you honest is their diligence. If I took advantage of a crack in that diligence, I was only playing the game they had invented.

Are Best Buy workers also victims of the suspicion and contempt that the company shows its customers? I don’t know, but it seems likely: A company that regards customers as a criminal underclass hardly could have a more enlightened attitude toward its employees. If that corporate attitude makes the staff indifferent, then incorrectly entered price codes are only one entirely foreseeable result. A few unintended markdowns are the costs of running a business that way.

This is not economic justice, of course—this particular minor gut-punch to Best Buy’s bottom line benefited a random customer who could afford $600 speakers. And it hardly seems likely that a Best Buy manager would draw the same conclusions as I do from my story. However, if you are that manager and you conclude that I somehow owe Best Buy something, I would invite you to come over and we can talk about it. Naturally, I’ll need to check your pockets on the way in and out. And I hope you’ll take cash. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Derf.