My last trip to Toys’R’Us – RIP

I paid for my purchases – a large box of overnight Huggies for my toddler, and two large Lego Duplo sets we don’t need – with $110 from a gift card, and $15 from a credit card. I felt a little relieved to use up the gift card before the 30-day deadline, when gift cards would lose their value.
As the clerk accepted my payments, my husband and I continued our running debate about the Toys’R’Us bankruptcy. What assets would be valuable to a company like Amazon. What could have been done to save TRU. As we collected our three boxes and turned to leave, the clerk quietly asked a question: “Why don’t people come in to shop anymore? I don’t get it.”
I felt immediately sympathetic and a little bad. The most I had to lose in the TRU bankruptcy was $110 of unused gift card currency and some nostalgic value. This poor woman was about a month away from losing her job. “It’s convenient,” I said somewhat apologetically. “It all just shows up on your doorstep.”
She looked genuinely confused. “But how can you buy everything without seeing it first? Like I once ordered shoes online and when they came I didn’t like them so I took them back to the store.”
She had a point. Most things that we have not already selected are better purchased in person or at least not on A good buyer and merchant team can provide an excellent selection of tempting options at retail – although US retail has only a few fleeting examples where this happens at scale.
I wished her good luck, and we left the store – the whole chain – for ever.
I am regretful. I accepted the woman’s premise that Amazon is the reason for TRU’s demise. That’s not the whole story though. Amazon was clearly a formidable competitor that TRU wasn’t able to effectively counter. But TRU had its hands tied long before Amazon became a powerful seller of toys. TRU was saddled with a tremendous debt load so that it could be a cash machine for its new owners. There was little room for reinvestment or change under private equity owners Bain Capital, KKR, and Vornado, even if TRU had had good leadership (which unfortunately, large retail chains often do not). So when the tides of change in mass retail came in more quickly in recent years, TRU could not respond. That’s why it is dying.
That’s also why Nine West filed for bankruptcy on April 6. And Claire’s in March. The list goes on.
I get why private equity bought these large retail chains, and why the banks let them put so much debt on them. It’s easy to view retail stores as cash machines. They generate lots of cash. If management is skilled at optimizing their inventory and cash, retail companies can benefit from paying their bills after they have already collected payment from customers. But like most organizations, for profit or not, they have to keep up with the times to remain strong. Saddling them with huge debt and taking all their cash makes it hard for them to change and grow.
That’s the story that I wish I could have told our cashier.
But if I had, I doubt it would actually have been very helpful. Virtually nobody can reverse the tide. There are many more bankruptcies to come. And the folks who are causing them get to walk away while the folks at the registers lose their jobs.
That’s just not right.
For further reference, Business Insider provides good overviews:

“Your Platinum Elite Benefits Have Arrived”

Marriott International mailed out Elite tier notices for 2018. I’m short of the 75 nights required for Platinum, but was granted the level anyhow. I appreciate it, Marriott!Marriott

The perks of Platinum Elite level are listed under the heading “Benefits You’ll Love.” Wow, that’s ambitious. Let’s see how much I do love them.

There are four added Benefits for Platinum Elites that aren’t available for Gold Elites:

1/ Complimentary United MileagePlus Premier Silver Status
2/ Platinum arrival gift
3/ 48-hour reservation guarantee
4/ Dedicated Platinum reservation line

In addition, Platinum Elites get a 50% bonus on Rewards base points (vs. 25% for Golds), and Five Star status on Hertz Gold Plus Rewards (vs. Gold for, well, Golds).

Of these, I think I value most the incremental 25% bonus on Rewards points. But I find Rewards points to be a bit confusing, and I don’t ever do the math on what 50% is vs. 25%. I think if I ever went back and added up the bonus points I got as a Platinum vs. if I were a Gold, it wouldn’t add up to a free night at a property I frequent. I guess this is a perk that just sounds good to me.

The others…don’t even sound good.

1/ I have MileagePlus 1K status, thanks mostly to my home airport being a United hub, so Silver is hardly a sweetener.
2/ The Platinum arrival gift is 500 points or a bottled beverage (or similar treat). Some properties give one or the other, some give both. It’s not consistent. Some desk agents look totally unimpressed when they offer the benefit, which further diminishes the experience of getting the “Benefit.”
3/ I’ve never been able to not get a reservation, inside or outside of 48 hours. I guess it’s because I’m not tied to a particular property at a destination. Most cities offer many good options, and I’m fine not staying at a Marriott.
4/ I think a dedicated reservation line would be valuable if I called in my bookings, but with one exception, I always use the website. So that’s another miss.

As for the Hertz tier, that’s potentially useful, but I’m not brand loyal when it comes to rental car companies. Maybe it is useful? Sounds like it’ll require some work to determine – i.e., time that I’m not eager to spend.

Marriott is perhaps the only business that I frequent whose top loyalty tier isn’t particularly better than the second tier. That’s too bad. If it were better, I’d try harder to actually stay 75 nights.

The image is my own photograph of the brochure I received by mail.

Happy Birthday, John the Elder

John Cawthorne
John Cawthorne

On August 14, 2012, I lost a friend and mentor to complications from cancer. John E. Cawthorne not only saw me safely through my late teens and all of my twenties, but he also understood me well and encouraged me to be who I am. I didn’t always know who I am. I was shaped throughout college by my various run-ins with the establishment, the Black Student Forum in particular. I always said what I thought, and when I got in trouble for it, John would stand by me and help me feel rooted in my own perspective. I am deeply thankful for his influence. I would not have had the courage to be me in those days without his loving and active presence.

I also benefited in numerous material ways from John’s guidance. He told me to wait before declaring my advanced standing in college so I would not lose out on valuable scholarship dollars. He let me overload my schedule without charge so I could graduate early, and helped me secure a valuable and scarce residential on campus parking permit by letting me pick up a practicum ‘course.’ He even told me that the best place to park during home football games, when there was no student parking allowed, was a little side street called Chestnut Hill Rd. off Beacon St.

And oh the books. Over the years during and after college, he sent me a small stockpile of good books, both fiction and non. Among my favorites is the very first book John presented me after reading and grading my class journal for a seminar he taught: Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris. I also benefited from John’s longtime subscription to the Boston Symphony. I saw Seiji Ozawa conduct many times from John’s orchestra seats, and was enthralled to see one night that the soloist was none other than the great and now late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. It was an unforgettable night. John used to say that someone would have to die before he would have a shot at a more central pair of subscription seats (his were off to the far left). Now, someone else will have a shot at his.

Ever since John passed away, there’s been a recurring memory I have had. In 2002, I had a fleeting summer romance with a young fellow across the river at another college, mostly long distance as I was in Boston and he in Atlanta. One day as I went about my business at the research center where I was interning (a center founded by John), my young lover sent me an email declaring that he no longer deemed it appropriate to speak to me. He would devote himself to God, he wrote, and eliminate my affections as they presented a distraction.

I was stung and yet delayed in my reaction. In a trance-like state, I managed to forward the email to John, perhaps with a romantic quip about the end of an affair. And after casting about for a minute or two, I made my way down from the third floor of Campion Hall to his office suite on the first floor. I had scarcely set foot into his lobby when I saw him rushing out of his private office, hurriedly putting on his signature tweed blazer with elbow patches. Seeing me, he gave me a look of utter compassion, gripped me tightly in his arms, and led me into his office as the tears started to flow.

I didn’t know I needed to cry until John’s reaction showed me it was ok. I didn’t know I wanted anyone’s support until I saw him already coming to get me and was touched by his pressing concern. I didn’t know how I would get past it all but he would always say “It’s ok” — with a certain intonation on the oh-Kay — and an emphasis on one’s darker emotions being perfectly admissible in the conscious world. The world wasn’t what was ok, and the people around us were often less than ok, but what we felt and thought, however inappropriate and unformed for public consumption — those were always oh-Kay to John. And they thus became oh-Kay to me. Later, it turned out that my young boyfriend’s jealous mother had conducted the hurtful email charade and not him, but we broke up just the same and all was, indeed, oh-Kay.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that tight hug in the two weeks since John died. When I closed my eyes, I could feel it. I remember everything about that moment in such sharp relief. I feel small and helpless, and abandoned — just as I felt when I went wandering down to John’s office that hot and fateful day in August 2002. It hurts me deeply to know that he will not, this time, come rushing out en route to find and comfort me. This one is for me alone. And I owe it to John to, at last, be oh-Kay.

Happy Birthday, John. I love you, and I miss you. I hope you are free from pain, and shooting the shit and chain smoking with your black, female God. Bottoms up.