As I approached the main plaza on an overcast Monday afternoon, the faint but familiar smell of cigarettes crept up my nose. The area, typically overrun by a parade of visibly well-off suburban teens and college students tasting the city life on the weekends, felt desolate in a soothing and refreshing way. I felt a surge of exuberance throughout my entire body, as I realized that today I would not be forced to endure the seven stages of grief every time I witnessed teen girls taking turns photographing each other in front of graffiti murals for Instagram. The aroma of cigarettes intensified and extended deeper into me, easing my body into deep comfort as always. The source of the smell was then laid out right before me. Five hollow-eyed men, I believed to be homeless because of their tattered attire, uneven facial scruff, and greasy hair, sat together as three took drags from cigarettes. One of the non-smokers was pouring out his soul with each strum on his acoustic guitar. The melody infiltrated my head through the weak barrier in my ears and churned my thoughts around, thickening them gradually. The rhythm of my stride synchronized with the beat of the guitarist’s boot thumping the concrete.
At this time, I was taken back to memories of previous experiences from the same area, Little Five Points. I recalled the countless number of homeless artists that I had encountered over the past few years in the neighborhood performing music or selling works of art. I then formed the belief that the artistic vibe Little Five Points has been emitting out into the surrounding area has served as a magnet that has attracted two main groups to the area. The first kind of people attracted have been homeless men and women who have a passion for creating art but have not succeeded in making their passion lucrative enough to support themselves. In contrast, the second kind of people attracted have been privileged middle class teenagers who have the ability to spend their parents’ money on expensive vintage, artsy fashion statements that could have been found at a thrift store for a few dollars. The day I visited, the first group was a much more common sight. I saw that there were a few other homeless men and women visible to me, some distance away from the plaza, selling handmade jewelry. The atmosphere of the plaza was that of being in a tiny but diversely populated urban park, without the grass. Essentially the plaza, located in the center of the popular section of Little Five Points, was just a small free space open to the public. The plaza space had basic amenities that were utilized mostly by the homeless, such as wooden benches that seated multiple people, trees that provided shaded covering, and lamp posts that kept the area lit at night.
The plaza existed in the space where sidewalk from the left and right had split and connected to form an irregular shaped loop. The long side of the plaza was bordered by ten of the many stores that made up the entire Little Five Points shopping district. I felt as if the rundown look featured on the exterior of many of the stores been done deliberately. I had quickly noticed that the Little Five Points shopping district housed mostly shops that sold vintage items. Therefore, I came to the conclusion that shop owners allowed for the paint to peel and embraced any vintage aesthetics available to them, to cash in on the current trend in popular culture.
Even on a slow weekday afternoon, the success Little Five Points’ capitalist ploy was very evident to me looking through the stores. The first store I observed, Crystal Blue, was a shop that sold alternative spirituality items and specialized in the sale of healing crystals. They sold everything an amateur alternative Tumblr blogger could possibly need to align their chakras and open their third eye. Of course, the shop also gave these customers easy access to moderately overpriced decorative spiritual items and accessories to prove to everyone around them that they live a truly spiritual lifestyle. There is no item that screams that message to the world more effectively than Crystal Blue’s forty-five dollar Buddha tapestry hung, in all of its glory, on the wall of a college dorm room. The variety of healing crystals that were available in the store was so great, they must have managed to hold cures to every single pain or misfortune a human being could experience.
I moved on to browse my second destination, Criminal Records. When I first caught a glance of the inside of the record store, I felt like I was a kid in a candy store. The large selection of physical copies of albums laid out before me, in a neatly organized manner, impressed me. However, after doing some digging through the CDs and vinyl records sections, my opinion changed drastically. The factor that had the greatest influence in changing my opinion was the cost of a new CD or record. The price of a new record was between twenty and forty dollars on average. I felt outraged seeing the price tags so steep on new records, when that technology has been outdated for a long time. In order to listen to a record, you also need to purchase a good quality record player which could cost hundreds of dollars. The most common excuse people give to justify purchasing expensive vinyl albums with newly released music has always been the assertion that the sound quality is better. However, if a lot of money has not been invested into a high quality record player, the sound will not be able match the quality of a digital recording. Instead of breaking the bank on an expensive record player that can only play very costly and outdated media, today it seems much more logical purchase a high quality set of speakers or headphones and get digital music at a very low price. Crystal Blue and Criminal Records both seemed to be managed well in respect to the people running the programs having caught onto what has recently surged in popularity. However, it was my opinion based on observations that both businesses have put the weight of their complete economic success on the chance that consumers will continue to make economic decisions that seem illogical.
When I looked later at the price tags on some of the items available in these two stores compared to what they cost online, I found it incredible that Crystal Blue and Criminal Records have managed to consistently turn a profit and remain in business. Not only have the businesses been exclusively selling overpriced trending items, but the items also have very little practical use. While it seemed I should have been triggered by this, I could not manage to muster up even a silver of any of my expected emotional reactions such as feeling shocked or distressed. It became very clear to me, in that moment, that the big money makers and the phonies have a symbiotic relationship that has been surrounded by misunderstanding. The trend followers, who have always purchased every trending alternative fashion and lifestyle item available, have believed all along that their relationship with the manufacturing money makers was fair and mutualistic. These phonies have believed that they could buy their individuality by spending large sums of money, to assimilate to the alternative popular culture’s ideals for physical appearance, moral beliefs, and personal interests. However, their relationship has been dangerous and parasitic since the beginning. The money makers have been digging the fangs of influence into the brains of normal people, transforming them into the most favorable hosts. These leaches have swiftly rewired the neurons of once normal brains, mass populating the world with phonies through the powerful influence of social media.
The hosts will often be allowed to collect the rewards of social acceptance and admiration that they have craved so strongly. However, the beneficial feelings bestowed upon them as their reward for conforming to mass culture are only temporary. The short-lived feeling of being admired by peers only for your physical appearance, fashion sense, and artistic tastes leaves a hole in a human being. We have a natural need to be appreciated for our personalities and our unique characteristics. The phonies feel the empty hole growing inside of themselves, but they have continued stuffing it shut with more and more trending material items. However, I believe the parasites will continue to dig deeper, spoon feeding their hosts temporary positive feelings in exchange for their money and true pure form. Unless social media, in all of its supreme influence, stops convincing the gullible hosts that by continuing the cycle their stomachs will eventually be filled.