Rewards: Here for It #207

Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?

This week: Dionne Warwick is the online oracle of our year; Pole worker scandals; and taking Flight on NPR.

Let me tell you: I am in a state. As most of you know, I left this week after four years to pursue my dream of trying to game the grocery store loyalty rewards system full time. This is truly my life’s passion. If a store tells me that not only can I get goods and services in exchange for my money but I can also accrue made up points like a contestant on Who’s Line Is It Anyway? or someone with a good credit score, babe, I am 100% in.

I don’t consider myself someone who has a lot of brand loyalty (if you are a brand, please don’t read that sentence.) Like a Supreme Court nominee talking, incorrectly, about sexual orientation, I suppose you could say I have “preferences.” I like Tastykakes and don’t care for Hostess; as kids we always ate Prego spaghetti sauce and so I am constitutionally unable to like anything more despite the fact that (yes, I know) it is too sweet and not authentic. My worst opinion is that Milky Ways are better than Snickers. But for the most part, if it’s on sale or if I feel like I am somehow getting the best of a multi-national company that has very sophisticated business strategies by doubling a coupon, I’ll buy it. I’m not here for a good time; I’m here for a cheap time. And the Points Industrial Complex plays directly into that compulsion.

Personally, I don’t really care for actual grocery store games, like when you have to play Monopoly and they gave you a number of board tokens based on how much you spent (but what really happened is that the cashier would ask the person in front of me “You playing Monopoly?” and they’d say “No” and then I’d say “I’ll take their game pieces!” which is collusion and I have absolutely no regrets. The thing that really burned my biscuits, though, is when the cashier wouldn’t give me the points. This felt like injustice. Me and this stranger in front of me had agreed to defraud a grocery store together; we were basically living a small, quotidian Ocean’s Eleven movie and here comes Andy Garcia the cashier to thwart our plans. I’d get so mad! It was like that scene in Terms of Endearment when Debra Winger doesn’t have enough money to pay for her groceries and starts taking items off to lower the total but then she gets frustrated so she starts putting items back on the conveyor belt and the cashier is like “WTF” and then John Lithgow pays for the entire bill which is a very nice gesture but also [spoiler alert] leads to them having an affair. See what happens when you don’t let people defraud a nationwide grocery chain?!).

(Unrelated: I think about Terms of Endearment all the time. It is honestly one of my favorite movies, which is deranged because I first saw it at the age of, like, 12. I loved it so much I had a Terms of Endearment poster in my childhood bedroom like every other heterosexual preteen boy.)

Anyway, despite the moral tension of the Monopoly game, there wasn’t a strategy to it beyond “spend more”. This was displeasing to me and my fellow criminals. Whereas with points you get some for every dollar you spend but also sometimes you can get more for buying certain items or certain combinations, which then requires me to figure out recipes that will use said items and then track down deals for said items so that I feel like it is I who is getting one over on the grocery store and not the grocery store getting one over on my by making me buy 6 bottles of canola oil when the number of bottles of canola oil I need is zero. What do the points get you? Well, points get you further points. Like I use my points to get myself gas station points when then take money off of my gasoline. I will know I have won the game of America when I amass enough points to pay zero dollars to fill my car with gas, which my husband will then use deliver groceries to those who need them from the food bank that he runs, which does not currently offer points unfortunately. As you can see it’s a very complex system, so it’s obvious why I had to quit my job to crack the code.

This whole thing is complicated, now, by the fact that I don’t physically go in the grocery store anymore but rather only do curbside pickup for my safety and the safety of others. This is a real struggle as the grocery store is my favorite place to go. I love hanging out in the grocery store so much that two previous relationships started in one; I literally showed up so much that the deli counter guy started dating me. That’s how you win the points system. In the Points world we call it “pulling a John Lithgow”. But now I have to do all my points arranging online on the grocery app, which should be easier but has turned out to be a total disaster.

The long and short of it is this: I am ordering from the grocery store but for some reason that points are not showing up in my account and this is, without hyperbole, a justice issue. I am completely spiraling.

I have commandeered an entire room in our house to be my Points Central, covering the walls with receipts, printouts of coupons, graphs, and complex mathematical equations. Sometimes I make David play the role of the unseen cashier who rings up my purchases in a reënactment so I can try to get inside the mind of the person who is coming between me and my precious points.

I couldn’t figure it out. I wrote to the virtual chat help desk. I called Customer Service. I was desperate. See, it wasn’t just the missing points—I was also noticing that coupons weren’t getting taken off on our orders. And we’re not talking 75 cents here and there. Our last grocery order I had amassed $40 in coupons. This is my retirement plan! And, look, I don’t want undue praise for this. I still have a lot to learn; I would never call myself a Couponer. Not yet. That’s a title only the sacred order can bestow. But a man can dream.

My dreams, however, are being deferred by the grocery store and this morning I discovered why. I woke up at 4 am screaming “MY POINTS! WHERE ARE MY POINTS!” and I got back on the market’s website to try to find answers where no answers previously had been. But then I saw it, in the FAQs, the awful truth. It hadn’t been there before so I can only assume that they must have caught on to my campaign and added some legal language to protect themselves. There, in black and white, the website claimed that coupons and points don’t apply when you use curbside pickup. THEY DO NOT APPLY. THE POINTS GET LEFT ON THE CURB. Have you ever, in your damn life, heard such tomfoolery?!

I’ll tell you what I think about it: absolutely not.

Honestly, this feels like a public health issue as well as a justice issue and I have asked the CDC to get involved. I will take this to the Supreme Court of Points if I have to. But for now, I must wait and bide my time and research other grocery stores to rob of their points. And I feel, as I so often do, like Debra Winger in the checkout line, barely holding it together, railing at the all-powerful hand of capitalism. For years, I stared at the movie poster in my room and at the slogan, which I still remember by heart: “Come to laugh. Come to cry. Come to terms.” I regret to inform my past self that the “terms” to which the slogan refers now appear to be “terms and conditions” buried deep in a website, stealing my rewards. I may have lost the battle, but my and my twelve bottles of canola oil will be back to fight another day.

Kris Kringle Colluding

Parents the world over breathed a sigh of relief this week when Dr. Anthony Fauci announced that benevolent burglar and emotional blackmailer Santa Claus had received the vaccine for coronavirus and would be able to drop into homes without creating a crisis. This is very good news for the good kids of the world and also the kids who have managed Ferris Bueller their ways into seeming good, and the segment on it was very adorable. But, unfortunately I have some concerns.

First of all, Dr. Fauci said that he got on a plane and went to the North Pole to give Santa Claus the vaccine himself. This statement alone should trigger a Senate investigation. Did Fauci fly commercial? Isn’t he encouraging people to not do that? WHAT IS THE TRUTH? If he flew private, who paid for it? The American taxpayers, that’s who. And, more importantly, who got the frequent flyer points? We need trans-fare-rency.

This is the real crime being committed by Pole workers! Why wasn’t there any footage of this meeting? Why was press locked out of an important geopolitical moment? Is Santa Claus even real?!

In a week when we saw absolute ghouls like Lindsay Graham and Mike Pence receive the vaccine despite doing everything in their power to minimize or outright deny the danger posed by the pandemic, inoculating Santa Claus isn’t the worst problem we face but, folks, this is a slippery slope.

How did Santa Claus jump to the head of the queue? Are we saying that he’s an essential worker? Did the Krampus also receive a vaccine? Why did Santa have curbside delivery on the vaccine like he ordered it on InstaCart’s new side business, InstaCure? Why didn’t Santa have to go down to the Walgreen’s or wherever like everyone else to get his shot?

Speaking of going down to the Walgreen’s or wherever, I love the absolutely empty energy of this video of Mike Pence and Karen Pence receiving the first shot of the Pfizer vaccine. With the dead air and the slow pan it looks just like footage of the ball drawing on the local lottery. Does everyone have that thing where a person you have never seen before stands in an unused, poorly lit studio at the TV station and grins as they press a button to release one lottery ball at a time with absolutely no color commentary? I hope you do because it is a real treat and it looks just like this.

Between Fauci’s insider trading and this medically sound but visually underwhelming presentation, I have to say this vaccine rollout leaves some things to be desired. By the time it’s my turn to get the vaccine, I hope we’ve at least upped the entertainment value and increased trans-fare-rency. When I go into the Walgreen’s or whatever I’m demanding better lighting, some kind of points system for antibodies, and a confetti cannon after I get the shot. That’s science.

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The Year 2020 As Told By Dionne Warwick Tweets

Who knows why the Dionne Warwick decided to grace us with her internet presence but in this year that was woefully short on genuinely wonderful things, let's not question it. Instead, if we're going to look back on 2020 (which, again, we should not; we should lock it in a utility closet in our mind palaces), we ought to only do it by finding the Dionne Warwick tweet that applies to every situation we encountered this year.


Suddenly, I Am An Expert On MRNA

As the Pfizer vaccine begins distribution across the U.S., everybody is suddenly talking mRNA, which stands for Maya Rudolph Nucleic Acid. Virologists, like myself as of this morning, are excited about the development of an mRNA vaccine because, unlike the vaccine for the flu, mRNA vaccines don't use the virus itself and are faster to make, which may aid in building public trust and decimation. This is information that I did not know literally 12 hours ago but now I do and as a result I'm available to speak on cable news as an informed commentator.


Listen to me on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour

I chatted with host Linda Holmes about the HBOMax series The Flight Attendant, which we both really liked.

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Newsletter update

As I mentioned last week, as a result of my leaving ELLE and devoting my life to Points, I’m expanding the newsletter. You’ll get the weekly humor essay and some quick takes on the news, like today, plus occasional one-of Eric Reads the News columns sent directly to you. If you upgrade to a paid subscription, you’ll also get access to the Wed. Thread, where we discuss pop culture and political hot takes, a monthly essay and prompts on writing, plus occasional Q&As and TV recaps. Until January, everything will be accessible to everyone, but if you like this newsletter and want more, I encourage you to spring for the full subscription. And, as always, if you want in but it’s not within your means to do so, please send me a quick email and let me know—I will gift you a subscription, no questions asked.

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Random Thing on the Internet

Oh my goodness I really love If the Fates Allow, the new holiday album recorded by the cast of the musical Hadestown. I spend the entire month of December every year listening to various covers of “Winter Song” (which is great for my mental health), and there’s a version on If the Fates Allow that leapt right to the top of my playlist. It great all around, jazz and soulful and full of tight harmonies. Highly recommend. It’s available to buy and on Spotify and iTunes, or you can listen to the listening party video right here.