On Human Suffering and Inflatable Flamingos

… Or the Most Darling Landfill You Ever Did See

The following essay was originally written in March of 2019. I intended for it to be a companion to “First World Problems, Am I Right?”, in which I recounted my time working in the office of a company that produced novelty items. I teased in that piece that I might eventually post this too and well, here it is! Four years later. Call it slow fashion. But really, I was inspired to revisit it in light of the SHEIN and Temu hauls blowing up on TikTok. I saw a video today in which a woman showed off her new crust cutter (a serrated plastic square), a spoon rest (a piece of silicone with grooves in it), and a cereal dispenser (a gumball machine… for cereal).

Such innovations! And for only 50 cents a piece!

Apps like Temu allow you to buy all of this crap directly from factories for cents on the dollar but they’re relatively new. Before these, unless you were buying in bulk, you had to buy at retail price from stores like Marshalls, Home Goods, Urban Outfitters, Job Lots, Spencer Gifts, or even Amazon. Companies like the one I worked for are responsible for designing the products and distributing them to these outlets. I’d like to think that my job provided me with some insider knowledge but I think I just developed a more deep-seated resentment for junk.

Anyway, I don’t think the plastic flamingo imagery will be quite as potent as it would have been in 2019 as they’re no longer trendy, but that’s what I get for being too afraid to post in the moment. Just use your imagination and pretend it’s 2019. What’s a covid?

Just kidding. As always, thanks for reading.

For the last three weeks I’ve been listening to two of my colleagues squabble over a feature for a product they’re designing with the gravity of combat surgeons deciding whether to amputate. The product on which they’ve been so diligently collaborating is a beach blanket. 


About once a week they’ve been getting into a rather heated debate regarding the color schematics,  

“Should the top be grey and the bottom blue? Or blue then grey?” 

“The grey will get hotter from the sun because it’s darker than the blue!” 

This isn’t exactly true and for a moment I consider interjecting until I realize that – much like the very existence of this item – there really is no point. 

Nevertheless they need to come to a decision soon as they’re in the final stage of design and the top of the beach blanket is where they intend to affix pockets onto the corners, presumably sewn on by a child in Malaysia for an additional 5 cents per piece.

Pockets. That’s its special feature. You’re meant to fill them with sand to weigh the blanket down. Hold your applause.

I turn around and watch them struggle to unfold the latest sample. It’s large. So large that it resembles more of a circus tent than a blanket. I can already imagine the scene of the unwitting beach-goer who opens this up by the shore only for a gust of wind to send him flying away into the horizon. Alas, this is where the genius of their design comes into play. Surely sand pockets could prevent such a tragedy. 

Because who wouldn’t think to just put something on a blanket like their beach bag, or their cooler, or perhaps… their own ass? And who wouldn’t just bring an old linen bedsheet or comforter? Ah, right. The person who buys a $25 square of polyester because it was marketed, “for the beach.”

We’re doomed. I should emphasize that when I say the designers have been debating for weeks, I do mean weeks

Allow me to give a taste of just a few of the other useless items we produce en masse here at [redacted]. From our factories in China, to the homeware section of some retailer, to the house of a shopping addict, to the landfill where it will resist decay for millenia: 

1) Fake potted plants. Today our conference room which occasionally serves to hold meetings but is more often used as a makeshift studio for photographing our products, has been transformed into a polyethylene jungle – yes, the contradiction on which hellscapes are made of. The long black table is covered by a spread of our latest abomination, the trees we killed to make fake trees. It seems silly and yet a part of me knows we’re going to sell a lot of these. Our social media feeds are flooded with images of impeccably chic apartments decked out in every manner of houseplant placed in every possible corner. Plants in the kitchen, plants in the living room, plants in the bedroom, plants in the bathroom! Of course, this is a good thing, right? We’re overworked, underpaid, burnt out, and drugged out, we could certainly benefit from a bit of fresh oxygen. But real plants don’t just sit there and look pretty. They require a whole lot of care and attention that many of us just don’t have the energy to spare. I can barely take care of myself let alone a bunch of plants and I won’t put on airs to appear like I can. But in a society that is all about putting on airs, Urban Outfitters, has cornered the market.

I picture it like this…

A young woman stands in the home decor section, eyeing the array of potted plastic in front of her. We’ll call her Emily, because, aren’t they usually?

“This would look great in my living room,” she thinks. She purchases it along with a $70 flannel and a ceramic mug covered in crudely drawn breasts, (it’s just the letter “U” with with dots on the bottom).

Back at her apartment in Bushwick, Emily places the newly purchased decor onto her favorite windowsill. It looks lovely, the glossy white of painted-over-brick now reflects a peaceful glow of green. She takes out her iPhone to snap a photo of the arrangement but discovers that it doesn’t look quite right next to her roommate’s dusty pile of DVD’s. As she picks them up one falls behind the radiator… “Fuck,” she remarks, as a copy of The Heathers begins to quietly melt into the scalding metal. “Whatever,” she sighs as she makes her way to the kitchen to prepare a cup of tea in her new mug. She sets it down next to the plant when she returns. “Better,” she thinks. But something’s still not right. An imprint of clean windowsill now marks where the DVD’s once stood. Instead of cleaning the area, she finds a book to put in its place, a worn old copy of Tao Te Ching she’s never read, left behind by an ex-boyfriend. “There!” she squeals. 

It’s perfect.

She stages it so that the sunlight illuminates the gently rising steam from her mug and makes shadows through ‘leaves’ onto her wall. She captions it “Self reflecting on a Sunday” #Namaste #NewPlant #SundayVibes. And reflect she does, as five minutes after Emily tapped the share button she’s received but three likes. Her mind begins to race as she wonders, “What did I do wrong? Houseplants are still cool, right? They have to be. Everyone likes those, right? People like me… right?”

Okay, next! I’ll try to keep the rest of these brief.

2) Air fresheners! No, they’re not just little pine trees anymore that you use to faintly mask the scent of pot smoke in your old Buick. Now they come in a variety of shapes like ice cream cones, cookies, coconuts, avocados – the trendiest of trendy fruits, and of course the poop emoji. If you’re wondering what the poop smells like, it’s just vanilla. They’re all vanilla. But the kind of vague vanilla musk you find in cheap incense from the gas station.

3) We make phone cases. Tons and tons of them adorned with some variation of whatever animal is en vogue i.e., kittens, koalas, llamas, sloths, pugs, flamingos, pandas, (although I’m told pandas are passé now, but you get the gist). We make them from the barest minimum of cheap polyurethane we can get away with and therefore they won’t actually protect your phone from damage. You might be better off just giving your phone a once over with a layer saran wrap.

4) Neck mounts! This delightfully dystopian product was new to me but boy, do we make a lot of them. The image on the box depicts a middle aged white woman curled up on a couch in a fleece blanket, resting her head in one hand while holding a mug in the other. She’s smiling contently watching a video on her phone and… hold on a minute. If both hands are occupied, what’s holding her phone? Well, draped around her neck and extending off of her clavicle like a pair of robotic tentacles, is the neck mount. This device holds the phone for you, freeing your hands so that no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, you can always keep a screen in front of your stupid face.

5) Inflatable cup holders! Flamingo shaped, of course. This adorable contraption allows you to bring your beverage into the pool with you. Take a dip while your drink rests tranquilly on the surface of the water. Provided of course that that water remains perfectly still. Okay, maybe just take a photo of it for your Instagram. Damn! You took too long trying to get the perfect angle and now someone jumped in knocking your flamingo and 12 ounces of lukewarm Budweiser in with it. Yay. 

6) Snow globes. Do I need to expound on how needless those are? Okay, well we make a lot of those too. Moving on. 

7) Free standing neon lights. I used to think those were pretty cool until we took it too far. 

8) Plastic sunglasses! Those are useful, right? Well, not ours. But if you’re that guy who still thinks New Years Eve shades make sense post 2009 – we’ve got you covered. We can’t make you less annoying but we can help you keep the party going year-round with our summer themed glasses. We make pairs with margaritas on them, palm trees, pineapples, ice cream cones and – you guessed it! Flamingos.

9) String lights in the form of yes, flamingos. Hanging along a wire that only extends to about four feet so as to barely cover the surface length above the bed in your college dorm but still fit nicely into the crevice between the mattress and the wall when it inevitably flickers out, falls down, and settles into its own abyss. Convenient!

10) Lightboxes/mini marquees. They’re made just small enough to be pointless but still large enough to be a waste of space. Meaning you wouldn’t want one hanging in your kitchen or living room but perhaps you’ll keep one on your desk until you lose the extra letters it came with, get sick of the sight of it, then “accidentally” swipe it onto the floor where it instantly shatters because it’s a made-in-China piece-of-shit. You pause before picking up the pieces to reflect that you might also in fact be a piece of shit. 

It seems as though everything we make is designed for disposal from the outset and I cannot stand to be a part of it. From the fast fashion industry to… whatever the hell this is, we are quite rapidly destroying our planet for the sake of filling the hole inside ourselves that we’ve been told consumerism will heal. And since it never does, we just keep buying. 

We buy more and more and more to sustain the temporary satisfaction of having acquired something, only to be left feeling empty again shortly thereafter. Buy a cute phone case, but then another one, because, why not? They’re so cheap! This one has avocados on it but this one has sloths!

Don’t get me wrong I love all animals but some just don’t deserve the hype and that includes sloths. The way they stare at you with that smug little smirk – yeesh! It creeps me out. And koalas. I suppose they’re super cute until you get to know them, (insert joke about every man I’ve ever dated). Have you ever observed an actual koala bear? Better yet, have you ever heard one? Google it. Those torpid little tree dwellers might be endearing from afar but they have a vicious side the likes of which is bone chilling. Additionally, they’re literally smooth brained which is unfortunate enough until you learn that they also have one of the smallest brain to body ratios of any mammal. What a marvel. And for a final dash of whimsy let us not forget the chlamydia. Koalas carry chlamydia.

Okay, I feel harsh. I feel bitter. Perhaps it’s from going cross-eyed over the massive amounts of orders I have to process for these things. Or perhaps it’s that as these orders mount, so does the image in my mind of the landfill where they will surely end up in no less than 5 years, (if you haven’t disposed of such items after five years, I recommend that you check under your bed or that closet you never go into). 

Did I mention I work in their advertising department?

Just kidding.

If there’s anything you take away from this piece it’s this:

Please don’t buy it. Okay? Just don’t buy it. You don’t need it. No really, you don’t. It’s ugly. You’re tacky. Okay, you’re not. But just… remove from cart. Go for a walk. Listen to music. Don’t. Fucking. Buy it.