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Wal-Mart and I

I admit it. I sometimes go down to Rutland, Vermont to the Wal-Mart Superstore. My friends are all good liberals and the conscience of Middlebury ways, so I know reconsiderations can’t help but be made about me. I buy cheap typing paper, envelopes, occasionally a pack of screws or a hammer from the tool department. I am fully aware of how Wal-Mart exploits its workers, pays them so little (below the federal minimum wage) that most go on the public dole to make ends meet. I am also aware that this juggernaut among retailers rolls over every mom and pop store in its way, and pays no heed to complaints. There is something gratifying about how virulent the resistance can be in most Vermont towns against any big-box store or retail giant. There are so few in this very blue state, and I’m glad.

In fact, I have often thought that Wal-Mart was part of the dark energy that has emerged in this loosely managed, highly vulnerable economy of ours. It’s a kind of death star with laser-sharp masterminds poring over the maps of towns and figuring out on their computers whether another store could be wedged into a landscape already conquered by other Wally-world superstores. Maybe the argument could be made that a new store will have an even bigger McDonald’s, with a kiddie corner squeezed into the front; hair and nail salons, a down-sized bank, a massage chair, resident optometrist, all are welcome as each store stretches its ambition and approaches some kind of consumer Valhalla. All this mars and diminishes the American experience, makes life narrower, not wider, and sucks at the very ingenuity that once made American enterprise vital.

But I still go down to this rusty old quarry town and follow the traffic around a row of 19th century brick buildings, all built with that same Germanic austerity of hard little windows and heavy door fronts, past the Amtrak station, the fenced off garden supply yard, and park among sedans and rusty pick-ups. The parking lot is always full; hardly an empty space to be found. This is the anchor store to a long row of lesser retailers, until you hit the T.J. Maxx store at the other end, and a grocery store. There’s always a lanky kid smoking a cigarette on his break, and a few women chatting away before going in to start their shift.

Once inside, you join the throngs of shoppers pushing extra large shopping carts, most of them loaded with bags of chicken legs, frozen pizza pies, jumbo-sized boxes of sugary cereal, canned beans, corn, tomatoes, green peas, a pound brick of Kraft cheese, trash bags, a duster on a long pole, rat poison, a fifty-pound sack of dog food, some shrink-wrapped toys stapled to cardboard, a plastic tool box, a six-pack of paper towels, an aluminum skillet coated with Teflon, a gallon jug of neon-glowing “orange” juice. Cookies, a soggy loaf of white bread, packs of candy bars, a can of motor oil, a car antenna, chrome lug nuts, a sewing kit, a shower curtain and a bathtub mat, and whatever else my fellow shoppers might need to get through the next week.

These are the Americans Walt Whitman based his hopes upon. He ventured to predict that some day this surging mass of immigrants and country people would coalesce around the bright flame of democracy. He urged his readers to suspend judgment and to believe with him that the irresistible force of amity would attract each of us into an embrace from which a society would finally emerge. It would establish the “city on the hill,” whose beacon would summon all the other bedraggled, freedom-loving strangers from across the world. We would build a new kind of society in which equality and dignity would be meted out equally to all. No one would be left behind, not the escaped slave, the prostitute, the syphilitic, the infirm, the aged, the dense and the incompetent. All would come to this New Jerusalem on the Atlantic and share the goodness of nature and the bounty of kindness vested in each ordinary soul. When I read these prophecies the first time, I thought of the medieval fairs pictured in Brueghel’s paintings – peasants flinging each other around to the music, kids romping in the grass, old men swigging wine from a big earthen crock, young girls eying the young men. What a festival of hope and generosity, fed and sheltered by the limitless fertility of nature. Not a trace of history or, for that matter, reality anywhere. This was a pastoral vision, and Whitman had the good sense to be the first to utter its utopian dream in the New World.

Alas, the throngs of Wal-Mart have never had the pleasure to imagine such a fantasy, or to have the American Dream pass through their minds like some annual parade of floats and girls in sequined swim suits waving to the crowd. These are the rejected of American life, and constitute a caste of untouchables. This is life on a weekly paycheck, or a monthly social security check, or food vouchers. The men are in dirty blue jeans and worn out boots; the women are short, stoutly built, wearing ill-fitting elastic pants and a top that doesn’t quite conceal the soft folds of flab at their waists. The kids are scraggly, uncombed, faces not washed since morning; the eyes look eagerly into the arrays of jelly bottles and snack foods. Some kids smile with a blister at both corners of the mouth from all the junk they eat; others are so beautiful that you blink to behold them. They’re part of the bounty of nature, which generously distributes good looks among the ordinary. Babies blow bubbles out of their noses and clutch some sticky piece of candy in tiny fingers.

They rent small houses and apartments in tower blocks. TVs blast the day’s entertainment in every living room; the heat is on, and the windows are cracked open to keep off the fog. The oven smokes with a load of ribs sizzling in grease. The peas tumble in the boiling water, and the milk is poured. White bread sags on a platter next to the oleo. The table tilts a little to the west, and the chairs are getting loose in the joints. But dinner is served, and the ads come crashing through the silence from the idiot box, and no one pays the slightest attention to the insurance pitch, the free trip to Hawaii, the laxative ads, the sexy woman gazing up at her husband, who has just taken his nightly dose of Viagra and is ready. This is not important to anyone about to eat; the world of ear-splitting factory work, of planing mills, logging trucks, car repair, the back-spraining work of stocking shelves at Home Depot, the welding, the hammering, the shingling of roofs, that’s what matters and turns into a paycheck each Friday afternoon. And the drift toward Wal-Mart for the week’s shopping and the dinner that follows.

I don’t say Whitman had it wrong. He loved labor and the men who toiled for their daily bread. He honored the unemployed as well. He wanted everyone to experience the right to earn a little money and enjoy it. He figured that in the end this was dream enough, although, as an intellectual, and idealist, he couldn’t help but see daily life on the grand scale, as a social projection of revolutionary ideas no one had ever practiced before. But those smearing margarine on bread and wadding it up as a plate mop, kids chewing into the tough flesh of the ribs, or gulping down cold thin milk, were indifferent to the big words, the complicated sentences that American idealism has peddled for two long centuries.

As I sped around to get my typing paper and a pair of pliers, I inched behind an old couple that could barely walk. A young couple covered in neck and arm tattoos sauntered behind them, in no hurry to pass or bully their way through. I smelled gasoline on the man’s clothes, and figured he had just now left the gas station where he changed oil all day long. His wife looked like she might work at a day care; she had sleepy eyes but was aware of everything. She got the old man steady at his cart before he fell, and when his wife reached for a can on the top shelf, the man was there eager to help. A kind of natural courtesy reigned among all the shoppers. There was harmony among them, and me, for I too caught on to the etiquette and helped when I could.

I am always astonished to find among the clerks a morbidly obese man barely able to stoop, but in charge of some department or other. A woman half-blind groped among the boxes of tea to find the Lipton’s for a customer. Retarded men brought in the carts from the parking lot; a delinquent or two stocked the shelves. Ex-cons were there, doing the work behind the swinging doors. It was as if all the failures of American democracy, all the dead ends of the free market economy, the deceived of the American dream drifted through the doors to shop, to work, to cash us out.

In some twisted, incomprehensible way, Wal-Mart had written the New World poem out of its own egalitarian principles. It had found a meeting point for all those thrown to the bottom of the genetic heap and given them a commonality, a binding identity as the outliers and pariahs of the grand American experiment. When someone dropped something, two or three rushed to pick it up; when that same tattooed couple came up short by a few quarters to buy their food, a dollar was handed up behind them by a man who averted his eyes. A smile broke out suddenly from someone who had a bad day but who refused to give into it, even as she reached for the mercury-laced tray of salmon. She had some inextinguishable flame inside her that made life acceptable, even worth celebrating over a beer that evening. And more always came through the doors and joined the procession, foraging among the chemically enhanced goods, the meats that were glossy with hormones, the antibiotic soup in which most pork comes to us. It didn’t matter. Wal-Mart was the poem of our failure as a nation, and when its goods were taken home, it was clear to all that the poem had been written in colloquial English, and on the mouth tasted like food. After midnight, even the freaks came out of hiding and felt safe enough to stroll among others with a withered arm or leg, a missing jaw from cancer, breath singing in the air hole in a woman’s throat. They too were part of the many and felt welcome.

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