Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Thoughts on a Trip to Wal-Mart

I wrote this during my time in Texas, and I am rather proud of it. Reading it again, I am also glad not to be living there anymore.

Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California" has long been one of my favorite poems. In it he imagines meeting Walt Whitman in a supermarket, that most modern of locales in postwar America, with the old poet puzzled by the passing of the land that he once knew and loved so well. As sterile as supermarkets may be, they can at least inspire such reveries. A Wal-Mart, however, cannot.

I typically avoid going to Wal-Mart at all costs, which is difficult in the town where I live. As in my hometown (which is about the same size) there are few retail options available, and there are more people at the Wal-Mart than at any other place in town at any given time. It is the marketplace, the Agora, the Forum, of small-town America, and what a bitter patrimony it is.

I went tonight because I needed to load up on supplies for my road trip to New Jersey, including items like a blanket for my cat carrier, summer sausage for the road, and a small aluminum tray to serve as a compact, traveling litter box. I made my trip during the dinner hour to avoid the crowds, but my timing seemed off. The place was swamped, loud, crowded, and deeply unpleasant.

In moments such as these, a trip to Wal-Mart seems to encapsulate all that it is wrong with this country. It is a cathedral to empty commerce, completely utilitarian and lacking in any value other than selling cheaply-priced crap. All is bedecked in a faux, shallow, and emptyheaded redwhitenblue patriotism manufactured with cheap Chinese labor. The lack of civility is striking, I always feel as if I have stepped onto the set of the movie Idiocracy. This time I was at least spared something I've seen in the past: spousal yelling matches cut with many a loudly spoken profanity. (The website People of Walmart seeks to document the vortex of taste that is Walmart, although in fashion that I find more than a bit classist.) Still, I got to witness screaming children ignored by their parents, relatively benign children upbraided sharply by their elders, and an endless parade of fat kids. For some reason my brain can assimilate the many swollen people who move themselves forward by shifting their weight side to side, but the sheer numbers portly children disturbs me. (This situtation has already eroded our military readiness.)

I spend so much time by myself or in the relatively removed environment of the university that I sometimes forget that Walmart is where you find out what the score really is. We have given up the downtowns and the civic bonds of old for inexpensive DVDs, cheap towels, and low-price ham under one roof. We are a nation anaesthetized by consumerism, sated with massive quantities of shit and uninterested in quality. Wages have been stagnant for so long that few can hope for much better. I often hear conservative intellectuals crow about the wonders of the unfettered free market. If they actually had to shop at a rural Wal-mart, the ultimate outcome of their economic ideas, they might not be so praiseful, and I'm sure Walt Whitman would be struck speechless with horror.

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