Wal-mart at Christmastime

Generally, there's no deeper pit of hell than Wal-mart. The awful fluorescent lighting, the cart that undoubtedly has one bad wheel, the inability to find what you're looking for ever since they changed things, the sure knowledge that you have sold your soul to Sam Walton because there's simply no way to meet the monthly budget without him. Not while the boy drinks three gallons of milk a week.

That said, when I see people laughing at "People of Wal-mart" or the current meme of "Wal-mart Bingo," I start to wonder what we find so amusing. Sure enough, the photos of "People of Wal-mart" are pretty awful. They're generally photos catching unattractive people unawares - oh my, this lady's buttcrack is showing? That guy's wearing shorts with a long-sleeved shirt! That woman is too fat for her outfit! This guy's got a really long beard!

The Wal-mart Bingo is so much worse. Among the mocked are "someone with an eyepatch," "obese person using a scooter," "someone using a voice box," "pregnant woman with visible tramp-stamp tattoo," "white girl with three multi-racial children," "someone using an oxygen tank"... need I go on?

There's some serious mean-spiritedness going on there, on the level with the asshole in junior high who pointed and laughed at the girl with glasses or the boy with curly hair. Whatever their fashion sense, these are real people we're mocking... because we don't think they're attractive? Because they're sick? I presume it takes a second card to mock, say, a cancer patient with a head scarf, an amputee fresh back from the war or a woman with a black eye? It's a cross-section of America, folks: not so pretty and perfect as you'll see in a commercial, but real nonetheless.

This came to mind today because I ventured into Wal-mart. It was stocking-stuffer time, plus we needed milk, eggs, sugar and assorted cleaning products. As I wandered the aisles, fruitlessly steering my defective cart (I always get THAT one), it occurred to me that I was in sweatpants and a T-shirt, no makeup, and my hair was, shall we say, uncooperative today.

Hardly the fashion plate of my author photos, to be sure. I am not the most svelte of women, either. If someone had snapped my photo today, I'm sure they could have found something to mock on "People of Wal-mart."

I didn't see anything that horrified me about the state of our culture today.

What I did see was a young woman offering to get a container of mustard potato salad off a high shelf for a petite older woman who was unable to reach it.

I saw two people nearly ram into each other with their carts... and back up, apologize and laugh about how crowded the store was.

I saw someone put his pocket change in the pail for the bell-ringing Santa out front.

I saw two parents looking at the same toy in one aisle, and each offer the other the chance to take the last box.

I met a worker in an aisle who was loading Christmas candy, and upon seeing me try to decide which of two bags to get, she discreetly pointed out a third option that would satisfy both the menfolk while costing less. She gets no kickback for doing this. Just another good deed.

Time and again, the narrow aisles meant a do-si-do of carts twirling around each other... and yet no one was angry, annoyed or swearing. Just laughing at our own silliness.

When I reached the cashier, I got the familiar sideways glance I get whenever I wear my Browncoats T-shirt: trying to read the fine print and figure out what the heck that shirt means. Only then her face cleared and she declared, "Browncoat! You're a Firefly fan!" Yes, Wal-mart employees can be Browncoats too. And we commiserated at the sad fact that there are too few of us.

I am not declaring Wal-mart the bastion of good tidings this holiday season - if I were, you should check to see what I'm drinking and help yourself to a cupful. Wal-mart is still a necessary evil. But it occurs to me that when we laugh at the people we see there, we are laughing at things we know little about. The man with the eyepatch may have lost it in any number of ways, including combat. The woman in the scooter may be suffering from an injury or illness you could never bear. The mother with three biracial children? That is something to celebrate, you assholes.

For all that the headlines are filled with sadness, despair and a headdesking sense of our entire way of life slipping away from us, it seems to me we need to remember that there are good things happening as well. Sometimes it's a man who shows up at a local homeless shelter and buys groceries and presents for an HIV-positive single mother. Sometimes it's a person who randomly pays off the layaway accounts of strangers at Kmart. Sometimes it's a cashier who wishes you a Merry Christmas because you both like the same TV show and she can tell from the pile of Christmas-themed wrapping paper that you won't be offended.

Maybe it's just a young woman offering to get that potato salad down for you, ma'am. And have a happy holiday.


  1. Or maybe it's a guy hitting a checkout counter at shift change and noticing that both the checker finishing her shift and the checker about to start who is helping pack his cart are both named Courtney, and teasing them for two minutes about the coincidence.

    Oh wait, that was me yesterday.


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