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Walmart, I Can’t Quit You

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Listen to an audio version of this story produced by This Land Radio.

Once upon a time in our little town of Nacogdoches, arguably the oldest continuous settlement in Texas, there was no Walmart. There were numerous stores downtown and few outlander establishments where we bought our goods. Our first Walmart was little more than a glorified Kmart, just another place to shop. Then the old Walmart was replaced by a Walmart Superstore. As it went up, potential patrons like my wife and I drove by the ground where it was being built and stared out at the rising structure that was about to replace so many stores and businesses in our town. At that moment, we did not see it as good.

But lo and behold, it was built, and we came, and we bought, and I was wrong.

We needed a Walmart Superstore in our town. We just didn’t know it. It has become a focal point. A place where bored and thrifty shoppers can congregate and entertain themselves by seeing what’s new and who’s there with a kind of wonderful East Texas local yokelism reminiscent of a group trip to foreign tourist sites.

Laying it on the line, Walmart is not considered a prestigious place to buy clothes, quality jewelry or Paris fashions. If you’re looking for sexy underwear, maybe victoria’s Secret is a better place for you. There’s even a Web site that reveals shoppers at superstores in all their sometimes backwoods, broadass glory. The site’s secretive cameras focus on house shoe-shuffling women in muumuus all the colors of the rainbow (if the rainbow faded a bit and had some gravy stains on it). you’ll find huge, bearded men strapped snugly into overalls, and waddling patrons of both sexes in straining stretch pants, usually brown or gray (maybe that’s just the way I remember them).

Then there’s the rare bon vivant decked out in a cosmic, shimmering blue or green uniform that would shame a peacock, all of these stretch-pants regulars revealing way too much of their Grand Canyons, minus the donkey ride down (thank goodness), as they move off into the aisles searching for bargains.

There are gangs of overweight scooter riders, sometimes in corrective shoes that never touch the ground, whipping about with bags of open cookies in their laps, devouring as they shop, consuming enough calories to fuel an Olympic rowing team. Fact is, there’s something ominous about how the scooter riders congregate near the hot dog and ice cream aisles like motorcycle gangs, missing only the insignia on the leather jackets that read something like: WALMART ANGELS or BAD MOTOR SCOOTERS. They’re the kind of folks who look at you when you walk by as if, on a moment’s notice, they might snatch a can of potted meat and throw it at you because you’re ambulatory.

It’s easy to make fun of them because, dammit, they’re funny, and I’m ashamed that I think so. Missing teeth and plumber’s cracks are not a cause for celebration. Few of us wake up in the morning wishing we were overweight, underfinanced and unattractive with medical problems. But then, who is out there laughing at me? I’m not George Clooney material, either.

It seems the ones who make the most fun, like the ones who view the Walmart-hilarity Web site regularly, are small-minded, insecure turds who would not understand Mark Twain’s statement about there being “no humor in heaven,” meaning humor is primarily based on the misfortune of others. I can see the humor, too, when I’m in a mean mood. I’m not a saint, or I couldn’t write about Walmart’s clientele with an eye toward humor.

Let’s turn the dial the other way for a moment. Once, on a book tour in Los Angeles, I heard a welldressed man ragging about Walmart to the desk clerk in a hotel, as if this poor wage slave had nothing better to do then listen to this ass-wipe ejaculate about the great unwashed. Well-dressed man was ragging while trying to bring the discussion to a higher ethical plane by talking about the cheap employment, foreign child labor and lack of benefits associated with these stores.

I got to say, I’m with Well-dressed man there. I’d rather not have my goods packed by children in diapers, foreign or otherwise. I’m all for folks being paid proper salaries, and given good insurance and better benefits, so that at the end of the day they can go home having earned more than enough to keep the gas from being turned off, and have more on the meal plan than a can of sardines, even if they are packed in springwater instead of soy oil.

Well-dressed man had one important thing to say. It was what motivated him the most. Walmart stores lead to the closing of downtowns. They do. No question about that. Not that this bastard had ever seen a small downtown, and the closest he’d been to Walmart was a scathing editorial in some newspaper somewhere. He looked at me and decided I should be brought into the conversation when all I wanted was to remind the clerk I needed a wake-up call. The man asked me what I thought about Walmart.

I asked if he had ever been in one. “Why, of course not,” he said. I asked him where he shopped. He told me.

They were expensive places. I told him, “you know, most of that stuff, except the stuff you don’t need, you can get cheaper at Walmart.” The clerk liked it. I liked it. I registered my wake-up call and went upstairs, left the authority on Walmart in the lobby, pissed off and pontificating.

If he had had heat vision, he would have burned me into a pile of ash and kicked it into the street.

Why am I defensive about Walmart? Let me tell you about the long-gone downtowns, my friends.

Before I do, I know you have some wonderful, cheerful, perhaps tearful, stories about the downtowns of your youth. Me too. I don’t want to hear them.

Let me tell you, the late downtowns in East Texas burgs were usually small stores run by locals. They generally priced things three times more than they were worth. Maybe they had to, but I don’t care. I don’t want to pay $30 for a hammer and a fistful of nails. If I wanted a banana, I had to go to another store. If I wanted to pick up a pair of shoes, another store.

The parking was minimal, and the choices were few.

If you worked, by the time you got off work, many of the stores were closed. Saturday, they might be open, but Sunday they were closed again. So for the working individual, the mother or father who had a kid wake up in the night with aching gums from teething, and you wanted something to make it all better, you had to wait until the next day. If you noted it was 7 p.m. and you were expecting dinner guests at 8 p.m., but forgot to buy hamburger for the meat loaf, you were, once again, screwed.

If you’re poor and barely making it, or even if your income is middle-of-the-road, it’s good to get what you need at slashed prices, anytime of the day, seven days a week, in a big, ugly, over-lit store that closes only on Christmas and half a day on Christmas Eve. If you forgot to get a gift card and a six pack of tall boys, you have to think, “To hell with downtown.” What we got now in our downtown are specialty stores that provide things we can’t get at Walmart, like maybe a stuffed deer head for that special place over the mantle. The stuff we really need, hell, it’s at Walmart.

Here’s something else. With Walmart in town, lots of people can be put to work, far more than downtown ever employed. Someone has to run a 24-hour store, check people out, sack groceries, push carts, place stock, work at the McDonald’s sequestered in the back. The workers have all skin colors, not something I saw a lot of downtown, except for immigrants unloading trucks. When I have a tummy ache from eating too many jalapeños late at night, I go down to our Walmart and buy Alka-Seltzer, run it through the computerized checkout, and I’m gone.

However, not before noticing that a large number of shoppers there look like those on that humiliating Web site, and a whole lot do not. Many are doctors and lawyers and teachers and pillars of our community, and a couple of guys out on probation.

As I catch my reflection in the automatic door on the way out, I notice one of those shoppers looks a lot like me. Am I on camera?

PS: The book racks at Walmart suck. Just being fair.

Joe R. Lansdale lives in Nacogdoches, where he writes novels, short stories, screenplays and other works. His latest novel is Vanilla Ride (Random House).

Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than 40 novels and 300 short pieces of fiction and nonfiction. He is Writer in Residence at Stephen F. Austin State University.