Before Hurricane Katrina, I used to go to Walmart with embarrassing frequency. My suburban sensibilities are comforted by stores that are open twenty-four hours a day, and pre-K Greater New Orleans had two or three Super Walmarts where you could get your shop on whenever you felt like it.
Of course, after the storm, and for a long time after the storm, you were lucky to find a gas station open all night, and Walmart was no exception. In fact, five years on, there still isn’t a New Orleans Walmart that’s open past 11:59 p.m.
I didn’t realize when I made an emergency Walmart toiletries run during part of our evacuation in Lafayette, Louisiana, that that trip would be my last for a long time. Sure, over time, the reduced hours in NOLA had something to do with it, but I also had a growing awareness of lousy business practices, and an urge to buy locally, and of course, a desperate aversion to acquiring more cheap crap that we didn’t need. So, I stopped going. I went about five years without so much as setting a foot in a Walmart. And I was cocky about it, too, and in that very self-righteous/other-contemptuous way that’s so popular nowadays.
It was really easy to do that once we moved to New York, because there are no Walmarts here. Out of sight, out of mind. This summer, though, I was in New Orleans for a few months, and I started seeing Walmart again.
At first, it was just random drive-bys, here and there, going from this place to that: “Oh, look, Walmart. I haven’t seen her in a while. She looks the same.”
Then, she was surprisingly near wherever I happened to be staying: “Wow, she’s really close by. Huh. That’s convenient.”
I’d have to drive past her on my way to rehearsal: “Isn’t it funny, Walmart? I went years without thinking about you, and now I see you everyday.”
And then, one day, I got out of a rehearsal late, and I was hungry and tired, and I guess, weak, and well, she was RIGHT THERE. It was almost midnight, and I knew she’d be closing soon (I still hated her for that, but I respected her tenacity all the same), and I pulled into the parking lot. I told myself that I would run in for a second, say hi, get something to eat, some deodorant (so I’d look like I had a purpose), and maybe some gum (so I’d look casual and carefree). And I went in.
And Walmart? Well, Walmart just acted nonchalant, barely even registering my presence. I say “acted,” because Walmart totally knew I was there, let’s not pretend otherwise. She’s got cameras everywhere, right? No matter how you feel about her, I think we can all agree she’s just a leetle obsessive. I mean, greeters? Receipt checks? What’s next? Going through my texts and hacking my Facebook page? But I digress. I got what I needed, went to the register, paid, and left. It took maybe eight or ten minutes. No drama.
But I swear I heard her whisper, just as I was leaving, “I knew you’d come back.”
The rest of the time I was in New Orleans, I’d stop in and visit her a couple of times a week (sometimes more) and always secretly. Always alone. It always ended the same way, with me getting something — anything — and paying for it with my dignity. By the end of it, I was so ready to come back to New York, where I knew I’d never run into her at all, much less accidentally. Back to New York, where my wife was. New York, where a different kind of convenience holds sway. New York, where I could go to the Associated, or the Key Foods (two locations in walking distance), or the C-Town, or the Pathmark, or any number of places that wouldn’t make me feel as dirty as you-know-who. I’d even be able to hit her classier cousin Target (or Tar-JAY), although we all know it’s not the same. Target can be pretend she’s better, but it’s so obvious what she’s trying to do, who she’s trying to be, and it’s a little sad.
When I got back to New York, I confessed to Cammie what I had done. She knows Walmart all too well in her own right. (Walmart doesn’t discriminate, and we like to think we’re progressive.) Cammie didn’t shame me, as I half-expected her to do. No, instead, she said something like, “I miss her, too. I’ve been wanting to see her again. You know, she’s got a place in Jersey now. We should go.”
So now, Cammie and I drive over to Jersey every couple of weeks and do our thing. We don’t make a big deal out of it. Sure, we still go out in the neighborhood. Associated is so close, Key Foods has variety, and C-Town is low-class but a pleaser. Pathmark is a hot urban mess, but she does some stuff the other ones don’t do, and sometimes you need that. But they all pale compared to WM. She does everything they do, and a whole lot more. Hey, Associated, will you do a little TV and video? No. Key Foods, how about a bed, a couch, or a kitchen table? Not a chance. C-Town, how about some garden stuff, like outside, where people might see? Nope, sorry, that little rack of greenery by the front door’s not gonna cut it. And Pathmark, you don’t do any of that either, so quit the huffing and puffing, and besides, I already told you, the little selection of scrubs and socks you have does NOT count as clothes, so don’t even try to pull that crap again, okay? Oh, and ALL OF Y’ALL ARE CLOSED BY MIDNIGHT, while Wally World is open two-four-seven. I can hit her up whenever I want, whenever I need to. (Yes, she may not do it in NOLA anymore, but she still does it in Jersey, and I am not complaining.)
Now, look. I know she’s a problem for a lot of people. She doesn’t treat everybody as well as she could, I admit that. She’s unfair and nowhere near as civically, socially, or ecologically responsible as she could be. But I like to think she’s working on it. I could be deluding myself, though. There are lies we tell ourselves just to make it through the day, and this could be one of them. That’s okay. I have to do something to assuage this self-loathing.
Now she wants to come to New York, and everyone’s up in arms about it. Some people object just on principle. They’ve heard about her, they know what she’s like, and they are not cool with it. Some are curious. They’ve heard about her, too, and they want to see if she lives up to her reputation. And then there are those of us who know her. We know that she might take advantage of us, teasing us with ample size and low price, offering us so many things we never even thought we wanted or liked. We may walk out of there with more than we intended, but damn, if it wasn’t a bargain. (And besides, it’s not like New York hasn’t embraced IKEA and Whole Foods; it’s just that those brands are cool.)
The New York Post has a piece today about a price comparison between Walmart and Key Foods. The New York Times has done a few pieces recently, one about her plans to put down roots here, one about her skipping a public hearing about her community worthiness, and one about a healthy makeover she’s trying to get people to think better of her. She’s even started her own website specifically targeted (no pun intended) to New Yorkers.
I think it’s just a matter of time before she’s here, and that could be a good thing. I don’t mind trekking from Brooklyn to Jersey, and I love that we can go any hour of the day or night. It saves us money, even enough to cover the $8.00 toll on the George Washington bridge and the Holland Tunnel. But I hate the toll on principle, and if she were close enough that I could walk to her, well, that could be a game-changer.