“Maintenance with a mop and bucket to the lingerie department,” blared the loudspeaker at Walmart.
Several of us waiting in the checkout lanes – old timers who eschew self-checkout and prefer to relax and watch the entertainment of Walmart associates sparring with difficult customers – raised our heads and looked back into the teeming retail cavern supported by metal girders and the energy of hectic shoppers.
Somewhere down those interminable aisles, a strange drama had unfolded. But why in ladies lingerie, among the plus-sized bras, terry cloth robes and frilly gowns? When the loudspeaker repeated the notice in a more demanding tone, a few intrigued souls almost abandoned their carts to see what had happened and bear witness to either a miracle or disaster.
Such is the mystical experience of Walmart shopping. You can curse, moan, cry or laugh like an insane man or woman, but you will return. We are human moths, lured to the flame of Mammon by kindly old Mr. Walton, may he rest in peace. The light is irresistible; we can’t refuse another trip to the Super Center, even after swearing that we will never darken the mouth-like Entrance again.
Indeed, we are swallowed every time, our wallets and purses chewed and our debit cards extracted of flavor; then we are spit out the Exit door (where everyone enters, in the first place) burdened with our sins in fragile plastic bags.
But it’s not all bad, really. Walmart is where fellowship still exists, overcoming weirdness and apathy. All of us become a community inside the Super Center: shoppers and associates alike, even the guys and gals who deliver the bread, soft drinks and beer.
Out there in the Real World, we are victims of circumstance, fate, misfortune and bad karma. Pushing that blue metal shopping cart down aisles crowded with fellow humanity, the realization sinks in that we are all equally struggling through life, trying to find the answer to metaphysical questions of existence and the soul. The lesson is that we are not alone. Look at all the fellow searchers around you, all reading labels, peering at shelves, fondling merchandize and making decisions.
No one is better than another. Your money is as good as the next person’s. In Walmart, it is OK to greet friends, neighbors and (gasp) strangers with a smile, even a hug or kiss like the Christian apostles did more than 2,000 years ago.
No one minds if you stop in the middle of the aisle to eve’s-drop on a lady’s litany of health problems, learn who’s filed for divorce or how terrible so-and-so looks after her plastic surgery. Information from total strangers is shared with the community. Complete transparency. How amazing. The government could learn a thing or two.
And there is kindness and benevolence, like the woman – a stranger -- who bought a poor child a dinosaur set last Christmas because his eyes were so sad in the toy section as he stared at velociraptor and triceratops. Or the disabled veteran on canes who parted the crowd waiting in line at the Customer Service counter like Moses did the Red Sea. When they saw his faded cap bearing the name of a destroyer escort sunk on radar picket duty off Okinawa, everyone drew back from him in respect.
Only under the benevolent smiling yellow circle face – or when praying in church – do we find our hearts have taken wing and we soar with the Great Value angels of retail redemption. We look forward to a weekly epiphany of loss leaders and specials unlike anything available in a community under 10,000 in population.
What selection! What prices! What adventure when we cast ourselves into the stream of shoppers, like salmon running in from the sea to the streams of their birth. Instead of the timeless release of procreation, we fill our carts and thrash to the shallows of checkout where strange priests count our tokens and ask for sacrifice. Our quests, physical and spiritual fulfilled, we drift with a certain languor to the vast parking lot, where dozens of vehicles exactly like our own in make, model and color await.
The cart heavy with loot, we feel pride for having looked the elephant directly in the eye and escaped with our dignity. Tired but proud, because we experienced more than shopping, we load our trunks and SUV cargo areas and bid goodbye to Walmart until the next time.
Excuse me for waxing poetic, but I have a confession. Once, I truly hated Walmart. The chain of discount Super Centers had turned small Appalachian community downtowns into lonely ghettoes of empty mom-and-pop storefronts. The low-slung blue and gray shopping complexes justified construction of highway bypasses around Main Street, further sucking away retail vitality.
I even hated the human service until I realized that very low prices trump other facets of customer satisfaction every time, and Walmart for all the complaints about low wages and part-time employment and no benefits actually provides positive impact wherever their Super Centers locate.
“We need somebody with a mop and bucket to get to the lingerie section!” the loudspeaker crackled.
Despite all the iterations of fantasy going through my brain about what might have occurred in the ladies “delicates” department to justify emergency cleanup, I was one of three men who, spotting an unused mop and rolling bucket in the partitioned tobacco product section, volunteered for duty. We’re part of a community, after all.