Even before I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s justly acclaimed NICKEL AND DIMED, I was aware that Wal-Mart was the retailer of the damned and that it catered to the fixes of those cursed souls. Consumer electronics of suspect quality. Lingerie that wouldn’t survive three washes, made in some blighted US-backed dictatorship. Cases of Doritos and Captain Crunch. When Wal-Mart opens shop in a small town, things usually happen to the former shopping districts. Windows are boarded up. Those who made their livings on the former Main Streets find themselves queuing for the honor of wearing blue smocks. If Wal-Mart deems them worthy.
I have found Wal-Mart disgusting for the entirety of my adult life. Yet I have gone and expect to go again. A necessary evil, a step saver, I will call it, by way of justification, when I pop back in some evening for petroleum jelly and 9-Volt batteries. Yet, despite my admitted patterns of Wal-Mart patronage, I cannot envision a scenario in which I would produce streams of exhortatory prose in support of Wal-Mart. Perhaps that is why I don’t write for the Washington Post.
In the 10/6 edition of the aforementioned paper, a Wells Tower writes a piece called “Sam’s Dream”, which affects to take a look at how “Sam Walton created a place where low-wage workers aspire to riches and lonely old men look for love at Tuesday morning bingo”. Ironic, isn’t it, that a place stocked with so much documented sadness as Wal-Mart gets an “embodiment of the American Dream” write-up? Ironic only if you understand the message of the major media in 2002 as anything but “sit down, shut up, and be bipartisan consumers for freedom.”
Tower begins the piece with a feel good description of store greeter Carole Pfeifer, “holding a spool of adhesive yellow smiley faces, each with “Wal-Mart” printed in an arc across its brow. She has pressed such a large number of these stickers into the palms of grateful children that she is known to local youngsters as ‘the sticker lady’, a designation that pleases her considerably.” A nice old lady, we are left to surmise. A sympathetic figure. Soon after meeting our hero, however, we receive our first indication in “Sam’s Dream” that things aren’t always idyllic. Our hero has a conflict, our piece a villain.
Seems that Carole got stuck handing out complimentary pencils to those unlucky enough to cross her path, and that her path was crossed by some surly wench “hurrying into the store”. Pfeifer jams a pencil into the woman’s face, giving Tower an opportunity to chide the woman for “[squinting] at Pfeifer, as though she’s been asked an unreasonable favor”. When the woman takes two pencils — not simply the one offered, thanks be to Sam’s beneficence — and “strides off to women’s wear”, we are left to identify with the spurned clerk. Not to think about the teeming, disgusting masses in the Wal-Mart parking lot, that benighted rabble spawned from the bastard hips of Faulkner characters.
Simply put, the dehumanizing effects of shopping with people and in a place that disgusts someone, yet doing it anyway seems to escape the consideration of Tower, who takes the default Post position that any system that exists profitably merits defense. After all, as Carole Pfeifer puts it, “this job’s the only reason I leave my house. So I guess you can say Walmart’s pretty much my whole darned life.”
God help her if she’s downsized.
There is more to “Sam’s Dream” than the “direct and unobtrusive decency” of the Carole Pfeifer story, however. There is what Tower dubs “a promise descanting”; associate after associate, in this telling, sees Wal-Mart as a place where dreams really do come true. As an “associate” — Tower shies away from dated terms like employee or wage slave — declared, “you can make your own future here. Look above the sky, beyond the clouds. Let your light shine for others to see!” By the time we get to social critique, Tower has little energy left for such formalities as active voice:
“Wal-Mart’s expansion is a mixed blessing for its workers. While some associates will someday rise to salaried positions, the company depends on a much larger cushion of low-wage workers, people for whom simply making a living will remain a perpetual challenge. These days Wal-Mart is beset with union battles and workers’ lawsuits, not to mention citizens’ groups who bemoan the retailer’s impact on local culture and mom-and-pop businesses. Still, whatever hostilities the company faces, critics have hardly diminished Wal-Mart’s magnitude in the marketplace or on the American landscape.”
As Marie Antoinette might have said if she were alive now, “let them drink Sam’s Choice.” Except for that “cushion” for whom paying bills is a “perpetual challenge”, those pesky workers, those uppity union groups, and those citizen activists, it seems that 280 million Americans share Sam’s Dream. In that light, we should find the tale of the store manager who parks in a “distant acre” of the parking lot admirable, even as we nod with sympathy for the occasional disgruntled employee’s perspective that Wal-Mart is “bullshit”. Typical Washington Post; a token expression of dissent by someone not worthy of being named, overwhelmed by the preponderance of evidence saying that the status quo is what is reasonable and what works, so we may as well pretend not to notice the misery on which it’s founded.
ANTHONY GANCARSKI, a freelance writer based in Spokane, WA, can be reached at Anthony.Gancarski@attbi.com