The Walgreens Factor

Photo by Sachina Hobo

Late afternoons I walk from my neighborhood across from base housing in Albuquerque to the Walgreens on Central, and then back, a little over four miles. If there’s medication to pick up or something to buy, I’ll go into the store. Otherwise, it marks the midpoint of my walk. For years, the space in front of Walgreens has been a hangout for displaced people, of which Albuquerque has no lack, many of them mentally ill and seemingly without places to live. It affords some shelter, is a good place to panhandle (though little of that), and even, in its way, serves as a gathering point for their community, such as it is. About two years ago some Walgreens wunderkind (inspired, no doubt, by military and ATF psychological warfare tactics) came up with the idea of interminably playing the same parts of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Rossini’s William Tell Overture, and some sort of JP Sousa fatuity through loudspeakers outside the store. This has apparently succeeded in keeping many of these unfortunate people away, at least directly in front. Most now hang out in the adjacent alley, or empty lots—no want of those, either—in the vicinity.

With the ongoing collapse of the real economy, accelerated by the COVID catastrophe, there has been a marked increase in the number of displaced human beings in Albuquerque, herded together in encampments, uprooted and hounded, scattered to other locations. The powers that be and good citizens of Albuquerque want to make them invisible, but of course they still exist and one sees them everywhere. Many would like to get rid of them altogether, but how?

As a further result of the economic collapse, Walgreens and stores like it have had to deal with rampant shoplifting. Ordinary items have been for some time secured behind locked, plastic shields. To get a tube of toothpaste or a bar of soap you have to buzz a store worker, as if you wanted to look at a watch, or a camera. Before these security measures were instituted about eight months ago, people would brazenly take things and walk out. Dental items, soap, and shampoo were among prized commodities, either to be used or sold on the street. Store workers were instructed not to stop them.

Now, Walgreens is a high-security zone, with two, sometimes three, armed IPS guards stationed permanently in the store, their shiny, black, cop-like vehicle parked conspicuously in front, the guards themselves neat, fit-looking young men in brown or khaki uniforms, equipped with all the accessories. Theirs is an impressive, intimidating presence, and anyone would think twice about pulling something. Most customers avoid looking at them directly, glancing briefly, instinctively reacting to the display of physical threat, even if it’s in the form of “protection.” The message is clear. The guards, for their part, are pleasant enough, and approachable. I am, depending on my mood, bitterly amused or hostile at their presence. For me they are a deceptively benign manifestation of Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face—forever.

These proliferating security zones, formerly known as “stores,” are perfectly logical and normal within the parameters of the rampaging capitalist system that defines life in the United States today, and most people likely take it for granted. A child growing up now perceives the situation as perfectly ordinary, in the way that same child sees as normal our diminishing natural world. There is no experience of what was before.

I used to have something of a fondness for Walgreens. It’s where I get my prescriptions, which, after a severe illness several years ago, literally keep me alive. There was a certain sense of health and renewal shopping for necessary, quotidian items like dental floss, toothpaste, and soap, now kept under lock and key. This cordoning of the harmless essential does something to our souls.

Toxicity, hostility, and fear mark our time, a greasy ride to some dreadful terminus, already there, mostly, but still slipping, faster than we ever imagined. Now, when I have to go to this place I used to know as my neighborhood pharmacy, I feel diminished, saddened, and angry. I see other human beings, beaten down, fearful, as if living in a war zone, which, in a sense, they are. I am among them, with them.

In an odd way, Walgreens was a kind of haven, or safe zone, not much different from a school, church, mosque, synagogue, or hospital. No more. The displaced are now mostly out of sight, the ones deemed acceptable are allowed to enter, but surveilled. No one is above suspicion.

If you cast your gaze thousands of miles to the east you will see one grim outcome of the increasingly dystopian conditions to which we, surveilled citizens and displaced persons alike, are passively submitting. There, the despised and displaced are being slaughtered by the tens of thousands. There, the very notion of a safe haven is a sadistic, vicious joke, a nightmare literally impossible to comprehend. If we look closely at these human beings, we can see ourselves, or we should. There are well over a half million displaced people in the United States, and the number is growing. To the majority and the powerful they are a nuisance, and for some, not even human, a subspecies. They, the displaced, know it. Those of us on the other side of the thin line, can feel the current, the unease, the threat. Or should.

Walking back from Walgreens, down Central Avenue, heading home, is a trip through a small purgatory. For years there have been numerous shuttered stores and the number is increasing. The displaced, the lost, the addicted, the mentally ill, a lot of them young, are commonplace on this heartland road, old Route 66. “Running through the heart of the city along Central Avenue, this historic highway leads travelers through some of the city’s most beloved neighborhoods,” says an official Albuquerque website.

I’ve gotten to know some of the people on Central. Sometimes we nod hello. Occasionally we exchange a few words. At times I’ll give someone money. Nothing praiseworthy or virtuous about this, just another form of communication. Sometimes they’re in a very bad way. The other evening walking back in the cold I passed a diminutive Native woman in a flimsy brown coat and pajama bottoms screaming at her reflection in the window of a shuttered store, vile, self-abasing things, pounding her small fists on the plate glass. It was disturbing and frightening, and I picked up my pace. But there it was. Staring long enough at our own reflections and what looms behind us, we’d be screaming too. Or should be.

Richard Ward divides his time between New Mexico and Ecuador. His novel about the early 70s, Over and Under, can be seen here. He can be reached at: