Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Wal-Mart Realism

What can you learn about America at Wal-Mart, in the middle of the night?

Driving to Safeway for cat litter and cat food, I hear a story on the BBC about how Chinese merchants are nervous about the country opening up to foreign competition. China has to play by the rules of the WTO. China doesn't have a choice.

"Wal-Mart," I think. That's what those Chinese merchants fear the most.

Safeway is closed, earlier than it's supposed to be. I can see two employees I recognize chatting amiably at a register. They don't hear me knocking.

Should I get up at 6am to make my purchases? Should I leave it to Kim, possibly compromising her morning jog?

"Wal-Mart," I think, so close and yet so far away, separated from my reality by a psychic asteroid belt. But I'd rather have it over with, so I drive down Ina.

The Wal-Mart we go to -- no, it is not our Wal-Mart -- is a high-end Wal-Mart. During the day, it can almost pass for a regular store.

Night, though, is another matter. Whether it's because the other stores are closed or because people feel safer shopping out in the suburban expanses of Foothill Mall, the late crowd is diverse in the way that my university isn't.

Roaming the aisles, I have to step around stockers. They make eye contact. They look unhappy. They don't feel the need to put on a corporate face. Is this behavior also exclusive to the late shift?

I stop at a display of short-sleeved shirts. Some of them look like my wedding shirt, a custom two-tone number from an independent San Francisco firm. The fashion has filtered down. Maybe I should buy one? I start looking for my size. But every single shirt is 2X.

As I finally round the bend of the last "curve" and head for home, I see a slim, yellowed woman pushing a boy of four, maybe five, in one of those "theme" carts that look like a vehicle. It's ridiculously full, largely with candy and toys. The woman displays all the mannerisms of an habitual speed user. But she is clearly happy to be pushing her son around at 1:30am.

I try not to speculate but do anyway. I remember the time Kim's wallet was stolen in Oakland, when the thieves kept writing huge checks at grocery stores. Why is this woman buying so much right now?

And then I feel bad for having that thought and ponder other alternatives. She shares custody and is trying to make up for lost time. She has been saving for a special occasion. She works several jobs so she can afford to splurge on her boy. There's no way of knowing.

The line is long, the woman right in front of me. Suddenly, a blast of cool air comes down from the ceiling. She shivers, comments to me about how cold it is.

I look down. There's a display at my feet with the new hardcover in the Left Behind series packaged together with the first volume in softcover. I read the backcover, as I always seem to do at Wal-Mart. Things aren't looking good for the opponents of the Antichrist in the latest book. Apparently, many of the main characters are missing. The picture of the "collaborators" on the back of the new book is bizarrely doctored. Both the concept man and the actual writer look astonishingly fake, luminous, like characters from the movie Barbie Rapunzel. I put the books back, after separating them, and in the wrong place.

There is a threesome I saw earlier in the store -- one man, two women -- joking at the register. Behind them is a Latino couple, the woman pulled tight into the face of fashion, the man in corn rows, multiply pierced.

The woman in front of me finds an impulse item, some sort of candy, and shows it to her drooping son. "Remember how much fun these were, baby?" He nods sleepily, the plastic army hat on his head cocking sideways.

Then she sits down on the front of the cart and pulls him onto her lap. Together, they look at other impulse items: gum, make-up, accessories. He slips off her lap right before she begins to cough terribly, her skin turning gray under the yellow. She motions for him to push the cart forward, still unable to halt the spasms. When he steps in the wrong place on the cart, though, threatening to fall off, she immediately advises him to be careful, clear as can be, then resumes coughing.

Another checker comes and opens a new aisle for the woman. I move up, waiting for the Latino couple to finish. Our checker is a large, somewhat elderly woman wearing a regular shirt, her blue apron almost invisible as it hangs down under her girth.

"Did you ever see that commercial with the bunnies?," she asks the Latino couple. "You know, the one where they're singing?" They stare blankly at her, saying nothing. "No," she answers her own question.

It's my turn now. She tells me I didn't have to put both bags of Johnny Cat on the belt. "We have these now," she adds, holding up a wireless scanner. "Remember when this was the only kind of cat litter there was?"

I inform her that our cats don't want any other kind of litter. "They're classic cats." She laughs.

On the way home, I'm listening again to the BBC. There's a man with an accent talking. At first, I think he's some dignitary or expert. Then I recall that there was an announcement of an upcoming interview with Derek Walcott as I was driving over from Oracle and Ina.

He's talking about the fact that he loves New York, but has to regularly go back to St. Lucia. He needs to be near the sea.

The interviewer thanks him and wraps up the segment by saying that we will hear Walcott read the final lines of his book-length poem Omeros.

I've never read much Walcott, but find myself strangely moved. The imagery is precise and mundane, the topic more classic than our cats.

"The moon is an onion."

The next segment features someone reading a piece about vegetation. But the announcer hasn't turned off his mic, so I can faintly hear him talking in the background.

"Do you want me to leave you on the line until we're ready?"

I park the car, open the garage, lug in the bags of litter.

I sit down at my laptop, listen to Matador MP3s, write this entry.

I wonder about that woman and her son. The love between them was so palpable. What does he do during the day? What does she?

I think of Brecht's poem to those born later, to the ones still to be born. And I think of his "Questions of a Worker Who Reads". Lines from it have a way of sneaking up on me. "Wer baute das siebentorige Theben?," I think, "Und das mehrmals zerstörte Babylon, wer baute es soviele Male wieder auf?"

You want to know who rebuilt Babylon, so many times destroyed?

The same people who stock the shelves at Wal-Mart. The same people who empty them. The ones who are left behind.

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