Wal-Mart During the Holidays is the Fourth Circle of Hell

I decided on fourth rather than seventh circle because I’m trying not to be dramatic. The last time I was in Wal-Mart, three days ago, I got so aggravated after ten minutes of searching for tampons that I started tearing up and if it weren’t for the intrepidity of my partner I’d probably still be there, weeping in a corner between the half-off Christmas wreaths and those foot spa kits that are so popular.

I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but I cannot stand setting foot in Wal-Mart on most normal days, and once December hits that dread gets magnified ten times over. When I begin to mingle with the rush of holiday shoppers eager to exploit roll-backs and Wal-Mart’s typically low prices, I start feeling claustrophobic and itchy under the skin.

I don’t hate Wal-Mart because of their storied abuse of workers, both in America and overseas, or because their big-box stores push out smaller, local competitors. While I don’t condone their business practices, as someone who’s worked minimum wage jobs for other corporations, I think it’s more an industry-wide problem than it is localized to Wal-Mart (though that’s an entirely different post about capitalism and the free market and blah-blah-regulating-businesses-blah, and I’m open to changing my mind).

What bugs me most about Wal-Mart are things that are both true for other mega-stores and also slightly intangible. I can’t stand how absurdly crowded it always is, the depressing atmosphere due in part to all those fluorescent lights, and most of all the weird feeling I get when I’m there– I know I’m being played into buying low-quality crap, I know I’m surrounded by hundreds of other people who are just as miserable as I am, but I just can’t think of a better, cheaper store alternative when my shopping list reads: shampoo, motor oil, fish food, jellybeans, plastic cups, pumpkin seeds, and a hula hoop (totally hypothetical list, but representative of how varied they usually are).

Trips to Wal-Mart dot my history like trips to the dentist stand out to other people. I remember convincing my mother to buy me sparkly jelly sandals in the Wal-Mart shoe department when I was 6. Then there are the many times I sat on the tall swivel-stools in the craft department and marveled at how ugly everything in the McCall’s pattern book was (everything except the Halloween costumes; those were cool). I also fondly remember buying two-for-a-dollar classic paperbacks out of bins by the register–my favorite was Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles.

In the not-so-fond memory cache is a trip to Wal-Mart that occurred when I was 7. It was just me and my dad, which was a special treat. We were in the toy section and all of a sudden I had to pee with the urgency of an exploding star and we were at least a 3-minute trot from the bathrooms at the front of the store. So I wet myself, in full view of my dad, who just stared at me like I was someone else’s child, then grabbed my hand and quickly ushered me out of the store–I can’t remember whether we even bought whatever we came for.

Then I had to sit on the floor of my dad’s Ford Escort and brace myself for the inevitable teasing from my siblings at home. My dad was actually really cool about it. Even now, when recounting that story, he stresses that what was so shocking was seeing me, normally a pretty together kid, just casually peeing out a massive puddle in the middle of a Wal-Mart aisle.

On its surface it’s not such a bad story, but I was old enough to be completely mortified by what I did, plus my family has just never let it go, not then and not now, 15 years later.

Skipping several years in chronology, we arrive at a 5-month span this year, when I visited Wal-Mart nearly every day. My husband and I were living in this town that can only be described as America’s answer to Sodom and Gomorrah, where “Uncle Sam’s Guns” and “Kreepy Krawlers Daycare” were real, un-ironic businesses. It didn’t help that we lived in a bad area, directly behind a Burger King, where our neighbors’ various hobbies were not picking up their dogs’ waste, trying to sell me meth (ok, that only happened one time), and throwing parties that inevitably resulted in 3 a.m. parking lot brawls and police intervention.

The street directly behind our apartment complex was littered with pawn shops and dollar stores, so the Wal-Mart a quarter of a mile down the road was a comparable paradise. We’d just bop on down there to get a soda or some beer, rent a movie from their Redbox machine, or just bum around the store looking at the electronics and trying on hats. In hindsight, that probably did nothing to assuage our collective depression. As much as we appreciated having the Wal-Mart there, after we moved we didn’t set foot in one for months.

So fast-forward to a few days ago. I’m glad I didn’t wet myself again again, but I’m still embarrassed that confusion over the location of feminine hygiene products made me a weepy mess.

Of course, there really was more to it than that–we were in a rush (and when are you not, when you’re trying to hurry up and get out of Wal-Mart?), we had to hunt down several other elusive items, people kept elbowing me like I was invisible, other people kept walking incredibly slowly in the center of the aisle, even more people parked their carts in fronts of items  I needed, and damnit if every time I’m in Wal-Mart I don’t see a 13-year-old pregnant girl and that doesn’t make me feel sad.

All that, and I got inextricably caught up in the holiday panic that sets in before the holiday malaise smooths everything over. I’m glad it’s all over now–presents bought, packages mailed, suitcase almost packed. Here’s hoping I can avoid setting foot in a Wal-Mart again until at least Valentine’s Day.

One reply on “Wal-Mart During the Holidays is the Fourth Circle of Hell”

Oh my, Meghan, what a tale of Wal-Mart woe. It’s worthy of a Frank Capra movie. Or Roger Corman or David Lynch.

I am one of those typical shoppers that Wal-Mart loves, the SAHM who has money but shops thriftily. I did not know the joys or horrors of Wal-Mart until this last decade when it came to lower Fairfield County, Ct. There weren’t any in MD. The store was more fun before it was revamped, when there was a variety of cheapy fun stuff, and I could find sandals for one summer for my size 5 feet and spend hours pouring through all the craft bins. Yes, it was a horrible capitalistic trap and I knew it.

I go into numb Mom shopper mode, so I don’t think or feel when shopping. Except to limit myself to my shopping list. Entering the store to shop for two bags of stuff and exiting with 10 bags then praising myself for how much money I did NOT spend–that’s stupid sucker thinking.

Wal-Mart is getting even smarter at seducing us consumers. The one in Milford has a nail salon in front of the cash registers and a tire and lube center at the side. It is a huge building with wide aisles and smart lay out. Oh they are so clever aren’t they the Wal-Mart powers that be.

The truly depressing shopping experience for me is Costco. BJ’s is equally bad, but I’m not a member there anymore. Costco shopping would be a David Lynch or Darren Aronofsky movie for sure.

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