Tuesday, November 30, 2004

My hoe, my mule, my college debt

I've found myself working for Wal-Mart lately, as if by accident.

I man the cash register, I push carts indoors from the cold, I show people where things are, I put things away that said people picked up but didn't really want, and I straighten up aisles and aisles of mussed-up items from China. I receive a paycheck every two weeks for my effort. Life is good.

I'm not sure how I got started on this anymore. I'm not sure I even care. But working for Wal-Mart has taught me one thing. The world is divided into two kinds of people: dicks and not-so-much dicks. I happen to be a not-so-much dick, so I mostly get along with other not-so-much dicks. Then there are the dicks, whom I despise, yet am still very polite to, because I am the best there is at what I do. Damn straight.

For the most part, the not-so-much dicks, or NSMDs, are locals who understand that I have a crappy job, and who either have crappy jobs themselves, or have had them in the past. And while they are filthy rich today, they remember such a time as they had toiled, selling their labor to the highest bidder. Such as it is, I am not one of them. I toil currently. And how.

Wal-Mart is supposed to destroy small town life. Whoops. Someone forgot to mention that most of the time it doesn't. While downtown might have been the old watering-hole in some towns, now it sits geographically near and around the proximity of Wal-Mart. Is this a good thing? Specifically? No. Downtowns have more character and charm than large blue warehouses with hundreds of security cameras placed strategically throughout "in order to keep prices low for you, the customer." But in general? Yes, Wal-Mart can be a good thing for small towns. Lack of competition can make businesses lazy. Competition can make them sharp. In my town, of approximately 6,000 residents, there are two hardware stores, a paint store, a Home Depot (that no one figured would make it), two grocery stores, two mexican markets, and a Walgreens. Since our Wal-Mart was upgraded to a Super Wal-Mart (a traditional Wal-Mart with a grocery store for the uninitiated), not one of those stores has shut its doors. (In fact, one of the mexican markets opened in the time since.)

Competition makes businesses sharp. And competition breeds excellence.

The local paint store has more choices and better customer service than Home Depot, and blows Wal-Mart's paint aisle out of the water. By keeping prices relatively competitive, they stay afloat. When we painted our house, we bought local. Not because of their prices, but because they had the colors I had in my head. No one else did. They compete -- and customers win.

The local grocery stores aren't so local. They are chain stores, though not from large ones. In order to survive, they offer things Wal-Mart doesn't. They're prices are a bit higher, especially on things like cereal and fresh meat. But they have so many items that Wal-Mart only dreams of carrying, like regional salsas or loads of organic foods. For these reasons, I, the ever-loyal Wal-Mart employee, shop at one of these grocers in particular. As long as I don't get spit in the face or sold poison-Swiss cheese, I am fiercely loyal.

I never go to Walgreens. Not because I hate it or anything. Mostly because I can't figure out why it's there. It's awful bright. And I don't take drugs. So I avoid even mentioning it.

Okay, and here's the but. (You knew it was coming.) But I live in a tourist town. That's right. So even though my town is some 6,000 strong, it can double on some weekends, and swell to triple during the summer. We're right off of highway 12, which runs from Detroit to somewhere just short of the Pacific Ocean. So we have that key Motown-to-Vancouver road trip demographic. In our town, Wal-Mart makes sense. And all I can really speak for is our town.

But to be honest, even though the not-so-much-dicks are the nice type people, the dicks are the ones who fund our local economy, and make it possible for me to push carts and take people's money, while other stores can stand side-by-side, also pushing carts and taking people's money. (To be fair, not all out-of-towners are dicks. Some are NSMDs, but the vast majority of dicks are from out of town, so while it can be difficult to peg the NSMD as townies or tourists, the dicks you can assume are from the greater Chicago-land area. Those people who've forgotten what it was to toil-tirelessly for that much-needed paycheck, and who never experienced it in the first place.)

In short, I work for Wal-Mart to learn solidarity, to be blue-collar, to experience the damning effects of "the man," to understand why more than a few people stood up for their rights as workers last century, either by joining a union or a violent revolution. If theology is faith-seeking-understanding, then being a stooge for corporate America is dry-history seeking life-giving-praxis. Or maybe it's just the $6.70 an hour. You be the judge.

But please oh please, don't be the dick. There are more than enough of those. Be a NSMD, wherever you shop, and remember that we at Wal-Mart work on your behalf, forcing manufacturers to move plants to China in order to bring you that Bratz doll or DVD player for 1/10 the price were it made in America. Come on, do you really think we'd all be watching digital Spider-Man 2 on widescreen with Dolby DTS had our DVD player cost us $500? (And that being the cheap version that breaks after a year.)

Wal-Mart exists because people want it to exist. They like cheap shampoo and even cheaper cereal. And they sure as hell like to buy crap electronics for insanely low prices. You want to stop the march of Wal-Mart? Educate people about how they got that Bratz doll for $10. Tell them about how China abuses their workers, persecutes their religious citizens, and swallows up whole sovereign nations like Tibet without raising an eyebrow from the near-useless United Nations. Don't yell at the cart-pushers. They're likely to agree with you. And secretly call you a dick behind your back once you get in your gas-guzzling, Arab oil dependent, yellow ribbon bearing SUV.

You heard that right, dick.

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