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A peculiarly American institution

Last night I was at the Wal-Mart in Lynnwood, WA, for about 30 minutes with my sister and her roommate. They needed shampoo, laundry detergent, and other necessities of modern life. They often go to Wal-Mart for such items specifically because of the prices and selection.

Yes, Wal-Mart occasionally offers very good prices for everything from toilet paper and toothpaste to clothes, electronics, you name it. A few times when I’ve been looking for a particular DVD, Wal-Mart’s “new” price has been much better than even the “previously viewed” bins at Blockbuster or wherever.

What amazes me, however, is the instantly run-down appearance of even a brand-new Wal-Mart. And nowhere else is the shopping experience such an odd combination of giddy fascination and unrelenting horror.

Now then, the Lynnwood Wal-Mart is the only one within quick driving distance of Bothell, where we all live. I believe there’s another Wal-Mart further up I-5, perhaps at or just beyond Marysville, but we wouldn’t go that far to enjoy a few cents off a bottle of Tide. So we, along with what I would conservatively estimate to be about SIX MILLION OTHER PEOPLE, made the short trip off SR 527 to 164th St SW and the retail hell located there.

It was crowded. It’s always crowded. The parking lot stretches west from the storefront for a quarter-mile or so, and the several times I’ve been there, we’ve always ended up parking at the far end of the lot. No concern there, I usually park a little away from stores anyway to find a place quickly and be done with it, but the sheer volume of traffic that’s always there simply amazes me.

On our way into the store we were accosted by some petition-bearing “Stop the nuclear waste!” protesters, who immediately lost my respect by pronouncing it “nook-yoo-lur”—thanks, George W.—and who heckled shoppers who passed them by without stopping to sign. Struck me as a singularly effective way to achieve your purpose, but I digress.

Walked into the store and immediately the Wal-Mart Aura was upon us. To our right, the usual long line at the customer-service desk, with aggressively inattentive clerks barely assisting listless customers with returns and exchanges. Right next to that, a worker mopped at the floor in front of the door leading to the restrooms, his CAUTION WET FLOOR warning triangle kept so close at his feet that he had to move it around as he mopped.

To our left was the row of into-the-store impulse shelves. Other Wal-Mart stores seem to give these shelves over to whatever seasonal merchandise they’re hawking at any given moment, but each time I’ve been to this store, the shelves have been lined with whatever clearance and oddball merchandise they could find in the stockrooms and on the orphaned endcaps and the like. Today there were table-top fans for $12.88 and inflatable wading pools for $13.64 and electric guitars for $59 and other odd things at similarly odd prices.

Straight ahead to the apparel departments, and a crowd of adults trying without much success to shepherd their children (typically 2 or 3 kids per adult; this group was right in the typical range) into shopping carts for their journeys around the store.

The little café on the right, full of indolent shoppers and more sluggish employees. Probably all wondering, like I was, why the hell this experience had been inflicted upon them.

We threaded our way through the kids-to-carts area and pulled our own shopping cart out of the corral. Wandered down the wide aisle behind the checkouts but in front of apparel toward the hardlines side of the store. Straight down that aisle is the toy department; on the left (as you walk away from the checkouts) is the pharmacy and health/beauty section, with grocery items and office supplies and whatnot on the right.

That’s when we saw The Strumpet.

This woman had to be in her mid-40s. She was perched precariously atop five-inch heels and wore shorts that should probably have been called “a loincloth,” they were so short. There was barely enough material for the legs to join in the crotch seam. They were held in place by a belt of cheap silver links, the free end dangling down her leg, and she wore a midriff T-shirt that exposed obviously chemically tightened skin that was splotchy with what looked like a failed fake-tanning attempt.

Further north, she had the most outrageously augmented bust in the history of the world. This woman’s waist was probably no more than 22" or 24", but her bust size had to be about 40". You’ve probably seen in comic books how the female superheros are typically possessed of grapefruit-like breasts, perfectly rounded and barely contained by their uniforms, such as they are. That was obviously the effect this woman hoped to achieve, and her plastic surgeon had done a hell of a job. She had to be top-heavy. She could be snapped in two by a sudden change in direction.

She had a good 10 pounds of gold jewelry around her neck, all of it resting in the valley created by her breasts, and her gold earrings dangled to touch her shoulders. Her hands flashed with various glittery items too, and her sunglasses, resting atop her obviously chemically assisted black hair, sparkled with rhinestones.

And then her face.

Her face—how to describe? If you’ve seen the movie Brazil, you’ll know immediately what I’m talking about when I say that Katherine Helmond’s character undergoes some sort of facial-manipulation procedure (I haven’t seen the movie in nearly 20 years, so if I have this wrong, don’t tell me; I’m enjoying my memory of it regardless) in which plastic wrap is stretched across her face, forming a gross caricature in what’s supposed to be a process to enhance beauty. This woman at Wal-Mart looked like she had just stepped out of that scene.

The three of us stood there dumbstruck as The Strumpet passed us by, and later when we were finally at checkout, we saw her again, this time with her daughter. Strumpetina was a younger version of the mother, but with fewer assists. No hair color, for one thing; though the daughter’s hair was teased to within an inch of its life, it looked like its normal color, kind of a dirty brown. And no rhinestones on her sunglasses, nor did she have the piles of gold around her neck. But give it time.

We wanted to look away, to finish our own shopping and get the hell out, but... well, we simply couldn’t. It was like a particularly horrible car wreck. You’re afraid of seeing the headless bodies, the limbs strewn across the highway, the splashes of blood on the median wall, but you just... can’t... pull... your... eyes... off the scene.

The rest of the experience involved the usual jostling of families with fully loaded carts (two or three carts in some cases); the screaming children; the piles of cheaply made and even more cheaply sold merchandise that we Americans apparently simply CANNOT live without. It was unbelievable.

When I lived in Salt Lake City, I went to a new Wal-Mart that opened in the Union Park district. I was there about a week after the store’s grand opening, and it already looked like it’d been there for years. Grimy floors, slack-lipped and indifferent clerks, the Utah families with their Super Size quantities of children crowding the aisles everywhere you looked.

It’s interesting I have such a higher-than-thou opinion of Wal-Mart, because I worked at Kmart for seven years in the early 1990s, and Wal-Mart’s nowhere near bankruptcy (quite the opposite, in fact). I liked my job at Kmart the first six years or so, and it was only a particularly disagreeable assistant manager they hired that turned me toward active dislike of my job. I don’t shop at Kmart anymore, haven’t for years. I imagine my experiences there are part of the reason why I hate Wal-Mart so much.

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