When I left Southern California I knew I would miss having stores right down the street.
It wasn't always like that in the rural area where we used to live, but along with the march of suburbia and the tickytacky houses all looking the same sprouting on the hillsides up and down our canyon, came grocery stores five minutes down the road, Trader Joe's ten minutes away, and the Whole Foods culinary museum down the freeway in Orange County just forty minutes away. Now, a Trader Joe's or Whole Foods visit is 100 miles away, so we don't get there too often.
The big deal here is Super Wal-Mart. The closest town to us has a couple smaller grocery stores with a perpetual rotten meat odor, a modest organic and natural foods shop, and Super Wal-Mart. It's the only game in town if you are married to someone who eats Campbell's soup for lunch every single day and wants saltine crackers in the red box only.
To be kind and fair, Wal-Mart has changed somewhat since its earlier days and its offerings are adapted to the people shopping there. This town has several colleges, so I wonder if the organic canned goods, world foods, and a larger selection of produce may be to satisfy the student and teacher demographic. The larger group, though, are those who live in town and the local villages. It's a place to buy the family cheap, plentiful food. Besides, where else can you can snack on paper cups loaded with greasy little chunks of breaded chicken while shopping and pick up a little gossip all at the same time?
At Super Wal-Mart I have learned to check stuff before I take it home. Who would think to examine a jar of pickles to ensure that it hasn't been opened and a few pickles taken out? Who the hell makes sandwiches in Wal-Mart? I still wonder what happened to half the Better Than Bouillon chicken goo I found missing when I opened it to add a little pizazz to the soup I was making. And why were two felt floor protectors, the ones that go on chair legs, snaked out of the pack and closed, oh, so cleverly? In other words, I have learned to check everything.
It's interesting to shop at Wal-Mart because of the diversity of shoppers. An old, gray haired man with a ponytail shuffles down the aisles, wearing a beret and a Che t-shirt. He gives me a wink as our carts pass. As I push my overloaded cart, a middle aged mom with a swirly tattoo on her shoulder saying "La Squeaky" says to me, "I hope someone's going to help you put all that away when you get home!" I tell her I have someone in mind, since he's the one who put 20 cans of Campbell's Chicken Barley Mushroom soup in there and disappeared to read magazines.
People shake each others' hands, asking, "How are you?" It's usually friendly at Wal-Mart, and shopping is a chance to see everyone and find out how they're doing. Once two groups of women began shouting at each other, though, waving their arms, mad about something that happened a few days ago at a party. I decided not to go down that aisle.
The employees are friendly; some look like they are may have had crazy lives in an earlier time. There's a guy whose job is mainly in the ladies' department, hanging up clothing. People who buy clothes at Wal-Mart must try on a lot of stuff because he always has mounntains of stuff to hang. Three tattooed teardrops drip from the corner of one eye. I can never get this right: did he kill someone in prison, lose some loved ones? Or was it the number of years he was locked up? It just doesn't seem polite to ask, and he smiles and tells me to have a nice day. I hear him answer the phone, "Ladies' department, how may I help you?"
When I need help finding something automotive, a young fellow says, "Let me show you where that is," and leads me to the correct aisle. Tattooed on the back of his neck it says, "Fuck this shit." I thank him. "My pleasure!" he answers.
It usually takes a while to check out because everyone knows everyone else. Even the Mennonite lady in her neat little cap has people stopping by her check stand to ask, "Hello, how are you?" People are not in a hurry here. A checker will pick up your item, examine it, and say, "I was wondering if this is good. How do you like it?" She scans and bags slowly. I notice a cross tattoo in the web between her thumb and index finger. Was she a cholita in her younger life? Is she a devout Christian or Catholic? Or is it a combination? Nonetheless, she is a good employee who is pleasant to the customers. I have learned that waiting in long lines at Super Wal-Mart is not as bad as a tornado in Joplin.
Adjusting to a different culture is a challenge at times and it's good to have an open mind. We are all different and what's weird in your old locale may be the norm in your new one.
Margaret Mead said it well: "Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else."