A reporter’s midnight journey into the dark heart of American retail

I have a story to tell. Pretend it’s fiction if you like; maybe I’ll do the same. I’m not sure whom I can trust at this point.

It’s a story about the sprawling, well-lit structure that dominates this town so profoundly…this town and others across this state, this country and beyond; or so I’ve heard.

I’m referring of course to the vast entity of retail which advertises itself as the home of the lowest price, the most valued selection, the largest employer of   ‘associates,’ as they’re referred to within the entity’s system (more than 1 million, I’m told.)

Perhaps you’ve noticed one in your town. Perhaps you’re there now…

Yes, you know this place, having recently frequented its shinning, plastic sprawl.

You know it. Intimately.

I do.

For these many long years I’ve avoided the place like a charnel house, the mere sight of its profane, super-sized sterility visiting a wave of blurred vision and black anger on my body and soul from blocks, even miles, distant.

No, I was forced through those doors against every better instinct; every ounce of reptile intelligence seethed against it.

But I’m a reporter you see, a mere photographer, and as such I was compelled to enter for the heinous business of what’s commonly known as Man on the Street. Perhaps you’re familiar with the concept: ordinary citizens approached at random and asked their opinion on a compelling question of the day.

On numerous occasions, against all human logic, I was sent to track down these Men on the Street at 8:00 am.

But where does one find the human mass at such an hour in a small rural community?

There was but one choice: the ever- present, megalith of merchandise — the well-lit human magnet on the hill.

These tension filled visits engendered a sort of horrified fascination with the denizens and inner-mechanisms of this self contained universe. I sensed a perverse order, something lurking just beneath the structured, polished veneer that required further probing.

After weeks of indecision I decided to make a midnight journey into the belly of the beast. Surely I was making too much of my aversion to the place. I would prove to myself once and for all that the indestructible organism was merely the latest chapter in the long, glorious history of uniquely American success stories. Still, there was that strange gnawing in my gut…


The Entrance

As I drove cautiously through the bewildering parking maze, a system obviously devised by either a mental deficient or a sadistic genius, I carefully dodged the shambling, inattentive forms that moved with seemingly random starts and fits. Some labored under the weight of obscenely laden carts, some merely sat stony eyed gazing sullenly at passing vehicles, babbling obscenities or fingering their tiny plastic phones.

After an inordinately time consuming search, I managed to find a parking space at the far end of a distant row of dust covered vehicles, some of which looked as if they hadn’t been moved in weeks, perhaps months.

Already I was apprehensive, confused by what I’d seen. Every instinct, natural or otherwise, told me in no uncertain terms to flee. Immediately.

But I had a job to do. Surely I was making too much of this…

As I made my way cautiously towards the nearest entrance, making a careful mental note of exactly where my car was located (I wanted to be able to exit this place in a hurry, if necessary) I became aware of a single car of indeterminate make or age which I’d noticed earlier circling the lot just in front of me. As it passed beside me I attempted a friendly wave at the driver, who obviously had even less luck finding a parking space than I did. I quickly lowered my hand though, as my eyes strained against the oncoming lights, which were aimed directly at me. I performed a quick sideways shuffle to avoid being run down and quickly lost sight of the maniac.

Badly unnerved yet unaccountably excited, I stumbled forward and made my way towards the entrance.

The Descent

Walking through the silently sliding entrance doors I was confronted by a hollow eyed, skeletal ‘greeter’ who bid me a baleful welcome and ushered me past a jet of downward rushing air into the terrible, fluorescent tinged world beyond.

I was immediately transfixed by the image of a huge, vacantly grinning, lemon yellow head starring fixedly in my general direction. The image looked down from a wall lined with shelves of garish merchandise immediately to my left, an image I would meet time and again on my journey that night.

Inching carefully forward into the flow of human traffic ahead, I was startled by a shrill, ear -pinching blast of what I guessed to be a child’s toy horn. Turning sharply, I was nudged painfully to one side by a sneering octogenarian in a black, low- riding, four-wheeled machine of apparently otherworldly origin.

No sooner had I recovered my balance than I was immediately set upon by a horde of sneering imps gliding along on wheeled sneakers, their glazed eyes starring past me into the toy filled aisles beyond. I cowered against a display of cheap, foreign made jewelry and struggled to regain my composure and reporters objectivity.

“You soulless geeks, how dare you accost me in this manner!” I bellowed.

No one paid me the least attention. These creatures were on a mission, transfixed by some combination of aisle upon aisle of slickly packaged, disposable garbage and a hellish need to move, move, move…

I decided to plunge ahead, too deep into enemy territory to attempt escape.

My first mission was to make a mental map of the geography of the organism, noticing as I had on my previous trips that each section had a distinct ambience and cliental.

I began in the pharmaceutical/toiletry section and made my way towards the lawn and garden/ toy area, maneuvering past discarded shopping carts and various, stone- eyed ‘associates’ rushing about to a silent, frenzied rhythm heard by them and them alone.

The smells emanating from the different sections were enough to make me understand the strange demeanor of some of these citizens. Lawn and garden fertilizer, mixed with vaginal cream combined with cheap perfume, Big Macs and human (inhuman?) avarice is enough to shut down even the heartiest brain.

Which may explain the man in the cowboy hat I came upon sitting beneath a row of greeting cards and one of the aforementioned yellow, grinning heads, speaking passionately to the six- inch space of tiled floor in front of him. I gave this clearly shaken soul a wide birth and moved towards the toy section.

My youth, like many others, was filled with fantasies about the newest, coolest, grossest kiddy products hitting the shelves. We would crash through the aisles in awestruck glee, each new item seemingly more essential to our growing collections than the last.

Yet I sensed no joy here amongst the world’s largest supplier of gaudy dolls, life- size super heroes and motorized mini- cars. Even at this hour there were a few drowsy- eyed tikes being pushed along by bored adults. They displayed not the slightest enthusiasm, merely eyed the merchandise with a cold accountants gaze, tiny hands rubbing their smooth chins in prepubescent calculation. It was more than the child within me could bear for any length of time. I moved on.

As I made my way towards the gleaming aisles of the electronics department, which also housed a selection of music and DVD’s , I was stopped short by a heart rending, almost sub-sensory sound: a low, agonized moaning one might associate with a field hospital overflowing with war casualties, or perhaps…no, I couldn’t be sure. The sound subsided as quickly as it began and I continued my journey.

Moving amongst the various, haphazard CD selections, I was again struck by the utter lack of joy emanating from the retail behemoth. A sterile, cardboard facelessness infected every product, every living organism within its smiling, fluorescent-lit structure. Here, even the legends of music, film and television were reduced to simply one more in an endless line of not-so -cheap, inoffensively censored pieces of   ‘product’. Recalling the music stores of my youth, I found it difficult to imagine even the half-hearted ghost of excitement roaming anywhere near this place.

As in so many other things, I was mistaken of course: excitement most certainly did exist here. Apparently rival gangs of shoplifting experts (the white dress/black dress gangs I would guess, judging from the colors of their ridiculously oversized t-shirts) had chosen this night to battle each other for five-finger discount supremacy. In a small side room, I witnessed several of their respective members sitting sullenly with a chuckling law officer, eying a table filled with video game discs and sports jerseys. They appeared more bored than distraught however, as if the place had drained even the adrenaline rush spirit of thievery from their souls.

I could feel the effect working on my own spirit as well. Questions, troubling questions, began forming of their own volition: Can America continue to thrive, to flourish with citizens such as the ones I’ve encountered here?- Are these shoppers truly poorer and less educated than the national average, as I’ve heard? -If not, why the nearly universal acceptance of this gargantuan entity? – These faces look hauntingly familiar. Do people actually live here? My God!

The journalistic resolve brought to this journey was ebbing quickly. I had to move fast, remain alert and get the hell out. I could gather the pieces and sort my conclusions later.

Head throbbing, eyes refusing to focus, I limped forward and found myself in a different world entirely. Canned goods, fresh fruit, chips, alcohol; I almost recognized this place. A horrible uncertainty passed through me- perhaps I’d been wrong. Maybe low wages, cheap convenience and sterile anonymity were compatible with the American ideals of our founding fathers. Perhaps I should relax, let my brain glaze over. Just give in…

But then I saw her: she must have been 70 years old, at least. A beautiful, chestnut skinned grandmother reaching for a pack of drink mix on an upper shelf.

Though several shoppers and associates were in her general vicinity, no one offered help. No one looked at her at all.

I was unaccountably transfixed by this scene, and by the slowly building tidal surge of sound rising in my brain. It was the same moaning, anguished cry I’d heard earlier, mixed now with a shrill beeping.

As the old woman’s eyes locked on mine, the terrible truth broke through the miasmic fog that had enveloped my senses since I’d entered.

I knew what that sound was: nothing less than the death rattle of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small mom and pop retail stores across this nation, stores devoured in the veracious onslaught of the very beast inside of which I was currently trapped, mixed with the vile android beeping of cold machines scanning merchandise, ringing up money, money, money…

Escape?

I wanted nothing more than to flee that place and never return. Yet, the old woman’s eyes and the terrible images playing in my mind held me fixed, immobile. At that moment I became aware of yet a third sound bidding for my attention, coming from the far nether regions of the store.

A tremor passed along the concrete floor, a rhythmic thud like the stomping of hundreds of stiletto- toed jack-boots; a sound of sub-human chanting, half pleasure, half agony: “Give me a W…give me an A… give me an…”

The spell was broken. I covered my ears and rushed helter skelter past the beeping scanners and smiling, mocking, yellow faces, past the frozen greeter and into the rising dawn.

Gasping in the throes of utter delirium, I somehow managed to find my car. Pulling out of the parking space I slammed the brake to the floor, narrowly missing…narrowly missing…My God, the same black, dust shrouded vehicle that nearly ran me down the previous night, circling endlessly in some morbid loop of time and frustration.

I shielded my eyes against the white sun and circling horror and pushed the gas to the floor, scattering carts, pedestrians and heaven only knows what else lurked along the perimeter at that hour.

Veering wildly, I bounced over a curve, slid past a line of vehicles inching their way towards the great temple, and broke the plane of freedom towards home.

Conclusion

I sit now in the safety and warmth of my office. I attempt, with little success, to draw some valid conclusion from all I’ve seen, felt and heard, semi- fictional, semi- dreamed though it may have been.

I leave you with this: What thinking human being could possibly desire to inhabit such a place? What kind of city or town would dispense with all dignity and allow their very character to be bid out of existence?

Perhaps only the kind of human beings some of us have been forced to become. Perhaps cities and towns just desperate and ignorant enough to gamble their souls. I don’t know.

But as I sped away from that place I couldn’t help but think of the myriad other occupants that might inhabit that span of earth covering the equal of four football fields: a park, a bookstore, a museum.

Anything.   Anything that might open a few minds or simply bring forth an honest grin.

Hell, this town could use some cheer and good humor; a smile from a genuine, human face, not a painted yellow circle.

That’s my story.

How are things in your town?

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