You know you’re shopping at Walmart when the housewives wear camo and check their holiday shopping list carefully before they put an additional six pack of Coors Light in the cart. ‘Tis the season, after all.
Damn, but this time of year brings out the unrepentant cynic in me. I don’t do holidays, particularly not those laden with fake cheer and irrational expectations of unconditional bonding with your fellow man over presumed shared values like joy at the birth of Jesus Christ or the unrequited generosity of native Americans towards their erstwhile nemesis.
While there are people I’m keen to sincerely thank for their help and kindness over the past year, Thanksgiving with its apparent core theme of binge eating as a way to commune briefly with family members you normally avoid and despise doesn’t really do it for me. Sure, go ahead and call me the Grinch Squared. I’m a grumpy introverted vegetarian atheist with a Green Card – hardly your Martha Stewart poster child.
Completely dismissing the tender sentiments of losers like me, Americans celebrate these holidays the only way they know to wholeheartedly worship with body and soul: by shopping. An unwritten rule of social grace once implored retailers to hold off with the berserker in-your-face marketing efforts until after Thanksgiving. Alas, such thoughtful restraint is now merely a nostalgic memory of a more tender era.
Today, Black Friday (that’s the day after Thanksgiving Thursday, for our blissfully ignorant overseas listeners) is poised as the commercial equivalent of an extended orgasm at the end of a month of celibacy: a fantastical kaleidoscope of discounts and once-in-a-lifetime deals, a smorgasbord of bargains and binge buying from one end of the strip mall to the other. Throngs of shoppers eagerly wait though the night to be first in line; then merrily thrash each other to within inches of their lives to get at the treasures (“Made in China. Some assembly required, batteries not included. Keep small parts away from children. Colors may contain lead. Coating known to the state of California to cause cancer in rats.”). We shop, therefore we are.
Since the cat is now out of the bag and Thanksgiving tainted with commerce, as soon as the Halloween crap has been stuffed back in the boxes in the supply room every self-respecting retailer goes straight for the money shot with snowmen, angels, tinsel and evergreens. It’s not even December yet, but Nat King Cole is already crooning, bells are jingling, the sales staff have upped their dose of Prozac, and, by golly, ye shall be merry!
Except me, of course.
To better revel in my loathing of the season – and since I was hunting for some non-holiday items anyway – I paid a visit the holiest of temples earlier today. Of all the places where I might have chosen to immerse myself in the plastic fantastic spirit of the infant Savior, I opted to make my way to one particularly ugly squat box across from a Dollar Store and a Best Buy. Adorned with an American flag and a handful of security cameras, the space is sparsely lit but filled to the brim with a bit of everything. The aisles teem with pale and flaccid shoppers alongside overworked, underpaid “retail associates” decked out in ill-fitting polyester team colors and oversize name tags.
Welcome to Walmart.
The Walton family takes great pride in meeting my every need on the cheap. Groceries like milk and corn flakes comes in drab no-frills store-brand packing (“Rolling back the savings: was $7.87, now only $7!”) and they carry all the necessities for a traditional Thanksgiving orgy of empty calories: mountains of light brown sugar sit next to countless cans of cranberry sauce; there are bags of pecans and pre-pureed pumpkin pie pumpkin filling and festive paper decorations in assorted fall foliage colors.
The store also has very weird stuff on display, like a Bear Grylls-branded survival shovel that doubles as a machete, a camp stool, and maybe makes coffee, too. There’s a stack of deer feeders — deeply discounted now that hunting season is coming to an end. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, but apparently it’s just the ticket for the manly man who dreams of killing an animal but is either too inept or too impatient to do it the old-fashion way. He need no longer despair; instead, he can just set one of these suckers up in his back yard, fill it with his choice of yummy deer treats, kick back on his porch, and wait, scoped rifle in hand. There’s even an optional camera mount so he can capture the kill and put it on Youtube. It’s a brilliant concept, and it makes the whole operation almost as easy as a shopping run to your local butcher. Which of course begs the question: if this is your idea of “hunting,” why even bother?
Across from Slaughterhouse-Five, vehicular needs are tended to: variations on wax and polish, fuzzy seat covers, and vanilla scented air fresheners. And classier bling, like window decals with two silhouetted angelic children praying beneath a giant cross. Whatever pimps your ride.
But mostly, there’s the seasonal stuff. A truly grotesque amount of tinsel and wrapping supplies, and an entire wall of blinking, color-changing lights that can turn your yard into a psychedelic shrine to bad taste and waste of energy. There are plastic candles, complete with faux wax dripping beneath the bulb, as well as variations on the ridiculous flameless LED votive candle. To me, the whole point of a candle is the joy of watching the flame, appreciating the beauty of a slow burning wick. Replacing that with a misshapen plastic blob with an LED stuck on top is a bit like sex with a blow-up doll instead of the real thing.
The aisles nearby overflow with delightfully entertaining plastic trinkets, like Santa’s plastic Eight Ball (“Have You Been Naughty or Nice?”) and PrankPacks™, “Fake gift boxes that appear to contain ridiculous products from clueless companies.Just pack your real gift inside, sit back and revel in your gift recipient’s half-hearted enthusiasm.” Oh, yeah, by all means, do revel in your recipient’s half-hearted enthusiasm. Isn’t that was Christmas is all about?
A class act, Walmart also has real presents for absolutely everyone on your list, like a 2014 wall calendar with Bible verses, and “Peppermint Candy Bath Fizzer Balls,” which remain a bit of a mystery to me. Soap? Snack? Bit of both? Certainly would suck to get it wrong. This is America, so what would the holiest of holidays be without guns? Daisy is one of the worlds’ biggest producers of small-caliber weapons, and like Walmart the company headquartered in Arkansas. In front of the entertainment section Daisy prominently displays an entire rack of its BB guns, complete with an endearing picture of a couple of overgrown kids in the kind of goofy safety goggles that parents force their offspring to wear. She’s proudly brandishing a Daisy PowerLine 880S with a stunning pink grip, and while the boy’s boner is conveniently hidden beneath the cutout, his impish smile clearly implies, “If she nails that bulls eye I’m getting some tonight for sure – what a great idea to get these neat Daisy™ rifles!”
If the kids are too young for guns (although there’s no such thing, says the NRA, just look at all of Adam Lanza’s little friends at Sandy Hook), then there’s Laffy Taffy flavored nail polish and a “Hello, Kitty!” scarf knitting kit for her, and an Iron Man absorbent wash mitt and a Disney Planes “Groom & Go” pretend shaving kit for him. Or maybe, once the wrapping has been torn off, it’ll turn out that Jack will want the scarf while Jill plays with the fake razor — it’s the 21st century, after all.
Above all else, though, there’s an abundance of empty calories. Entire chunks of Walmart are given over to creative variations on high fructose corn syrup and processed flour. There are seasonal cookies, regular candy in seasonal packaging, and plain old regular candy in plain old regular packaging for deadbeat shoppers like me, who don’t give a shit about the season but want our discount sugar rush – like desperate crack addicts buying dime bags by the bus station. And what a high they have on offer: “Triple Double Stuffed” Oreos, each one packing a whopping 100 calories. But for the true connoisseur, Walmart even carries Zachary™ brand chocolates. Three pounds for under ten bucks, and let’s just be clear here: it’s “Made With Real Chocolate.” Says so right on the box.
Not feeling the spirit of the season so much as a growing sense of nausea, I head to the registers. Ahead of me a woman is waiting in line with a little boy. Her early Christmas shopping apparently consists of six cans of Diet Coke and a pack of Marlboro Lights. The kid’s not getting anything, and he’s not entirely thrilled about that. Given the amount of sugary crap that has been strategically parked right at his eye level, I can appreciate his frustration.
As I leave Walmart the greeter at the door implores me to “Have a Happy Holiday!” I appreciate that, sad little lady with nothing better to do, I really appreciate it. I appreciate the kind thought, because when all is said and done, that’s what counts, right? But I doubt I’ll have a happy holiday all the same. I just don’t have what it takes, and that’s something you simply can’t buy at Walmart.