I have been to some of the worst places in the world. I have been on battlefields. I have worked in prisons in the United States and abroad. I have been inside of one of Saddam Hussein’s torture-chambers. I have even been to Detroit. The worst, most dehumanizing place I have ever been, however, is Walmart. Recently, I had the unfortunate opportunity to spend time at both a Walmart and my local farmer’s market in a single day. The contrast presented by these two experiences, which took place about an hour part, is startlingly insightful.
The farmer’s market here in Savannah, Georgia, takes place every Saturday morning in Forsyth Park, a large park in the middle of the downtown area and on the southern border of the historic district. It is surrounded on three sides by the beautiful architecture Savannah’s historic district is known for. The fourth side includes a sidewalk cafe and several other locally-owned businesses. The park itself includes 30 acres. The southern portion includes basketball and tennis courts as well as large green fields where junior football teams practice, families picnic, and college students lounge about. The northern half includes a walking path and many large, flower-bearing trees. Near the middle of the park are a fountain where weddings and similar events are often held, a large memorial to fallen Confederate soldiers, a coffee shop/restaurant, a stage for performances, a small botanical garden enclosure, and two playgrounds for children. Even on a rainy day (and this particular day was anything but), the setting is gorgeous.
Approaching the farmer’s market from south of the park, I could see the usual crowd out on Saturday morning. Small groups of hipster art students sat at the tables along the sidewalk outside the cafe located across the street from the park at its south end. One of them was strumming a guitar. A few of them had dogs sitting on the ground next to them. Some of the dogs were dressed as bizarrely as their owners. As I crossed the street, I noted the many runners making their usual laps around the perimeter of the park, enjoying some exercise and fresh air. In the grassy areas of the park, men were throwing a Frisbee back and forth, women were sunbathing, and children were playing tagging. Some teenage boys were playing basketball in the court.
In the area of the park occupied by the farmer’s market, families, couples, and individuals milled about from stall to stall, discussing organic meats, locally-grown vegetables, and unpasteurized milk. A local church had set up a table to sell cookies as a simultaneous fundraising and evangelism project. A few brave souls stopped to admire and pet the dogs others had brought along with them. One man had taken his pet rat with him, riding on his shoulder. No one stopped to admire or pet the rat. Throughout, people talked about upcoming events, cooking tips, the best organic restaurants, and a miscellany of topics related and unrelated to food. Strangers met for the first time over pesticide-free cucumbers and each person present carried a smile upon his or her face. Truly, all was well with the world.
I bought two steaks from a man who raises cattle on his family-owned farm just a short car (or truck) ride outside of Savannah. He identified me correctly, and at nearly first sight, as a “medium-rare kinda guy” and I spent a half hour soaking in his plethora of wisdom on proper grilling technique for the perfect medium-rare t-bone steak. I bought a bag full of fresh vegetables from members of a small co-op; one of them gave my daughter a free banana. Two women were selling bread and cheese they identified as having been made from a recipe used in ancient Rome. When I identified myself as a historian, we spent a few moments discussing the history of food in Late Antiquity. Another shopper recognized me as a teacher at a local school and we spoke a bit about the state of education today. I purchased coffee from an elderly woman who lectured me on the best way to make a good, strong cup perfect for an autumn morning. Finally, I bought some eggs from a boy whose family has owned a farm near Savannah since before my own ancestors came to America. My total came out to just over five dollars. He waived the change and took my five dollar bill and smiling “thank you.”
Not long after I left, I realized that I had forgotten to buy milk. By the time I could turn the car around, it was after 1 pm and the farmer’s market had closed for the week. A week without milk is unimaginable for me. At first I was perturbed and finally I was horrified. After some considerable consideration, I decided to head to Walmart. That was the beginning of the horrors.
While driving through the Walmart parking lot, I was nearly backed into by hurried departing shoppers no less than half a dozen times. Happily, I was able to find a parking space just slightly less than a full mile from the front door of the store. I entered and I observed. Milling about were the various unhappy species of Walmartians, a scene something like watching dozens of dope fiends searching for their next hit, whether that hit is a box of snack crackers or another piece of Superman paraphernalia. I gagged a bit as I inhaled the fragrance of the built-in McDonald’s, a fetid mixture of grease, plastic, and special sauce. I made my way uneasily to the back of the store, where the milk is kept, dodging the shopping cart zombies, the under-dressed over-the-hills, and, most dangerous of all, the
road aisle rage shopping cart buggy drivers. Not a word was said. Eye contact was avoided at all costs.
I grabbed up my loot, two half-gallons of overpriced pseudo-organic milk, and I made a beeline for the checkout counters. There, I stood in line for what may be the longest 15 minutes of my life, surrounded by candies, sodas, and tabloids — everything you need to rot both body and mind in one place at one time. At one point, I tried to make contact with one of the lifeforms standing nearby me by making a quick joke about one of the tabloid headlines, something about the royal baby and the Kardashians. The response was the blank, uncaring stare of the abyss. That is when I realized that I had fallen into the yawning jowls of hell.
At last, I reached the front of the line and began the checkout/spirit-dismantling procedure. I placed my two half-gallons of milk onto the conveyor belt. The woman on the other side of this chasm wordlessly, mechanically dragged them each over the barcode-reading laser. According to near name tag, her name was “Gynesha.” I was tempted to ask if she had been named after the Hindu god Ganesha; I thought better of it. There we stood, two human beings only two feet apart. “Beep-boop” said her barcode-reading laser machine. She cleared her throat. “Beep-boop”. She placed the milk containers in a plastic bag and looked to the computer screen. “Nine-sixty-nine. Debit or credit?” Her gold teeth caught the reflection of the fluorescent lights directly overhead and shined into my right eye, causing it to water just a bit. “Debit,” I said after some hesitation. She pushed a button. I slid my debit card through the machine in front of me and entered my pin number on a worn out computer screen using a stylus with someone’s bite mark on it. Before I had finished entirely, Gynesha was already beep-booping the items of the person behind me in line. I grabbed my small plastic bag with two half-gallon cartons of milk and walked off. During the entire time I was there in front of her, she had never looked at me.
Walmart has received a great deal of criticism for its business philosophy and practices. Many have commented on the unfair pay and benefits received by its employees. Some have noted its shady practices and mistreatment of its employees. Many have criticized it for driving small, locally-owned so-called “mom and pop shops” out of business. Recently, some of its employees went on strike to demand better treatment, better pay, and better benefits. While there is something to be said for all of this, I think the problem with the Walmart is something bigger, something more insidious.
Socrates once wandered about the marketplace of ancient Athens, searching for wisdom and conversing about justice. The marketplace was once a place where people could go to share in their community, to meet people, to exchange ideas. It is now a place where we move as quickly as we can to get as far as we can from other people and try as much as we can to avoid acknowledging our mutual humanity when we are near them. Can you imagine Socrates standing in your local Walmart, at the intersection of the “BAKING NEEDS” and “PET SUPPLIES” aisles, questioning some young know-it-all about the nature of truth? Neither can I. And that, in short, is why we should stop shopping at Walmart.