The Heart of Darkness

Hamilton Nolan/Folio Weekly

The author, about 16 hours into his journey

Folio Weekly | January 10, 2006
Heart of Darkness

"Once you get over the first shock wave that you are lost or stranded, put a high value on your life and capitalize on your will to live. You will be amazed at what it will get you through."

— From "The Pocket Survival Guide," by J. Wayne Fears

$4.93 at Wal-Mart

The American Dream has relocated. No longer is it found on the welcoming shores at Plymouth Rock, along Western trails winding through purple mountains’ majesties or beneath the fertile soil of Napa Valley. It isn’t on a Vegas craps table, a dusty Texas baseball diamond or even in the heart of a West Point cadet on graduation day.

Today, that dream is nestled in a box — a big, big box called Wal-Mart. Somewhere between the whole Rotisserie chickens and the discount car audio equipment, the dream lurks. Or so I believed. And I was determined to find it. In 24 hours.

9:54 a.m., Dec. 26, 2005

The day after Christmas at Wal-Mart is an American tradition. Or about to become one. The parking lot is about three-quarters full when I pull in.

On the drive to the store, I’d blasted a CD of updated versions of Woody Guthrie songs, trying to inoculate myself against consumerism.

"I’m standing on the rock, Vanzetti!

I’m standing on the rock, Vanzetti!

I’m standing on the rock, Vanzetti!

Where men like you have stood!"

Righteous. I know Vanzetti wouldn’t have stood for any of this non-anarchist bullshit, if he hadn’t been executed and all that.

Flat clouds move across the sky. A single, hopeful sunbeam peeks through. I check my pockets: notebook, camera, pen, cell phone, a pack of Kools and a few Advil Non-Drowsy Cold and Sinus caplets in case of medical emergency. I’m as ready as a man can be.

As I walk across the parking lot, Wal-Mart’s massive slogan, plastered across an entire side of the building, looms larger with each step: "Satisfaction Guaranteed."

Let’s hope so, bitches.

10:50 a.m.

Immediately upon entering the store, I see my cousin and his friend. They are here to visit me. They tell me that there’s an entire section in the back with leftover Christmas items — fake trees, fake wreaths, fake snow, other holiday staples. "Everybody back there is like 89 years old," the friend says. "I don’t think they’re gonna make it till next Christmas."

At least Wal-Mart fosters optimism among the elderly. I decide to pace off the store to get an idea of the space I’ll be maneuvering in. It’s 130 steps wide, from the bread section to the deli, and 240 steps long, from the deli to the snakebite kits in the hunting section. Assuming every step is about 2-and-a-half feet, that means the store is ... pretty damn big.

Plenty of room for "families." Wal-Mart consciously puts forth a family-friendly image, a façade about an inch deep. In the DVD section, I find "Wild Things 3," "Half Baked" and "Reservoir Dogs," each for the bargain price of $9.44. That’s sex, drugs and violence for less than 30 bucks, excluding tax. The store is also rife with poker chips, Texas Hold-’em card tables and dozens of casino computer games. And if little Johnny gets tired of playing "Roller Coaster Tycoon" and "Zoo Tycoon," Wal-Mart also sells "Prison Tycoon," where he can control gang warfare and bust unions while managing his own for-profit joint.

Lesson No. 1: Wal-Mart is full of shit.

11:55 a.m.

I plan to walk out to the car every hour or two to take notes, smoke and switch between wearing a jacket and going jacketless. This should make it harder for security, which I’m sure lurks in a shadowy back room, to detect me. My main fear is that I’ll get tossed from the store before I can finish my quest, or even get picked up for loitering by one of those patrol cars that swing through the parking lot every so often. I must become stealth itself, so as to blend, ninja-like, into the zombified post-holiday throng.

The St. Augustine Wal-Mart on U.S. 1 South is a "Supercenter," meaning that it is so large that if the company ever decides to add a hotel, it can become its own incorporated town. The grocery section alone is gargantuan. It is full of regular brands along with the "Sam’s Choice" house brand — a brand so amazingly cheap it must operate at a loss. This store has already put some of the city’s old-guard local grocery stores out of business. Suggested motto: "Wal-Mart: We will undersell your ass."

I check the status of the lobsters in the round tank by the seafood department. They seem lethargic. I know how they feel.

My dad stops by for a visit at the Wal-Mart snack bar, conveniently located by the dairy aisle. We discuss Wal-Mart’s macroeconomic and cultural role in the world. Left-leaning critics of the company often rail against its poverty wages, lack of health-care coverage and crushing effect on small local stores without addressing its inevitability as an economic model or the benefits its low prices can bring to poor consumers. Believers on the right tend to tout those economic benefits exclusively, without taking into account the plight of workers or the soul-depleting prospect of Americans consigned to visiting a faceless big-box store for all of their shopping needs. The company has, rather despicably, closed entire stores or departments rather than allow them to unionize; on the other hand, it’s also true that a marked increase in wages would erase the company’s tiny profit margin, rendering the entire business model worthless.

It seems to me that the left should focus less on Wal-Mart’s economics and more on convincing people that the store simply isn’t cool. Everybody knows all the cool kids are lefties, and if our culture is powerful enough to convince Japanese teenagers to listen to Brooklyn hip hop, and Brooklyn kids to wear Polo yachtsmen outfits, why can’t we persuade Middle America that shopping at Wal-Mart makes you a nerd?

My dad, who doesn’t generally tell me my ideas are stupid, agrees that this sounds like a good plan. As we’re talking, a woman who worked at my preschool strolls by and exclaims to my dad, "Is that your little boy?!"

Wal-Mart: Your community meeting place.

12:58 p.m.

The parking lot is now full. Stepping outside into the sun is jarring. Like a casino, Wal-Mart’s fluorescent environment admits no sense of passing time, to keep shoppers wandering aimlessly for as long as possible.

In the men’s clothing section, there are stocking caps that read "Alltel" on one side, with the name of a driver (Ryan Newman, No. 12) on the other. It occurs to me that NASCAR has really taken merchandising to another level. People are now willing to shell out money to wear not only the names of actual drivers, but also the humdrum brands that bankroll them. Hip hop has already picked up on the NASCAR team jacket fashion trend, raising the possibility that one day soon, kids in the South Bronx could be dropping hundreds of dollars for a leather jacket with

nothing but the Wal-Mart logo on it. Welcome to your new postmodern nightmare.

I decide to buy a Gators hat to add to my repertoire of disguises. But in the entire selection, I cannot find a single cool hat. Is this some sort of conspiracy? Customers here are already reduced to purchasing their wardrobes at Wal-Mart, for God’s sake. The least the store could do is bring in a few decent hats from the ole ball team, chomp chomp chomp!

I make a note to explore the possibility of a fashion conspiracy later on.

2:01 p.m.

I’m back at the snack bar. My plan is to make this my base, where I can rest every few hours without attracting attention by lying down in the aisle. I ask Tracey, the "associate" who is single-handedly running the place, for a cheese pizza.

"We’re all out of pizza until tomorrow," she says.

That’s strange, because hundreds of the advertised Freschetta pizzas are packed into the cooler on the frozen food aisle about 30 yards away. The snack bar is apparently not the most efficient link in the vaunted Wal-Mart supply chain. I consider asking her to stroll down there and grab me a damn pizza, but think better of it when I remember what the person in front of me in line ordered: Cheeseburgers, which were delivered microwave-fresh on a Styrofoam plate, still in their microwaveable plastic wrap. I settle for coffee and a few cookies. Which are nasty.

Sitting alone at the table next to me is a wrinkled old man in a blue sweater and suspenders, munching a cookie and sipping coffee. A vision of my future? I shudder to think. He seems to fit the profile of a Wal-Mart snack bar patron, a demographic that includes:

1. Employees,

2. Shoppers with whiny, hungry children and

3. The depressed and the depressing.

I get the urge to jump up and somehow save these people, maybe by chloroforming them and dragging them off to a nature preserve or something. But then I remember: I’m undercover. This experience suddenly seems more intense.

There are an astounding number of young families in the store that consist of a teenage girl, a teenage boy with a neck tattoo and a beautiful baby with a doubtful future. I wonder what they think when they see the question emblazoned on all of the employees’ red vests: "How can I help you?"

"How about some condoms, and a time machine?"

Individuals in head-to-toe Jaguars gear and scarily Dixiefied troglodytes are also in full effect in the snack bar area. I have to get out of here. Resist the overpowering urge to buy

crinkle-cut, ready-to-eat pepperoni slices and red, white and blue American Idol Pop Tarts; I must stay light on my toes.

2:30 p.m.

The bathroom by the layaway department has two urinals — one so high that I have to stand on my tiptoes to get over the lip; the other low enough that the splashback gets my ankles wet. Conspiracy?

3:03 P.M.

If you enjoy shopping at places that offer a wide selection of crap, I have a suggestion for you: Wal-Mart. This store has 18 different showerheads, 21 coffeemakers, 19 toasters, 21 toilet seats (including Spongebob) and eight deep fryers, for all of your eating, drinking, bathing and shitting needs.

For pet lovers, there is food for rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, ferrets, cockatiels, finches, parrots, wild birds, squirrels, cats and dogs. There are also mousetraps and squirrel-proof bird feeders, if you enjoy thwarting the dreams of animals instead of feeding them.

Guns are surprisingly affordable. .22s can be had for less than $200, shotguns for under $300. I briefly consider buying a load for an ad-hoc gunrunning operation, but realize that there is probably a scant market for camouflage duck guns among street criminals.

The hunting clothes, however, prove that Wal-Mart is at the forefront of urban fashion. One reversible hat — with camouflage on one side and neon orange on the other — single-handedly encompasses every hip-hop clothing trend of the past decade.

I’m also fascinated by the greeting card section. It includes three different brands of "religious" cards. This is a bit of a misnomer, since they all feature Bible verses. I search in vain for other religions, but find only two bar mitzvah cards, more of the cartoonish variety than the heady, Torah-thumping variety. One entire category of cards is labeled "When God Whispers Your Name," a situation that, I guess, arises with enough regularity that people stop at Wal-Mart to pick up a card for it. Across from the card section are rolls of raffle tickets for sale. I look at the number of the ticket facing out: 625666. Satan is obviously keeping an eye on things.

Although God promises that "I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28), my feet are aching after five hours here. I consult my survival guide: "Discomfort can be tolerated until help arrives."

Hurry, please.

4:52 p.m.

Everything is beginning to annoy me. I’m becoming hyper-aware of the ugliness of many Wal-Mart customers — old people whose pinched faces are collapsing, human beings with asses that belie Intelligent Design, girls who have about two more years of attractiveness left before they give up and enter permanent housewife mode.

It’s infecting me, too. The dark circles under my eyes are deepening, and my skin is looking even paler than normal. I wander through the music department, and find that all of the little machines that let you listen to the CDs in the store are out of order. I can’t listen to the new Bo Bice. It’s probably just as well. I have a vision of plugging in a Bob Marley album, and the ghost of Haile Selassie swooping down from the sky to smite me for such sacrilege.

The Wal-Mart music section does not have any Wu-Tang albums, but it does have Vanilla Ice’s new release, "Platinum Underground." That’s really all that needs to be said about the Wal-Mart music section.

Even though I’ve been using my slowest ambling shuffle since I got here, I’ve covered every part of the store. More than once. What the hell do I do now? I’m bound to start attracting attention.

"Mentally accept, ‘Yes, there are many unknowns, but I can’t worry about them now,’" says the survival guide. "I am going to have a great adventure story to tell when this is all over."

5:53 p.m.

Darkness descends. The lights in the parking lot have come on. I’m sitting in the car eating barbecue chips, applesauce and a slice of Key lime pie — my provisions for the night. The deli didn’t have any salads without meat in them, an obvious anti-vegetarian conspiracy to add to my growing list.

The survival guide notes that "one of the most common fears, even though many will not admit it, is the fear of darkness." I must return to the store. Wal-Mart: my light, my salvation.

7:47 p.m.

The snack bar has closed for the night, cramping my strategy and forcing me to wander constantly. This is how Moses must have felt in the desert. I find the cleverly hidden line of people waiting to return unwanted Christmas gifts, which snakes through the cash registers and past a wildly random display of board games, telescopes and dulcimers. I wonder idly if there are many impulse purchases of dulcimers, grabbed at the last minute like packs of gum and rolled-up horoscopes. That’s crafty marketing.

I realize what all of the old women in hideous purple or pink sweatpants remind me of: school lunch ladies on their day off. They probably are, in fact, since the grocery here stocks 7-pound cans of chocolate pudding for less than $4, cans that would look great going off the top of the Empire State Building.

Blessed are the meek? A question better answered by someone who hasn’t spent the last 10 hours in Wal-Mart.

The fluorescent lights running the length of the ceiling, merely disconcerting during the day, now pierce my tired eyes. It’s as if someone pressed the sun against the roof and cut strips in it to allow the light to blast through. My paranoia mounts. I walk out to the car to go get coffee, and think every set of passing headlights belongs to a police car. In front of the store, a chubby kid who looks like Chunk from "The Goonies" gives a big thumbs-up to a newish Ford Mustang with a ruddy brown racing stripe that reads "Mustang."

"Nice car!" he yells, his eyes wide.

9:36 p.m.

Note to self: Unskilled workers are screwed in this economy. The guy who served me my coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts had a neck tattoo, meaning he probably came to work after shopping at Wal-Mart, where most of the male customers seem to be:

Guys who would have been frat boys, if they had gone to college.

Guys with lip piercings and soul patches who are headed to Fight Club after they finish shopping, or

Guys who are about to go hunting, or have just finished hunting, or simply enjoy wearing hunting outfits.

Furthermore, we can use Wal-Mart’s merchandise to deduce the heroes of all of its customer demographics:

Girls: Mary-Kate & Ashley, Raven-Symone

Women: some sort of off-brand Martha Stewart

Men: Dale Jr., Tony Stewart, Larry the Cable Guy

Teen Boys: AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix (all sell merchandise at Wal-Mart), neck tattoo artists

All: Jesus

As I walk back into the store, I spot a dead hawk on the sidewalk about 20 feet from the entrance. This cannot be a good sign.

11:04 p.m.

My paranoia is really humming. The store’s employee-to-customer ratio has dwindled to about 1:1, and I’m sure that the retail Gestapo will swarm me any second. That chubby female associate standing next to me as I browse the religious cards for the sixth time — is she spying on me? Can’t a man read "A Purpose-Driven Life" in peace? What would Jesus do?

Exacerbating the situation is the fact that they have sealed off one of the store’s two entrances, and are blocking aisles with huge stacks of boxes as the night shift moves in to re-stock.

I feel trapped. The only people in Wal-Mart after midnight are bored, high or psychotic loners. I prefer not to think which category I fit in at the moment.

12:22 a.m.

My survival guide tells me that "adequate rest is extremely important if the survivor is to make sound decisions." Yes! I go out to the car to sleep.

1:48 a.m.

My cell phone rings. "Hey man, we’re here."

It’s my friend and his girlfriend, who have thoughtfully stopped by at this hour to say hey. Bastards. I stumble back into the store.

They’ve also decided to do a little late Christmas shopping, at 2 a.m. on Dec. 27. "We always do that," his girlfriend says. "It’s cheaper."

My friends are weirdoes. They push a cart through the empty aisles, picking up some velvet paintings, yarn and other festive crafts. At this hour, Wal-Mart is like a vast playland that you can carouse in to your heart’s content.

Prize for the worst toy in Wal-Mart: the Dirt Devil Junior Cleaning Set, aka, a bucket and mop. Runner-up: a plastic Wal-Mart mini-shopping cart full of fake plastic crap. Start lowering their expectations while they’re young.

We stroll through the pharmacy, where the selection of Monistat is almost as large as the condom selection.

"St. Augustine is dirty," my friend mutters.

4:03 a.m.

My friend finally leaves, after I’ve stood outside for a while listening to his stories about coming to Wal-Mart on mushrooms. Good times. His girlfriend said the best time to come is about 4:30 in the morning, "before all the before-work people get here."

Question: What "before-work people?" And why?

I go back to sleep.

5:30 a.m.

Wake up. Don’t want to miss a minute of the home stretch. I watch the sun rise over the Jeep dealership across the street, feeling nothing but the blankness of fatigue. I drink two cups of

coffee in the car, gearing up to go back inside the beast. What further truth can now be wrung?

7:43 a.m.

I’ve purchased some Ear Wax Remover. At $3.83, it seemed like a pretty good deal. This is a sure sign of creeping dementia. Now is the time when furious nights crash, and dreams turn to despair. All of the caffeine I’ve ingested has become my enemy, propping open my dry, bleary eyes and making my tired legs jiggle up and down. These last two hours will be the hardest. I return to the car, on the verge of hallucinating. In my notes, I record the following:

Vision of barbarian hordes breaking through treeline, cascading over Jeep dealership, rushing across US1, traffic stopping, streaming thru parking lot, helmets, maces, axes, clubs, fire, laying siege to WM like castle — breaking thru wall, swarming thru merchandise racks, pillaging No Boundaries t-shirts and unsexy bras and Batman DVD players — torching display racks, huge

black smoke pillar billowing up from the fractured skylights, breaking through the back wall and continuing on without stopping, WM crumbling and collapsing behind them … and in the waters sharks swim and DON’T CARE about the wreckage … and in Bentonville, AK a phone rings and the man says the REBUILDING crew is on the way and in NY retail analysts are impressed with the corporate vigor … and the grand reopening sale will be SPECTACULAR.

I will myself up and return to the heart of darkness.

8:46 a.m.

This is it. The last hour. I feel that I have missed something, that the American Dream has somehow eluded my grasp. It occurs to me that you cannot understand the secret of Wal-Mart by being inside the beast any more than you can understand the theory of evolution by playing fetch with your dog. This passes for an insight, 23 hours into the game.

But I did learn at least one thing. When I came into the store, I weighed myself on the 25-cent Weight & Biorhythm & Lucky Numbers machine by the Wal-Mart exit. I was 137.4 pounds. As I leave for the last time, I weigh myself again: 136.2 pounds.

I learned that a soul weighs 1.2 pounds.

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