Thursday, July 28, 2005

Walmart Revisited - Part 3

I’m writing this blog at 7:05 in the morning, and I’ve already been awake for four hours. My mother had a 6 am flight out of Charlotte; I was the chauffeur on call, so mine was an extremely early wake up call. Like most mothers, I welcome and enjoy my time alone, even if it is spent shopping for the family’s needs. In my neck of the woods, there are only two places that are open for family-style shopping in the pre-dawn hours: Harris Teeter (the local supermarket chain) and WalMart. So once again, I ventured into one of the many massive warehouse structures that serves as a link in the international chain of the world's largest retailer.

A WalMart SuperCenter is an impressive place. At 5:20 in the morning, it is also an eerie place. If my calculations were correct, there were ten men for every woman on the premises, employees and customers combined. Fewer than three dozen cars were stationed in the ten acre parking lot, but insider there were easily five or six dozen workers. If I remember the data from the famed Nickel and Dimed book correctly, the most likely explanation for the paucity of parked vehicles is that many of WalMart’s associates cannot afford to own cars of their own and take the bus to work.

As I stood before the vast array of diet products, pondering whether or not to purchase another box of my much-loved mint chocolate chip Balance Bars, I overheard several men talking about their plans for the future. One man, whose stuttering was torturous to this impatient eavesdropper, told his coworkers that in three or four years he’d quit his job at WalMart and own his own home. The others chorused their support for his plan and added graphic details about their own aspirations. Together they unpacked not only many crates of goods that will hopefully be sold later today but also many dreams that will hopefully be fulfilled soon hereafter. Unfortunately their laughter was a little too loud and their stories were a little too colorful. The abrupt, mid-phrase silence that befell us all was undoubtedly imposed by the passing shift manager. “Pipe down, gentlemen,” is a sanitized version of what I imagine she barked as she marched over to the back-to-school area where they had congregated.

In typical elitist, insensitive, and pompous speculation, I commented to myself, “Surely no one aspires to work the night shift at WalMart. What a depressing and degrading job it must be.” I hadn’t even completed that thought when my still developing “real world” mindset responded that not a single person I’d observed during my entire circuit of the store appeared to be degraded or depressed. In fact, each person whose eyes I met spoke to me in a friendly, welcoming, and helpful manner. Not only that, my scolding inner sociologist commented, but in the world of the chronically unemployed hoping for any income whatsoever, the desperate housewife in need of grocery money, the father desirous of being at home with his children during the day while his wife works a day job, the student whose allowance no longer covered his personal expenses, and the thousands of men, women, retirees, and young people all across this nation and around the world who simply want to work, earn a paycheck, and contribute honestly to the societies in which they live, a graveyard shift at WalMart is exactly what is both necessary and aspired to, and shame on me (yet again) for not honoring and applauding that.

On Saturday mornings, the Spanish-speaking congregation of the church I attend has a 6 am prayer meeting. Much to the chagrin of the neighbors whose bedroom window is a few short yards away from our noisy old garage door, I gather with the faithful, hopeful, and exhausted few knee-benders who join hands and hearts each week to pray for our world, our city, our church, and our loved ones. Until his recent return to Bolivia, one endearing older gentleman named Pedro always prayed for the people who, at that hour, would be returning home from having worked the whole night through. Every Saturday morning, he pleaded on their behalf that their arrival at their respective destinations would be anticipated with peace, happiness, and love. This morning, I had another opportunity to see and interact with some of those who’d labored through the night. I greeted the greeter, the cashier, the grocery stockwoman, and the many others who lifted, dropped, hung, and displayed thousands of products for the thousands of customers who would soon undo all their hard work. I should have thanked them.

At the edge of the vast parking lot, eighteen wheeler trucks sat silent while their drivers slept before embarking on another long day’s drive on the hazardous and busy highways. A little further down the road, crates of hamburger rolls, slabs of meat patties, slices of cheese, bushels of lettuce, and packets of condiments offloaded from a truck were being carried into the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant on Pineville-Matthews Road as I drove by. Gas station attendants arranged cartons of cigarettes behind countless counters. Bagel-makers boiled dough at Bruegger’s Bagel Shop. Baristas at Starbucks busied themselves churning out over-priced cups of coffee to the folks for whom $4 is not too much to pay for a jolt of caffeine. I was right there in the middle of it all, winding my way home, with a new foot bath, two reams of computer paper, a jar of peanut butter, a vat of grape Gatorade mix, and placemats with the presidents’ faces on them in the back seat of the minivan. All the while my mind overflowed with respect, admiration, and gratitude for the hundreds, nay, the thousands of benefactors of Pedro’s prayerful petitions, who toiled all night long to feed themselves, their spouses, children, parents, employers, and me.

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