Fear and Loathing In Small Town Walmart
When real life is interrupted, all the sudden your priors & ideology meet a reality check. Some folks are not fairing well with that reality
Having traversed from the Carolina house down in the pines back up to my mountain Up Yonder brought a few things into focus. Because it’s just how life works, immediately upon arriving in my hometown, I discovered what I thought was a fix for the laptop had, in fact, become a fatal wound. Thus, off to the only place in town where one can acquire high-end technology on short notice in a town of 2800 folks at 8pm on a Saturday night.
Off to Walmart.
I know this Walmart well. I worked here when it first opened, the large Gateway Supercenter having replaced the smaller one across the street 20-odd years ago. It’s a job I enjoyed so much that after 6 months of it I enlisted in the military just to get out of there. But it was a valuable interlude between the college dropout/thrown out and the turning around of my life that occurred some years later. It was also eventful, as I recounted with Ruby, who had been there nearly 30 years now she reminded me, going back to the original store. We swapped stories and “remember whens” as she checked me out at the electronics register, having scoured the secured shelves for the laptop I am now typing this on.
Good memories mostly, laughing as her much younger assistant, a teenager newon the job and just learning, listened with a mix of “did that really happen” and “when will these old people shut up?” Her eyes widened at the confirmation that yes, the now legendary story of the deer wounded by a car getting into the store and wreaking havoc really did happen. Until it was horse collared and brought down by three of us crashing through the set up outdoor display in front of the registers. Or the time someone whose name will be withheld punched out his arrogant, very obnoxious co-worker right in the middle of the store, leading to both getting fired on the spot. That was a long night, as it left just JJ and me to throw three more trucks in GM receiving short-handed. The list goes on, until she said what I knew was coming.
“But I’ve never seen anything like this.”
By “this” she meant the current social environment. Maybe, probably — definitely, if I’m honest — we were sheltered in the pre-millennium small West Virginia town, but the idea someone would walk in and cuss you out, spit on you, and throw stuff over not having an item, or social distance guidelines, or what have you would have been a foreign concept. Almost everyone here knows each other, to the point you walk into this Walmart as an out-of-towner — a frequent occurrence with a major highway and tourism in this area — and the locals will stare and look at you. They can tell. Just how it is. To the point that being gone more than being present the last 20 years means it takes a day or two for my accent to come back and even I are sometimes thought of as among but not of. Which makes what Ruby told me all the worse.
“I’ve been yelled at and cussed out just for wearing a mask at the store. It’s mandated, what do they think we will do, get fired over a mask?”
“We are hiring everyone that walks in and passes a drug test. Maybe 3 out of ten do. Then the half of those that actually work a shift usually last a week then quit after someone goes off on them.”
“I had someone I’ve known for 30 years throw stuff off the aisle at me because they didn’t like the guidelines.”
Over a month ago I wrote a piece over at Arc on masks, and it is — by far — the most reaction I’ve ever received for writing something. You get used to the odd troll or general-purpose jackasses sending you hate mail; that’s part of the deal. Vitriol from otherwise normal folks because you dare say something like “If you need to wear a mask wear a mask and don’t burn down civilization over it” was new. Someone I generally considered a respectable account blitzing me with “you have no idea what your talking about with ventilators” about a piece that included a photo of me on a ventilator just makes you shake your head in disbelief.
Even in my own extended family, having been on this land since before this was even a country, through revolutions, Civil War, depression, crushing poverty, tragedy, abuses of various kinds, how is it this is the great crisis that has folks fighting more than anything I’ve ever seen in my life?
Why, though? Why is this ripping folks apart so bad?
There is a scene in The Green Mile where Paul the prison guard in charge of the death row cell block is trying to talk some sense into Percy, the younger and vicious guard who is abusing everyone just for his own amusement.
Paul: “Men under strain can snap. Hurt themselves. Hurt others. That’s why our job is talking, not yelling. You’ll do better to think of this place like an intensive care ward in a hospital.”
Percy: “I think of it as a bucket of piss to drown rats in. That’s all. Anybody doesn’t like that can kiss my ass.”
Pressure and fear do strange things to folks. And make no mistake about it, most folks right now are under pressure of various kinds, and it is causing a lot of fear. Economic pressure, health pressure, societal pressure. Those political fringes that marinate in nothing but confirmation of their worst inclinations through technology that feeds their addiction better than any drug dealer rarely have their bubbles of isolation pierced.
But Covid did it faster and cleaner than any political movement. Viruses don’t care about your priors as a political observer, or your power structures as an elected official. It just comes. Crisis reveals character, and this crisis is revealing something about everyone from the president down to the cashiers and customers of small town Walmarts. When you can’t go to the store without being reminded of it, your kids can’t go to school, your actual in real life is interrupted, all the sudden your priors and ideology meet a reality check. Some folks are not fairing well with that reality.
Viral video and protests have done the same with issues surrounding policing, race, and how both communities and government have responded to it. Video is almost impossible to ignore in the modern age, and those folks who are very online have been confronted with a tsunami of videos of police behaving badly, chaos makers taking advantage of the situation to do their chaos and destruction thing, government that seems listless and worthless if not outright hostile, and the folks who actually want problems solved stuck somewhere in the middle. But you cannot ignore what is happening, unless you sequester yourself completely away, and such events demand you react. In many communities around the country actual real life is interrupted, and all the sudden your priors and ideology meet a reality check. Some folks are not faring well with that reality.
The pressure Paul was talking about, written ably by Stephen King and brought to life on film by Frank Darabont directing Tom Hanks in the role, was inevitability. The Green Mile was a play on “the last mile”, a nickname for the death row. It was a one-way mile. Once there the prisoners only left by way of the electric chair. The metaphorical and deeper meanings play out, but the lesson for this moment is obvious and universal: how do you react when faced with an inevitability you can’t control?
It’s going to get worse before it gets better. The shock of what looks to be a collapse of the school system that is going to be a mess of competing interests, public pressure, and a health crisis that does not seem inclined to be abating in time for back to school. Folks already economically hurting may be facing children home from school again, or some hybrid where they only go certain days of the week. Plans that sound great to health officials and government leaders sound impossible to working class folks trying to hold on to what income they have. The pending election in November is assured to be one of the highest volume and vitriolic we’ve had in some time. Covid doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon from the country or the news cycle, despite hopes that summer would see the virus being behind us.
The current pressure calls for talking not yelling. The country could well be viewed as an intensive care ward, a patient with many things wrong at once and no quick answer for them. The extremist is going to insist the country is a bucket of piss, and the opposing sides worst cases represent the whole of everyone that should be drowned in it. The latter will be loudest on social media, but they must be resisted, curtailed, and if necessary shouted down. Like Percy in The Green Mile, no matter what their reasoning their path is one that only leads to destruction, especially self-destruction. If you think no better of your fellow citizens than wishing destruction upon them, the problem isn’t society, or ideology, or even current events. The problem is one of your own soul, and beyond the means of your fellow man to fix for you. Not that those folks would let us. That would require more humility than they at present can muster.
Be more like Paul. We have enough Percys.