Trading Manhattan for Bentonville

I have always shunned Walmart for what were aesthetic, political, and personal reasons. The entire idea of Walmart has always creeped me out. Walking through the door with its grinning old person, I feel I am being swallowed whole into one leg of a pair of pink polyester pants, Miley Cyrus smiling at me from teenwear posters as my face disappears beneath a plus sized waistband while Billy Ray blares “Some Gave All” across the store’s vast, price-cut product lines. And that huge, ubiquitous smiley face, ripped off from an era not one of the trimmed and besuited Bentonville execs could have possibly understood or approved, expressing its yellowness over every meticulously merchandised aisle. I shuddered at the mere thought of becoming a person of Walmart.

After my husband was downsized, we raked live oak leaves ourselves that fall, trimmed back rosebushes and drooping limbs. I’ve always been a gardener, so mowing, trimming, and edging the St. Augustine was a natural activity, not a burden. I didn’t worry about broken fingernails, the errant cut or bruise. Purchasing ivy and lively begonias to fill pots around the pool last spring was only a slightly guilty pleasure, not an endeavor fraught with monetary worry. For the most part, I looked away from the plants at Calloway’s Garden Center that weren’t on sale, bought more seeds and vegetable seedlings. After all, I told myself, delayed gratification that comes from Cosmos grown from seed is good for the constitution. Next year will be better.

Our cocktail choices changed slowly. Wine purchases evolved from Chandon Blanc de Noirs, to Cook’s brut, and finally, to three dollar sauvignon blanc from… Walmart! The lure was insidious, but I only went to Walmart for a certain type of cottage cheese I could buy nowhere else, and I happened upon their three dollar wine on the way to the dairy chest. I did not purchase anything else. Never anything else. I was above the seduction of cheap prices. I had moral rectitude, valid reasons that trumped our petty, temporary, negative money flow. Not for me those Great Values, not for me the price-cut string beans, the four dollar t-shirts sewn in third world sweatshops by hungry, fly ravaged, illiterate children who helped Walmart shoppers save money, live better. Never. Next year would be better.

At the beginning, the first luxury we decided we could do without was The New York Times Sunday edition. After all, I usually only read the “Book Review” and the front page, maybe the style section on occasion. We could get our news, fair and balanced, from The PBS NewsHour, right? Not too much of a sacrifice. We would make do and save around forty dollars a month. Our easy Sunday mornings drinking coffee and sharing our views while we read about the world’s week and the authors we loved, Pynchon, McCarthy, Delillo, were no longer an option, but we’d survive, and it would get better.

The next to go were my subscriptions to The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Yorker. What was I thinking, I asked myself, when past renewal notices had come and I’d blithely written a check without a second thought? I could read them at the college library where I was an associate English professor, preparing the future leaders of America and making a bit more than minimum wage for my trouble. I became a pragmatist, doing my part to cull expenses, learning the lesson my parents learned during a far more dangerous depression than the current one. After all, this enforced austerity was only momentary, our dwindling conversations just part of this temporary adjustment period. Next year would be better.

My cell phone came next. I waited out my Verizon contract and was now free to walk away, so I did, moving onto my husband’s contract with less bling for less money. I am old enough to suspect texting and trying to accomplish anything web-related on a one inch screen. This change would work. I was saving enough through these painless reductions to still feel comfortable shopping at Tom Thumb and even Central Market and Whole Foods on occasion. We would emerge soon from this reversal of fortune, and if not, maybe one of the cars could go. After all, it would only be temporary. Next year would be better.

The house, I admit, became a bit of a challenge. The dining room ceiling is still marked with a Rorschach from a leak, the front door vibrates the entire wall when it slams, the pool needs a patch or two; I worry termites chew inside the walls—this is Texas, after all. The kitchen and the upstairs bedrooms could use a new coat of paint; the windows are foggy. I haven’t called Bill, our magical handyman, in a year. Paint is expensive. Between teaching and grading and working part time at the college Writing Center, I put in a fifty hour work week. Perhaps I could eek out a few hours, try to fix these minor annoyances myself, or they can wait until next year when we can afford to call Bill because everything will be better.

Generic bags of yellow onions were substituted for shallots; tenderloin filets for Old El Paso taco dinners, béarnaise became country gravy. Costco went by the wayside, its double-cream brie, wild salmon, and fresh asparagus now bought by others not waiting for next year, (which will be better). I began to experiment with clever ways to use canned tuna a few nights a week; I packed my own lunches, bought generic yogurt, iceberg lettuce instead of organic spring mix, and discovered gently used clothing. I bought someone else’s skirts and pants, smug in the knowledge that I was doing my part to recycle and save the earth. Macy’s was a drain on our natural resources; Dillard’s a complicit partner in this unspeakable crime, and next year? Well, it could only be better.

I began to look askance at my husband’s cigarette habit. It had once only bothered me on an intellectual level, but now self-indulgence had no place in our brave new world of penurious penny pinching. I resented each inhale, each exhale of smoke that mingled with the outside air, drifting into nothingness. He could quit. I had. What a savings that would be! If he loved me he would quit immediately wouldn’t he? Just because he could no longer call himself an architect or find a job in his field; just because he was now selling Kias in an economy where no one was buying Kias or any other kind of car; just because he left for work at nine and came home twelve hours later, exhausted, forlorn, and feeling worthless was no reason for him to continue to maintain this nasty ( and expensive!) habit, was it? He could start again next year, when things got better.

Lancome mascara gave way to Max Factor and then Maybelline; our favorite restaurant, Le Printemps, to the backyard Weber. We were learning that there were myriad items we could live without. So what if we still couldn’t save a dime? So what if our present jobs, even with our advanced degrees, were worth less combined than a beginning engineer’s salary? We were still intellectuals, weren’t we? Poverty doesn’t happen to college-educated people with pluck and determination. I had an MFA, for God’s sake! After all, we were surviving. We hadn’t become people of Walmart. We still had our pride, and next year we’d look back on this time and be even more proud of ourselves for making do with less, wouldn’t we? Damn straight. It was bound to get better…

…I found this entry in the trunk last night as I was loading groceries into our Pinto. It must have fallen out of my notebook last year when we moved into the one bedroom. I buy a lot of Great Values these days, it would be foolish not to, employee discounts, roll-backs and all, and my supervisor says I’ll be eligible for health benefits in another six months. Maybe I can finally persuade my husband to have his cough checked out and have somebody take a look at the lump that formed in my left armpit a while back. Mr. Tim, the general manager, says my husband and I are naturals as greeters, and we’ll both have jobs at Walmart as long as we want them, that we’ve become part of the family. I’m making two dollars more an hour now than I did at my old job as an associate professor, and I’ll even be eligible for a week’s paid vacation in three years!

We often catch ourselves humming along to The Best of Truck Driver Favorites as we wipe down the grocery carts or empty the plastic recycling bin. Those tunes really are catchy. Once in a while when I’m on break, I’ll pick up a Danielle Steele novel and read a chapter or two. My supervisor doesn’t mind; he’s a fan. The uniform policy here is also ideal. Our blue vests are unisex and save us money and since they’re wash and wear, no more dry cleaning bills. We can buy practical shoes and t-shirts right over there on aisle twenty-three. I’ve discovered that Big Mac special sauce washes out of pink polyester pants pretty easily too. One thing that still bothers me though, even when we manage to get a Sunday off together by working until closing Saturday nights, they don’t sell The New York Times at Walmart, not even at full price. Oh, well, we don’t talk much anymore about world events anyway. Everything’s so much better now, what’s there to say?

©JP Reese 2010
First appeared in The Smoking Poet, summer 2010


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