When Wal-Mart Comes To Call

Copyright © by Len Holman, 9/7/10


Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone: they paved paradise and put up a parking lot…Joni Mitchell


  It’s a fight played out all across America, as corporate giants move into rural and small suburban areas, squeezing out the local mom and pops, denuding huge swaths of land for buildings and parking lots, and turning charming small towns into mirror-versions of the Big City that people who once lived in them moved away from in the first place.  That’s one side.

  The other side knows the economy is on life support and that people want to save money as best they can, and they can with high-volume, low-priced national chains, which—it is claimed—will draw more business, create jobs and perk up the sleepy economy out in the hinterlands.  Often, people in small towns have to travel long distances to get the choices and prices they want, items that they can’t get in their little slice of Bucolia.  They ideally want to shop locally, enjoy the quiet, watch the quail and jackrabbits hopping through their yards, and save the Joshua trees, but they can’t afford it and lots of them—especially the ones who moved from the city—don’t want it.

  Up here, in the high desert, this schizophrenia is readily apparent.  People want rural, quiet, undisturbed life, but they also want to be able to get a pizza at three a.m., or a massage, or go to a movie or any number of things, because that’s what they had in the city.  But this isn’t the city.  That’s why they supposedly moved here.  It’s not that the local officials roll up the sidewalks when the sun goes down—because they can’t.  There aren’t any sidewalks.  It’s just that locals know what newcomers can’t seem to register: this isn’t the city and that’s the way some of us like it.

  Although this is a poignant scene out here, there is more to it than hating Wal-Mart.  We do have chain stores here:  Burger King and McDonald’s and Jack In The Box, we have movies and parks, and they get a lot of business from the locals.  And we don’t allow people to spit tobacco on the ground or shoot off their pistols in the saloon. It’s the idea that there is no retrieving the Jeffersonian ideal, that small, rural democratic society of yeomen farmers---this is still true in some communities, but is fast fading as the family chicken farm gives way to corporate business, becoming 50 acres of mechanized chicken torture so that a woman in St. Louis can have her Eggs Benedict.  It’s slipping away and we all fear it, and embrace it at the same time.  This is, of course, schizophrenic behavior, but it’s not our fault.  I personally blame the rabbits—which are cute, but also destructive to anything growing in my yard.  But the real culprit for this “rural quiet with big-city amenities” issue isn’t the big, bad developers, it’s really us.  Everywhere we go, we miss the good sourdough bread we used to get just down the street, the special shop where we could buy left-handed scissors, the rapid transit system, the sights, smells, and sounds of a vibrant cityscape.  Here, you look out the window and see…well, not much.  Not much moves, except for the quail, which scratch around in the basins of the plants and destroy them.  The mountains, the brown desert, the Joshua trees—all stand still.  It is serene, a still-life painted by Nature’s own hand. 

  The old saying—especially in this economy—is that you can’t eat your cake and have it, too, that we out in the boonies can’t have starry skies, coyotes trotting down the dirt roads, and owls zooming over the desert floor looking for food, AND call a masseuse for some neck rubbing just before dawn or catch the latest French flick with the impossible-to-read subtitles, go out to get a latte, then catch a cab home.  So which will it be?  Or can we have both, in moderation?

  It seems moderation is out.  Country folk up here come in two basic flavors:  the ones who need to go to the store for beer at 2 am and the ones who bought their beer the afternoon before.  That is, those who want the amenities of the big city and the conveniences that go with it—and want all that when they want it, and those who were probably hermits in another life, and who don’t mind the inconvenience of driving 40 minutes to the store or driving another 30 to the mall after that to buy those keen shoes that fix your back pain.  These are the people who know that everything they want is not at their fingertips at all times—and they don’t want all that much anyway.  So, what possesses people who get fed up with traffic and crime and noise and pollution and so much city lighting that no one can see the night stars, and who move away from all that to a place much less crowded and noisy and which shows the constellations in very clear detail, get to this Edenic place and suddenly want what New York City has?  It’s probably evolutionary.  Our earliest ancestors had to move from place to place as resources petered out, and when they moved, they brought a lot of what made them THEM, as they went.  When they got to a new place, they probably didn’t say, “I wish we still had that big tree right outside the cave,” or “I wish the scenery was as good as the old place we had.”   They had no time for that because you and I had to be born, and for that our ancestors needed food and shelter and safety—not nostalgia for something that was THEN, not NOW.  But they had memories of those past scenes and good time, the plentiful game, the waterfalls, and they smiled.   So maybe these city people are like that—they remember the good stuff, though they fled from the bad stuff.  The difference is that in modern culture, they don’t have to make do with what they find in the new place.  They can change the new place to at least partly resemble the old place, and that’s what they want.

  The locals who want to save the Joshua trees, and keep the turtles moving along.  They want to go back in time—or at least want to stop it.   Every off-road vehicle, every plot of ground graded for a house, every  suggestion that perhaps another big-box chain wants to set up camp here causes consternation, anger, a veritable uproar of reactionary angst.  But change is coming.  We all know that and we mourn ahead of time for the loss of our septic tanks.  As for me, I’m looking further out for a well-furnished cave.


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