The other day I found myself needing the sort of assortment of stuff that once sent folk scrambling all over town all weekend, but now can be had in about an hour at any Walmart.
I shop in the living-alone bachelor way indistinguishable from a man preparing for the apocalypse. I buy enough canned food to last six months, enough soap, toothpaste and toilet paper to last a year. Shampoo, two years.
I’m familiar with Walmart, then, but not intimate. Every time I go, aisles have been swapped and mixed to the point I can’t find anything without wandering around everything a little while.
I swear I’ve walked into the one on Parkway for Ramen and eggs then stepped out at the West Loop with orange juice and ham. There is our dimension of time and space, and there is Walmart’s.
So when I found myself in need of (among other things) about 50 pounds of canned food, a shower curtain and some blank CDs, it took me a while to locate it all and pick what I wanted. The site of those 10-foot-tall aisles stacked up and behind with food meant to last long past 2012 is unsettling. It goes against everything in human experience during the preceding 100,000 years, and most of the world around still today. We’re about 20 steps removed from our food instead of, at most, two or one. How curious, how these green beans got in this aluminum and to me.
But I also was distracted people-watching.
Lines and lines filled with people, people, people. At the moment I stood waiting, there must’ve been 10,000 other lines and 100,000 people standing with me in this, the Wal-Mart dimension.
Identical prices and physical needs, but no two identical people (except maybe twins). Identical carts when empty, no two carts the same full. A dozen identical registers, but each line moving at a different speed.
It’s magnificent, completely the same, but different. It’s the scientific method, keeping everything constant to experiment on us.
Walmart (or McDonalds or Motel 6) can provide identical materials, but they can’t provide identical service or achieve identical success. Chains can’t guarantee their links so long as people can’t be mass produced. Compare franchise units and you’ll find people as all contrasts.
This is the grand experiment, which in some ways achieves what Communism set out to do, but with temptation instead of coercion. Make it cheap and good enough and advertise it well enough, and it saturates everything.
Pop artist Andy Warhol once said the great thing about America is our society’s consumption without regard to class.
“A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
Movie stars, presidents and bums all share the same act though experiencing something different.
Warhol unveiled his wall of Campbell’s soup cans in Los Angeles in 1962. The same year Sam Walton opened his first Walmart in Rogers, Ark.
There’s been aisles of tribute art ever since.