|MARCH 1999 Part 2|
|To paraphrase Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes: Damn you, Wal-Mart! Damn you all to Hell!
Just called home, and Dad said that the gasoline price war in Fargo continues unabated. Its a killer, this one. Simonson started it, but like most long gruesome wars, the original causus belli has been drowned in the carnage. Now comes a new player: Wal-Mart. Rumor has it that the company intends to start selling gas, and is fishing around for sweet deals with the big producers. Having destroyed a couple dozen thousand small towns, Wal-Mart now wants to wipe out the gas stations as well.
Well. Its one of those ideological Rubicons: live by the free market, die by the free market. Id rather opt for efficiency, economies of scale, etc., because 99 times out of a hundred the result is a boon, in the long run, for the majority. But these nice economic models rarely factor the social costs, because they cant: theres no way to incorporate some societal intangibles into an economic equation. You can say that Wal-Mart provides a wider variety of goods at a lower cost to a greater number of people, thereby improving their standard of living, and youd be right. And you could say that Wal-Marts presence destroys the individual retailers in towns below, say, 25,000 in population, and youd also be right: thats the destructive-constructive churn of capitalism. Fine.
But theres never any room in that macro analysis for the effect this has on a towns identity - when all the downtown retailers close, when the drug store shutters and the founders name goes off the marquee, when the clothiers (and theres an archaic term) store fails, when the 5 & Dime dies, when downtown dies, then the town loses what made it different from the hamlet 20 miles down the road. In the end everyone just shambles into Wal-Mart, and in the end every town is just a collection of houses splayed around a dead brick heart of a vacant downtown.
This is all easy for me to say, because I have access to all sorts of stores carrying everything I want. I dont have to drive 100 miles for a CD player. I dont have to pay extra for socks. I am one of those irritating people who wants the outlands to stay quaint so I can visit once a year and buy a souvenir. I hate Wal-Mart, but its not my place to stop them - meaning, I will not be e-mailing Senator Wellstone and asking him to introduce a bill that breaks up Wal-Mart into tiny stores and forces them to rent space in abandoned Ben Franklin buildings.
This gas business, though - thats the last straw. Is it just because our family is finally the gored ox? No; I was bitching about Wal-Mart long before this. But this time it doesnt seem like a natural extension of their business - its almost as if they spat on their palms, rubbed them briskly and said OHHHHkay! What variety of local business can we wreck next?
Ill never shop there. Never. This doesnt mean I hope Sam Walton is in hell. No. I hope hes in Heaven, standing just within the pearly gates. Condemned to stand there for all eternity as Gods Greeter. Saying hello as all the old downtown businessmen pass by and head on into paradise.
Snow? Yes. Much snow. When I woke this morning the Defiant was just a car-shaped hillock on the street; the newspapers were buried deep enough to require a backhoe for retrieval. All the tree boughs sagged, the streets had only two tire-wide goatpaths. Everything was quiet. In January, a vision like this makes you stand tall, grab your shovel with a manly exhalation of duty and purpose; in February, you wince a little. In March you shrug, because you know this is the last lash of dying regime. In April you want to cry.
Took Jasper for a walk, then cleaned off the car. My anomolous dog wants nothing to do with cars, nothing to do with them at all - he associates them with disorder and nausea. Should I take to the street on the way back from the walk, he gets nervous, thinking: car. Car. CAR. I decided to brush off the Defiant before showering and putting on office clothes; I dropped the leash, and Jasper just sat in the snow, worrying, watching from a safe distance. Since my car is about 4 inches off the ground, I doubted I'd get it out - but I cleared the spot with no trouble. Thus assured the day would conform to norms, I went back inside, spiffed and left.
But. Since today was a Snow Emergency day, my parking options were winnowed down to Zilch: all streets downtown have the Snow Emergency sign. (I wish we could come up with a less catostrophic-sounding term. But the alternatives - Snow Occurance, Snow Situation - sound too much like weasal-worded bureaucratic obfuscations.) I parked, then figured that the very fact I'd found a parking space was suspect. Surely I'd be towed. But thanks to the general wimpery of other downtown office-goers, I found a spot in a surface lot and left the car. One of those lots where you put your money in an envelope and poke it through a slot about as wide as Bill Gates' butt. There were no envelopes. So I wrote the number of my slot on the fiver, four times, and shoved it in the slot. Two years from now someone in Idaho will get a five dollar bill and wonder why the hell someone wrote "#28" all over the bill.
Now begins a nice quiet interlude of nothingness. Nothing doing, nothing to do, nothing going on. No computers. No phones no lights no motorcars! Not a single luxury. Well, no, not that much nothingness. But I am now about to just relax and sit back and do zip for a while, and that means a temporary suspension of the Bleat. Nothing too long - five, six days. I've just carved out a little time here, written some columns in advance, and I'm going to sit back and read books and recharge. It's part of the gradual sweet diminution of responsibilities, something I've planned for a long time. On the radio show I used to mutter a countdown to burnout, all timed for Thursday, March 11, because I knew that was the day I DIDN'T have to start the Smear, the weekend blabberfest that was getting so annoying.
It would be nice to be doing nothing on, say, a beach in Hawaii, but you can't have everything. Right now I'm looking at a big bucket of plaster, just waiting to go up on the walls of the basement. There's a project I've been putting off for months. Painting the floor. Sanding the walls. Cutting the wood for the trim. Maybe I'll get to that tomorrow.
Maybe I won't.
Until then, as the old Valli matchbook said: Relax and enjoy.