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. It’s 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. It’s one of those ideological Rubicons: live by the free market, die by the free market. I’d 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 can’t: there’s 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 you’d be right. And you could say that Wal-Mart’s presence destroys the individual retailers in towns below, say, 25,000 in population, and you’d also be right: that’s the destructive-constructive churn of capitalism. Fine.

But there’s never any room in that macro analysis for the effect this has on a town’s identity - when all the downtown retailers close, when the drug store shutters and the founder’s name goes off the marquee, when the clothier’s (and there’s 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 don’t have to drive 100 miles for a CD player. I don’t 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 it’s 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 - that’s 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 doesn’t seem like a natural extension of their business - it’s almost as if they spat on their palms, rubbed them briskly and said OHHHHkay! What variety of local business can we wreck next?

I’ll never shop there. Never. This doesn’t mean I hope Sam Walton is in hell. No. I hope he’s in Heaven, standing just within the pearly gates. Condemned to stand there for all eternity as God’s 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.

Work. Errands. Home - supper - 19 minute nap - up. Walk dog. Key fact about Minneapolis: this morning when I walked Jasper, the streets weren't plowed, but the park paths were. By nightfall the warm temps had returned the creek to its treacherous state of thin ice and murky slush; the drifts were thick and compacted, requiring Jasper to spring like a kangaroo while I slogged behind. As usual, I listened to KSTP - but instead of hearing the accustomed voice of Tommy M., I hear the March replacement, Turi Ryder. She'd been the afternoon host when I was off in DC; I remember walking around when I came home, listening to her, and feeling estranged from the station. Who the hell was this? Tonight, however, she seemed different, much more pliant & convivial. She was talking about the Congressional effort to regulate sweepstakes, and she was going on and on about, as the job requires. For some odd reason it just struck me as an unnatural and foreign way to make a living - pimping an issue to prime the phones. And I felt the same way I'd felt back in 92 - estranged from radio, uninvolved, disinterested. I'm just amazed it happened so fast.

It may be relief speaking. This morning while cleaning the car, listening to KSTP on the headphones, I heard a commercial I'd been meaning to lampoon on the Diner. Never did get around to it, like so many other things. Now it was one more thing I didn't have to have an opinion about - or, rather, one thing I could have an opinion about, but could keep to myself.

It felt good. That's the peculiar emotion now: I don't have to interrogate every mundane moment to see if there's blather-fodder contained within. The fact that I was doing this for a stupid two-hour weekend show demonstrates how much I needed to stop doing this.

Just took the recycling out. All the snowfall slid off the porch roof during the day, and formed a mountain ridge taller than me. Which is not tall at all. Jasper bounded to the top and looked down at the world and grinned. I dug out the recycling bins - 16 inches of snow, but I'm not wearing a jacket. March. Dead, wet, cold, buried in white, and thirty days from green. Scrape the walk and wait for tulips.

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.

Stayed up too late last night, again. Watched Deep Space Nine, which proved it is due for the graveyard by committing the worst sin of long-running TV shows: it let one of its characters sing. Whenever a show manufactures a pretext for letting its cast show their auxiliary talents, it's over. (See also, the Georgette Baxter version of "Steam" during the Mary Tyler Moore program's annual award show episode.) Then stumbled across "Spinal Tap," which meant I had to sit there until it was done, because I never turn down a chance to watch that movie; it's just brilliant. It would be funny enough as an account of these deluded losers, but to actually make you care about the band and cheer their final triumph - big in Japan! - is a generous twist, and a testament to pitch-perfect writing and acting.

God, what a platitudinous sentence that was. I shouldn't be writing this. I shouldn't even be trying. I should be sitting upstairs with a beer in front of the TV. (This month's beer, incidentally, is "Flying Dog," which isn't all that great. But it's from Colorado, and has a label designed by Ralph Steadman, meaning, what? That it's suffused with Hunter S. Thompsonesque dementia? If asked for a plug, I'd give them this: when you burp it up, it doesn't taste entirely like fish.)

Well, enough - all available brain cells are circling down the drain now, and it's time to quit. Almost. I have two more pieces to write before I sleep, and then all deadlines will be met, and I'm free. I might actually unplug the computers after I've filed tonight. Revert to the carefree days of 1982. I'll be back next week - definitely by Friday, earlier if I;m bored. In the meantime, prowl the Institute, or bore yourself deaf with the Mpls section. Upon return: another installment of the Gallery of Regrettable Food, and a photo section of New York architectural details, full of pretentious juxtapositions.

Until then, as the old Valli matchbook said: Relax and enjoy.