I moved to the US from England a few years ago, and most of my time in this country so far has been spent in major cities. As most major cities don't have Walmarts, I am not super familiar with what goes on inside them.
I've visited them on long car trips, sure. But I'm not totally sure what sets them apart from other retail chains. I'm aware from looking at the internet that news stories like " Active Meth Lab Found Inside Walmart Bathroom" and "Man Accused of Sucking Woman's Toes at Walmart" are more amusing to people because they took place in Walmart, but I don't really know why that is. Walmart is different from Target, or Kmart, or Costco, but I don't understand exactly how.
In order to gain better understanding of what seems to be an important part of the American experience I decided to try to spend 24 hours in my nearest 24-hour Walmart Supercenter, which is located in Santa Fe Springs, California.
I took my phone with me, but only to take photos and make notes. I did not use the internet or listen to podcasts or otherwise distract myself. I wanted to be as connected to the Walmart as possible. Here is what I saw:
4:00 AM Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: According to the website, the Walmart Supercenter in Santa Fe Springs is open 24 hours. This is not true. When I arrive at 4 AM, they are very much closed.
4:10 AM I see a woman moving around inside the building. I ask her what time the store opens, and she tells me six. I decide to kill the time until opening by pacing around the store's parking lot.
5:30 AM I have nothing to write here. There are no observations to be made about the outside of a Walmart. It is a giant, windowless beige block surrounded by other giant, windowless beige blocks with slightly different logos on the front.
5:45 AM Jesus Christ I am bored.
5:52 AM Customers start lining up to get inside the store. There is no reason in the world that I shouldn't be the only person lining up to get into Walmart at 5:52 AM. What is wrong with these people?
6:01 AM The doors open and I start roaming around the store. I begin to strongly regret my decision to do this. I am the most easily bored person I know. I require constant distraction. If I get on public transport and realize I have forgotten my headphones, I react the way most people would if they realize they have forgotten their child. What the fuck am I doing?
6:05 AM I walk past the TVs in the electronics section. They're playing a commercial where Katie Holmes is endorsing something. Why would anyone want to buy something that Katie Holmes endorses? She has not made good life choices.
6:12 AM I start worrying about what I'll say to the staff if they ask why I've been in the store for so long.
6:18 AM I realize I was wrong to worry about this. None of the employees even seem to be aware that I exist as I pass them.
6:20 AM I notice a bottle of tartar sauce on top of the belts in menswear. I think to myself that this is weird because the store only just opened. The tartar sauce must have been there all night.
6:48 AM I pass by the TVs again. Katie Holmes is back on the screen. I decide to wait for the commercial break to end to see if there's something good on I can watch to kill an hour.
6:51 AM Commercials are still playing. Are commercials always this long in this country?
6:55 AM How are the commercials still on?
6:58 AM I realize that there is no show playing. The commercials are playing in a constant loop. Do all Walmarts do this? People who work in the entertainment department must get driven fucking insane.
6:59 AM My plan of killing most of the day loitering in the entertainment department watching TV has been destroyed. I feel like the guy who breaks his glasses at the end of that Twilight Zone episode.
7:01 AM This Walmart is huge. I decide to take a walk around the edge of it to see how long it will take.
7:05 AM It took a little under five minutes. That's like, a third of a mile. That's really, really big for a building. I remember somebody once told me there was a NASA building that was so large it had its own weather. I wonder how much bigger this room would need to be to have its own weather?
7:11 AM I head to the electronics department to kill some time playing the video games on the display consoles.
7:13 AM Neither of the display consoles is working. Today is going to be very fucking long.
7:46 AM The tartar sauce still on the belts. It feels nice that it's still there. A little piece of chaos in a sterile ordered environment. I quietly mouth "hello" as I pass.
8:06 AM I decide to use my time in Walmart for good. I am an immigrant. There is a lot I don't know about America. I only get, like, 70 percent of the references on Family Guy. I don't know who Katie Couric is. I don't know why people use the term "on accident" when it doesn't make any sense. I'm not 100 percent sure what the Three Stooges or Full House are. This day could be a valuable learning experience. Everything you could ever want to know about America is contained within a Walmart Supercenter. I decide to work my way around the store aisle by aisle, reading the packaging of every single product.
8:07 AM I start in frozen foods as it's nearest to the front door.
8:08 AM I learn that "supreme" is a flavor of pizza in this country.
8:09 AM I learn what a "toaster strudel" is, something I've heard mentioned multiple times in movies.
8:14 AM I see a product called Pillsbury Maple Burst'n Mini Pancakes. Why would someone want to eat hot food that is going to burst?
8:26 AM Jesus, spending 20 minutes reading the packaging of every single item in a freezer aisle is boring. I decide to ditch my quest to read everything in store. I go and sit in the in-store McDonald's.
8:30 AM The McDonald's has its own TV channel. It's playing an interview with a photographer who has done a series about "sheeple" where the models are wearing prosthetic sheep masks and shown drinking expensive juices and doing yoga. In the interview, the photographer is explaining that he wanted to make a statement about how people are becoming slaves to the capitalist machine. An in-store McDonald's TV network seems like a weird place for him to be airing these views.
8:40 AM Worried that I'm arousing suspicion because I haven't bought anything from the McDonald's, I head back into the main part of the store.
8:44 AM Tartar sauce is still there.
8:59 AM I see this book out of the corner of my eye and do a spit take. If I were an author and my name was "Neggers" I would probably change it.
9:01 AM That Kelly Clarkson song where she sings "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger!" starts playing. I am embarrassed to admit how moved I am by these words, given my current predicament. This day won't kill me. It will make me stronger.
9:12 AM I purchase a box of Ritz Crackers and some dip to eat for brunch. If her name badge is to be believed, the woman who serves me is called "Msedith." I consider asking her how to pronounce this, but I decide I like it better as a mystery. Maybe like "Ms. Edith"?
9:13 AM I sit on a bench at the front of the store to eat my food. The dip tastes like the smell of cat food.
9:41 AM I watch the greeter for a while. He is greeting people, but nobody responds. In spite of this, he remains perky. He's an older chap and doesn't look unlike my dad, which makes the whole thing quite sad to watch. I make a mental note to always say hello to Walmart greeters.
9:42 AM I notice that the Redbox machine is blue. Are all Redboxes blue? This seems like a huge oversight on the part of the Redbox design people, given that the machine is a box and it's called Redbox.
10:00 AM I realize I've been staring at the Redbox machine for almost 20 minutes. Did I fall asleep? I don't think I fell asleep. I don't remember anything from those 20 minutes. Did I get abducted by aliens?
10:20 AM I notice that the belts are being restocked. I think the end may be near for the tartar sauce. I feel surprisingly sad about this.
11:00 AM I walk out to the patio and garden section. It is a beautiful oasis untainted by the neon lighting and oppressively bland architecture of the interior of the store. I head back inside almost immediately, fearing that I might become jaded by the beauty of the patio and garden section. I make a mental note to not return for a couple of hours, in order to truly appreciate its beauty.
11:06 AM The belt rack has been stripped, but the tartar sauce is still there. The tartar sauce is, in fact, the only thing that remains on the otherwise empty belt rack.
11:20 AM I walk a lap of the store again and the above product. I wonder how many people would have seen this product's name during its development without noticing that it brings to mind images of feline fellatio.
11:26 AM I have walked through every department in the store at least three times. There is nothing left to be interested by. I walk them again. Groceries. Electronics. Seasonal. Sport. Home. Repeat.
11:40 AM In the DVD section, I discover that there's a Flintstones/WWE crossover movie called Stone Age SmackDown.
11:44 AM In toys, I learn that a Demi Lovato–branded Skip-It is a thing that exists. There are so many things in the world. So much effort must have gone into creating this and the WWE/Flinstones crossover products. Teams of lawyers and designers and skilled workers poured thousands of hours of their time into making these things happen. And for what? Why does almost everything inside this store exist?
11:45 AM I remember that I am midway through spending an entire day inside a Walmart as part of my job and clamber down off of my high horse.
11:47 AM For the first time in years, the question "Is it too early to get drunk?" pops into my head.
11:49 AM I had no idea it was possible to become this bored this quickly. Time feels slower than usual. I return to the bench at the front of the store. I sit still and try to guess when 15 minutes has passed by.
11:53 AM I check the time again. Fuck. Only four minutes have passed.
11:54 AM I used to work in retail. How did I do this?
11:55 AM I buy two comically large cans of beer, as they're the only thing available in single cans rather than multipacks.
11:57 AM I drink the beers too fast in a bathroom and get a brain freeze.
12:00 PM Feeling drunk, I wander the store again. Being drunk in the day is great. I should always drink in the morning.
12:03 PM Even drunk I am bored. I am so bored I can feel it as a physical feeling in my chest. It feels like I've swallowed a tennis ball. Is there a charity I can donate to to stop boredom once I get out of here?
12:14 PM How do people survive trapped in wells or lost in the wilderness or locked in bunkers? I feel like I read once that Chelsea Manning is kept in solitary and not allowed to read. They should stop doing that to her.
12:23 PM I head to the cosmetics section with the intention of testing every single tester they have.
12:25 PM There are no testers. Shit.
12:45 PM I notice the tartar sauce is no longer atop the belts, and my heart sinks. Then I realize it's simply been moved into a shopping cart of junk a few feet away, presumably to be taken back to the sauce aisle. Feeling drunk and brave, I quickly grab the bottle of sauce and place it back on the belt rack. It is the most thrilling thing that has happened all day. I have a legitimate adrenaline high.
12:05 PM Over in the video game section, I find that cheat books and walkthrough guides are still a thing that exists. Do these people not have the internet?
12:11 PM I start to dig a hole in the $5 DVD bin to see if there are any hidden gems at the bottom.
12:12 PM There are five Beethoven movies????
12:13 PM There are four Garfield movies????
12:14 PM Chloe Grace Moretz's Carrie is in the $5 bin? It feels like this came out last week. Where does the time go? Am I old?
12:15 PM I wonder when I'll die.
12:16 PM I wonder when Chloe Grace Moretz will die. I wonder if it will be before or after me.
12:17 PM I realize it's impossible to get to the bottom of the $5 DVD bin. Every time I dig out a Mean Girls, a Joyful Noise slides right back in to fill its place. I try and think of some way of making this into a metaphor for my time in Walmart for the sake of this article. But I can't.
12:30 PM "Rosanna" by Toto plays. This song is fucking great. The Walmart DJ is fucking great. I have been consistently unoffended by the music for the last six and a half hours. I wonder how they managed to find this much inoffensive music. I wonder if they focus-group this.
12:50 PM The tartar sauce is still on the belts. I feel irrationally happy about this. The bottle of tartar sauce is my personal Wilson from Castaway.
12:49 PM I notice that there is a machine to check your health over by the pharmacy.
12:52 PM The machine checks my blood pressure. It's 105/70. An onscreen message tells me this is good.
12:59 PM The machine tells me that my BMI and vision are also good. Boring.
1:08 PM I drink another beer.
1:36 PM I check my health again. Still fine. The beer has not affected my blood pressure, vision, or BMI.
1:44 PM "Drops of Jupiter" plays. God this song is fucking great.
2:18 PM A hangover is starting to set in.
2:36 PM I see an unsupervised child who seems to be attempting to open a register. I watch and silently hope that he succeeds. But unfortunately, someone moves him along.
2:59 PM Though I had been happy that I was able to walk around the store anonymously, I start getting offended that no one seems to remembers me. I have been in the store for nine fucking hours and a grand total of one person has made eye contact with me. Maybe I should start wearing snappier clothes.
3:43 PM The alcohol has almost totally worn off. I feel way too hungover for 3:43 PM in a Walmart.
3:50 PM Hangover increasing, I decide to see if there's somewhere in the store I can take a nap. I remember a little while back I read a news story about a teenage boy who ran away from home and lived in a Walmart. He was sleeping in the stroller aisle behind a row of giant boxes when he was caught.
3:51 PM I head to the strollers and look for a place to climb behind the boxes, but they're pushed all the way back. I do a lap of the store looking for boxes of a similar size that could make an acceptable temporary bedroom. I find nothing.
3:55 PM I decide to try to take a nap on a swingy chair in the patio furniture section.
3:59 PM I come to the conclusion that, despite almost overwhelming boredom and an increasingly miserable hangover, I am not able to nap in full view of everyone in a Walmart. I start walking again.
4:05 PM In the toy aisle, I press the tester button on every testable toy. The sounds that come out are, without exception, incredibly fucking annoying. People who have kids are insane.
4:16 PM Kelly Clarkson comes back on and I realize the playlist has reset. That's a ten-hour playlist. As Kelly reminds me that what doesn't kill me makes me stronger, I feel myself well up.
4:17 PM Embarrassingly, by the end of the song, Kelly has given me a second wind. I feel rejuvenated.
4:25 PM I realize that at least 20 percent of the products in this store feature the Minions from Despicable me, something from Frozen, or something from Duck Dynasty.
4:30 PM I decide to count how many products are in this Walmart with Minions on them.
5:00 PM I find 33 products with Minions on them. Including pajamas, backpacks, rugs, Graham crackers, shirts, toys, Blu-rays, yogurt, cupcakes, Easter products, and towels. This is less than I thought there would be.
5:10 PM I once read that Dolly Parton wrote the songs "Jolene" and "I Will Always Love You" on the same day. I think about how I just spent 30 minutes counting every Minions product in a Walmart. What the fuck am I doing?
5:23 PM What do people do in jail all day? Jail must be so boring.
5:25 PM I head to the books to see if they have any about people in jail for inspiration on how to make the time move faster.
5:40 PM There are no books about jail. Just romance novels and Spanish-language books about religion.
5:42 PM After spending some time thinking about how people pass time in jail, all I come up with is finding Jesus (nope) and Linda Hamilton doing chin-ups on her upturned bed in Terminator 2 to get buff. I decide to use my incarceration to get into shape.
5:43 PM I download a pedometer app to my phone and start power-walking laps of the store, mixing my route up as to not arouse the suspicions of staff members.
6:00 PM The pedometer app is somehow able to tell me how many steps I'd taken even before I downloaded it. It says I have burned 22 calories. I don't know what this means, really, but it doesn't sound very impressive.
6:20 PM I head to the section of the store where all the exercise equipment is and lift some of the various dumbbells and kettlebells the store stocks. After several minutes, I worry that I might be drawing attention to myself and stop.
6:30 PM Trying to exercise unnoticed in an enclosed space is impossible. I decide to get back on the learning grind. I realize I know nothing about lightbulbs. And there is a whole aisle of them here! I decide to read the packaging of every lightbulb.
6:39 PM After reading the entire lightbulb aisle, I still don't know anything about lightbulbs.
6:41 PM I move on to the tool aisle as I also know nothing about tools. After reading everything in the tool aisle, I still know nothing about tools.
6:49 PM I think to myself that maybe I could make a music video starring myself like that guy who was trapped in the airport overnight. But then I remember how much I hated that music video made by the guy who was trapped in an airport overnight and change my mind.
6:50 PM So. Bored. So. Bored. So. So. So. Bored.
6:57 PM Tartar sauce still there.
6:58 PM Being the guy in 127 Hours would suck so bad.
6:59 PM I see an employee whose nametag reads "Joshebed." People here have weird names.
7:00 PM Thinking about time makes time go slower. I need to become distracted. Or maybe drunk again? The thought of being drunk again makes me dry-heave.
7:05 PM I start hoping I'll be thrown out and decide to start smiling at staff members as I pass them in the hopes that they'll recognize me and make me leave.
7:07 PM Jesus, the people who work here must think I'm a fucking loser.
7:09 PM I try to make rude words out of the wooden letters in the craft aisle, but there aren't any that are possible due to the selection of letters. Maybe this is deliberate? The best I can manage is "KKK."
7:30 PM I notice that the store sells sympathy cards in packs of 12. Who experiences death regularly enough that they have to buy their sympathy cards in bulk?
7:38 PM I realize that everyone experiences death that regularly once they hit a certain age. Oh God.
7:44 PM I am going to die one day.
7:50 PM Everyone I know and have ever met is going to die one day.
7:55 PM With this in mind, is spending an entire day and most of a night in a Walmart the best use of my time?
8:16 PM Still walking in loops around the store. In the baby aisle, I discover Nick Lachey has an album of music for babies out on Fisher Price records and get a little sad for him.
8:18 PM Then I remember, once again, that I've been in a Walmart for over half a day as part of my job and feel less sad about where Nick Lachey is.
9:19 PM I look back at my notes from the last hour and see that I have written four words: nausea, walk, toothache, and Target. I am unable to think what any of these relate to.
9:30 PM The staff have started to do double takes as I walk past them, but none of them ask why I have been in the store since the start of their shift. This is really, really embarrassing. They must think I am insane.
9:43 PM I see a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. It has a pronunciation key on the bottle: "(wus-te(r)-sher)." I try to remember if that's how we say it in England, but I can't figure it out. I miss home.
9:54 PM In the toiletry aisle: What the fuck is any of this shit they claim is in their products? "Marula oil," "yoghurt proteins," "omega packed sea Berries," "diamond dust." This is nonsense.
9:58 PM I wonder how long I'll have to be in this country before I stop finding it funny that it says "gel douche" on all shower gels.
9:59 PM Also businesses that have "lube" in their name.
10:01 PM I sit in a corner and stare into space, then feel embarrassed when a staff member smiles at me and moves on.
10:10 PM My boyfriend texts me to tell me that, as a surprise, he is going to come to the Walmart to do his grocery shopping and see me. I well up again.
10: 41 PM I become restless with excitement about seeing another person and begin to wander aimlessly. I just move forward and read things as I pass by. This product almost has "boner" and "hard wood" in its name.
10:47 PM I try the display laptops to see if they're connected to the internet. They are not. Manage to keep myself occupied for approximately 30 seconds on an internetless computer. I used to spend hours and hours every day on the computer before my parents got internet. What was I doing?
10:56 PM I read every item in the tool aisle in an effort to learn about tools. Once I finish doing this, I realize I have done this before.
11:00 PM My boyfriend enters the store. I have never been so excited to see another human being. I feel like one of the freed Iranian hostages stepping off of Freedom One and into the arms of my family.
11:30 PM For my final hour of the store, I follow my boyfriend as he buys groceries. I feel mentally and physically exhausted. Every time I try to talk to him, my voice comes out sounding hysterical.
11:59 PM My boyfriend pays for his groceries and it's time to leave.
12:00 AM Before we exit the store, I check on the tartar sauce. It's still there. As we make our way through the lobby, my boyfriend stops at the key-cutting machine and says he's going to copy a key. I try to tell him we should do it another time, but, overcome with emotion, I accidentally blurt out, "NopleaseIreallyreallydon'twanttofuckingdothispleasepleasepleasecanwejustleavepleaseIcan'ttakethisanymore!" We leave the store with the same amount of keys as we entered with.
12:01 AM I realize that I have almost been completely mentally broken by what many Americans would consider merely a long day at work. I feel very grateful that I no longer work in retail and also sad that I'm such a wimp.
12:02 AM Sitting in the car on the ride home, I try to think of what I've learned in the last 20 or so hours spent in and around the Walmart. I have nothing. As a writer, it's always a worry that, when putting yourself into a situation, you will come out with nothing. No conclusion or insight. No epiphany to tie the whole experience together and make it somewhat interesting to the reader. I guess I can conclude that spending an entire day in a Walmart is about as boring as I had suspected spending an entire day in a Walmart would be? Sure. That'll do.
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