Column: For men, Walmart is the root canal of shopping

By JASON RECKER

You can get a lot of things at Walmart. Friendship isn’t typically one of them.

But not long ago, amid the canyons of Kleenex and plains of pudding, I’m fairly certain I met my soulmate. It was a man and I am already married to a woman, so that last sentence is a bit awkward. But the crossing of our paths, brief as it was, must have been a work of some brand of higher power — the God of Great Value.

I stood in front of a wall of chili beans when he spoke to the child inside the cart he was pushing. “I don’t understand your mom’s list,” he mumbled in a tone that seeped bewilderment and angst. “I don’t understand how she does this.”

He had me at “I don’t understand.”

There are places I do not like to be. Dentist chair. Cold shower. Bear den. Walmart is worse. It is not the people. The servants in Sam Walton’s kingdom are nice people in dark blue shirts, innocent bystanders rolling back prices. It’s not the premise. At Walmart, you can get a new set of tires, a fully stocked aquarium and a piece of lingerie without crossing more than five aisles. Face it, Sam Walton belongs on Mount Rushmore.

It’s the pressure that wrecks me. I feel as if I’m surrounded by shopping professionals with their lists separated into quadrants and their coupons fanned out like a poker player’s cards. When I stand in front of the canned vegetables and can’t find white corn in the ocean of hominy and yellow corn and creamed corn and Niblets, I feel them seething. Move it, slacker, they think. Bagged cereal is on sale an aisle over and I need sweet powder cocoa poofs like a diabetic needs insulin.

My wife is one of those people.

She swaggers into Walmart early every Sunday morning and makes that place cower. Diapers. Tilapia. Shaving cream. Dog treats. Flood lights. Milk. Socks. Picture frame. Birthday card.
Screwdriver. She spins her cart through the aisles like Richard Petty circling lapped traffic. Then she rolls through the self-checkout, undeterred by items not detected in the bagging area.

So when the man behind me implied he was at Walmart on his wife’s behalf and doubted whether he could complete his assignment, I got weak in the knees. That’s when he pivoted and leaned my way.

“Excuse me,” he began. “Mind if I borrow your pencil?”

I had a pencil tucked behind my left ear. I blushed.

I have shopped without a pencil before. I imagine it’s how Christopher Columbus felt when he set sail for the new world: a challenge quite possibly destined for peril.

I clicked twice and handed him my blue Bic Round Stic Grip.

He slashed items from his wife’s manifest.

“I can’t keep anything straight,” he admitted.

“I feel your pain,” I commiserated. “Nothing good happens here.”

Around us, people mulled over Brawny or a quicker picker-upper. Carts crawled at parade pace. A dozen of us crowded in front of the spaghetti noodles shoulder-to-shoulder like we’d huddled around the keg at a college party. If anybody needed a beer, it was my new friend.

“There. I think I got it now,” he said. “But I’m not sure how much longer I can do this.”

He looked at his daughter and handed back the Bic. He needed help a pencil could not provide.

“My wife is pregnant,” he explained. “She’s on bed rest. I have to do the shopping.”

“Oh. My. God,” I said as if I’d just driven upon a 15-car pileup awash in flames.

Suddenly, I didn’t feel his pain anymore. Nobody is capable of that level of empathy. I stammered for something to say, something deep, something eloquent. For a moment, nothing, like when you’re following the receiving line at the funeral home and don’t really know the folks to whom you’re dispensing sympathy.

For this man, my heart ached. He needed me.

“I hope the bed rest is almost over,” I finally offered.

“Better be,” he said. “Because if I have to keep doing this, I’m going to kill Walmart.”

I am not sure if you can actually kill more than 4,000 brick-and-mortar stores. But I promised him that should he decide to go through with his plan, I would forever be a willing accomplice.

Jason Recker is an editor at The Herald. He called his wife six times that day from Walmart. His email is jrecker@dcherald.com.




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