December 2004

Fighting the Superstore syndrome

By Suzanne Strazza

I barely remember my first time. I was 27, maybe 28. It only happened again a handful of times over the next five years; when I was feeling desperate, usually on a road trip or away from all that was familiar.

Then suddenly, living in a small town, with very little variety, finding myself pregnant, it happened. It became a constant in my life.

I had become a Wal-Mart shopper. Yee Gads!

It seemed like I had discovered a place that had everything that I needed: car seats, nursing pads, baby Tylenol, sippy cups and cheap extra-large elastic-waist pants.

While I was in the last stages of my pregnancy, and it was 97 degrees outside, I found a haven in the temperature-controlled aisles of “stuff.” I could waddle freely, cool as a cucumber, imagining how much better my life would be if I had vast amounts of unnecessary plastic items.

After the boys were born, it was so pleasant to enjoy one-stop shopping. With a baby in a car seat and a wandering 2-year-old, it was so much easier to have to visit only one store instead of being in and out of many. I was convinced that the idea of Wal-Mart stores really came from Sam Walton’s wife, not the man himself. Only a woman and a mother could have been that brilliant.

Then one day, the early-motherhood fog began to lift. I realized that I had come to have “my” parking spot at the store, a regular shopping routine (center aisles first, then left, then right), and I even gave directions to another shopper.

I started to add up the hours (not to mention the dollars) devoted to Wal-Mart and I found that a large percentage of my time was spent in sensory deprivation — no windows, no fresh air, no clocks. I had been sneaking around about it, too, not telling my husband or friends where I spent the day.

I was ashamed. I was also pretty darn grossed-out by myself. What had happened to my ethics? What was I teaching my children? Who was I supporting?

It really hit me when on a series of road trips, I had the opportunity to visit several of the “Meccas” across the country. The crazy thing is, they were all exactly the same. Go inside, away from the sun and air and the elements and you could be in Cortez, or Nogales, or Pittsburgh. The beauty is that there is absolutely no difference from one to the next.

Walking into the Nogales store, I knew exactly where to find everything. I counted on certain unnecessaries being in the same location they are in “my Cortez Wal-Mart.”

We had just spent two glorious weeks living the simple life on the beach in an extremely poor town in Mexico and as soon as we crossed the border, we hit up a Wal-Mart. What the h***? Hundreds of Mexicans in this incredible town were getting by without plastics, why weren’t we?

I had always been anti-Big Business, rooting for the little guy. Before this period of my life I had only shopped in local stores, buying USA-made (if not Colorado-made) items. I hated supporting anyone that was not supportive of me. But here I was doing everything I loathed. I couldn’t find one single item in a Wal-Mart that was made in the USA (and maybe not even one made by someone over 12). The Cortez Wal-Mart had run my local businesses into the ground and I had become a part of the problem.
What in God’s name was I doing?

So, I consciously began to boycott the store, frequenting the little guys again. (Suddenly, City Market was the “little guy”). I have ended up spending a lot more money, but I feel better having broken my addiction.

Unfortunately I do have to go there for work more than I’d like.

And, occasionally, I get a hankering for a little piece of unnecessary plastic; a bejeweled bracelet, hot-pink tights or a People magazine. But that is very rare these days.

The reason this all came to a head is that on our way to my parents’ house in Idaho for Thanksgiving, we needed a dog brush and some nail clippers. We had already been in the car for 14 hours and we still had three to go. Wanting to make the stop fast, we quickly pulled off the highway into a Wal-Mart, thinking it would be a short and sweet visit since I knew where everything was located.

Boy, was I wrong. This store was not on the regular plan. The pet section was on one end and the cosmetics were split up and scattered all around the entire floor plan. It took me a half an hour to get those two things, while for the duration I swore at myself that Big Business had once again lured me in and trapped me. There I was, floundering around not even able to figure out which direction the door was in since I couldn’t catch even a tiny glimpse of sunlight.

By the time I finally found what I needed and found the exit, I was sick to my stomach; because of what I had been suckered into yet again, because of the thought that this is how most of our country lives and shops and because I had felt totally trapped and claustrophobic. I paid and quickly ran for the bathrooms to vomit.

At least those were still in the same place.

Suzanne Strazza writes from Mancos.