The Walmart was dying. The manager stalked rows filled with merchandise, but nearly empty of customers and employees, and I followed in her wake. Except for the lack of customers, it seemed identical to nearly every other Walmart I had ever been in. Without a word, we went through the swinging doors to the employee’s areas, then up to her office—a bare space lit mainly by the banks of CCTV monitors, the ghostlight flickering off pictures of her husband and children.
She pointed at one bright square, where a woman was sizing up her child for a pair of jeans.
“Watch her. She’s going to buy them,” the manager said, baring her teeth. “But she won’t let him wear them like that.”
I left as she was in checkout. There should have been more of me to do a proper tail job, but I figured I could handle a suburban housewife. She stopped to discuss something with the greeter, an older gentleman that held the position with the dignity and knowledge of a town crier.
The Walmart wasn’t on the edge of town, but away from the town center set back a piece from the main road, fronted by a couple acres of parking lot—again, not uncommon. Cheap property, old farmland maybe, bought up and bulldozed, then the asphalt trucks came in. The mother surprised me when she didn’t go for the handful of cars in the lot, but with bag and child in either hand set off on foot to the corner of the parking lot. Walmart hadn’t installed sidewalks, but some enterprising troop of Eagle Scouts had built a plank nature walk connecting the parking lot through some rather ragged second-growth woods and over a dry creek.
I kept my distance, letting her slip in and out of sight around corners. The trees grew thicker, older, and a bit greener as the trail wore on, and when it emerged I found myself at the edge of the business district. It must have been a mile and a half by that route, a mile as the crow flies. Red-brick shopfronts like any number of old American towns had, laid out on a grid of narrow streets. I saw her disappear into a tailors, and made myself busy window-shopping the Radio Shack across the street, to watch her in the reflection.
The tailor was measuring the boy while his assistant took notes. She’d just bought brand new pants at a Walmart, but she was having them tailored. From the look of the tailor’s shop, the custom low-slung bellbottoms modeled in the window with the curlicue decoration threaded into the thighs, I don’t think she’s the only one. I didn’t know what to make of that, but I’d seen what I had come to see, and set off exploring before mother and kid twigged they were being followed.
The business district was busy, mainly with foot traffic, busier than you see these things most days. Most town squares of my experience were half boarded up, the shopfronts closed, sometimes smashed, often given way to low-rent properties—pawn shops, thrift stores, Western Unions, the seedier bookstores full of mouldering paperback romance novels you could buy by the pound, little ethnic groceries with queer smells, junk shops that passed off kitsch as “antiques”…and those were here too, but in between them were the businesses of a lively community. I passed three separate music stores, one specializing in old and used vinyl, another in musical instruments, and a third in amps and associated gear, a lot of it custom made. A butcher and a cobbler split a corner—an actual cobbler, not just a hole-in-the-wall shoe repair place. A kid was dropping off a pair of brand-new Reeboks, fresh from the box, asking for leather patches sewn into the heels and leather laces.
That twigged something in my head, so I stopped at the open square to surreptitiously rubberneck the crowd. The memorials to old wars had been carved out of boulders that had been left behind by the great glaciers, and so were arranged somewhat haphazardly—but that also gave me a good excuse to wander a bit and eyeball the moving mass of people. It was a good, middle America mix of young and old, white and black, Asian and Latino. Some were obviously better off than others, though it took me a while to twig as to why—it was the clothes. Not everyone in the town was what you’d call a fashion plate, but none of their clothes was straight-from-the-rack either. They all fit too well, and most had some cut or decoration that looked custom.
The only difference was the material. The one guy I tagged as homeless was wearing a clean suitcoat over jeans and a t-shirt, and they all fit him, but they were cheap low-threadcount stuff like you might get at a wholesale warehouse that was worn thin and stitched up, even patched in places—he couldn’t have afforded a tailor, so he must have done it himself. On the other end of the spectrum was good quality stuff, silk and leather that must have been imported. Even the jewelry looked custom; there were no plain wedding bands in sight, and the necklaces and earrings seemed to prefer the hand-made look, irregular chunks of amber, onyx, and lapis lazuli on dinted silver and copper. It reminded me of Native American jewelry, and I wondered if there was a tribe or reservation nearby that crafted the stuff.
Eventually my stomach rumbled and I wandered off the square to the McDonald’s.
“Do you have a reservation?”
The maître d’ –he could be nothing else—was wearing something that in a past life had been a Mickey Dee’s uniform. Some clever, loving soul had taken the basic color scheme and cut and remade it into something like a tuxedo, complete with a dark maroon tie set with a double-arches pin of sandcast brass.
“Sort of. The owner is expecting me.”
The suit smiled and guided me to a table in the back. There were families in Sunday best seated at wooden tables and leather-cushioned booths, the floor felt like real tile, a bit uneven under the feet, and the tables were lit by small blown-glass candlelamps shaped etched with Ronald McDonald’s smiling face, and the walls were decorated with tastefully-painted renditions of Hamburglar, Grimace, Mayor McCheese and the Fry Guys in a McDonaldland I dimly remembered from ancient commercials. The silverware—not real silver, I noted thankfully—looked like it had been inspired by the souvenir utensils McD’s had put out for kids twenty or thirty years back. When the maître d’ handed me the wine and beer list, I thought Ray Kroc would have shit himself.
The owner slid in next to me. He wasn’t a local. You could tell because his suitcoat didn’t really fit as well as it should, and he was wearing a typical McDonald corporate polo. He was sweaty, red-faced, and probably less than a year from his next heart attack.
A server came up and we each ordered a local craft beer. He ordered his usual, I ordered a Big Mac and fries. It almost didn’t surprise me when she asked how I wanted the burger cooked, and didn’t blink when I said rare.
“Not what you were expecting.” The owner said.
“No,” I admitted. “Does corporate know about this?”
The owner winced. “Not in so many words.”
“So what’s the deal? Why all this?”
“Because this is what they want. This is what sells. As to why…you’ve had a look around, yes? What did you see?”
“Nobody goes to the big stores, except for raw materials. They go to Walmart and it’s like they’re at Home Depot, picturing what the two-by-fours are going to be. A lot of little shops. A lot of customization—the clothing, the jewelry. Now the food.”
The owner shook his head. “You haven’t seen a tenth of it. The book stores—there’s a bindery in town, and two printers. People buy a used book, and then have it rebound. If they really like it, they’ll have it reset and reprinted too, by hand if they can afford it. Every car on the street has been customized at least a little, every business has its own stationary, the butcher does individual orders. Carpentry is a big business here, and automotive work, and there are hobby shops where they’ll just rent you the tools and let you do it yourself. Hell, nobody buys regular cigarettes here—there’s an actual tobacconist that mixes stuff up for you, has girls hand-roll cigarettes and cigars.”
“So you adapted.” I said. The server returned with a pair of ceramic plates and glass bottles. My fries looked like they’d just been cut from the potato a couple minutes ago; the BigMac must have weighed half a pound and was leaking blood into a roll straight from the local bakery.
We ate in silence, and the owner signaled for another round.
“How do they afford this?” I asked. “I mean, industrialization, standardization, centralized distribution—that stuff lowers prices, makes life affordable. Nobody can afford to have everything just the way they want it.”
“A lot of them accept credit,” the owner said. “The little shopkeepers, I mean. People square up accounts that way, trade tit-for-tat. Most people can’t afford it even then of course, so they go without, or do what they can on their own. You’d be amazed, but almost nobody here owns a TV, and the newspaper is just a little classified section. They prefer the internet, custom news and media, free if they can get it. Others…well, people do what they can. If they have to buy off-the-rack, they’ll make it their own somehow. Results aren’t always pretty, but they’re unique, and that’s part of what gets everybody going. There’s also, I dunno. Community spirit.”
I didn’t follow, and raised an eyebrow. The owner took a swig, looked thoughtful, then waved the server over. He asked her to prepare me a happy meal to-go, then when she left he tried to explain.
“Every one of the people I originally hired are still working here. It’s not a matter of looking for broke kids in need of a part-time job, the people that applied when I opened up shop are the ones that decided they wanted to work here. So they made this the kind of place they wanted to work. The manager I first had here, he wasn’t a local—drove him nuts. They started customizing orders, trying to make things better. Made deals with locals, started replacing the furniture. All this and the locals would barely come in here; they’d come to set down at a restaurant, like they’d never heard of fast food, and most of them couldn’t stand the food. After a couple months business picked up, but it turned out that the employees had made a deal with some local businesses for beef and veggies and cheese. So eventually he left, and I promoted the assistant manager—a local—and just let him do what he wants with the place. Costs more than you’d think, but it’s in the black on a monthly basis.”
The server returned with my Happy Meal and the check. The bright cardboard box seemed hideously normal in the surroundings, but I peaked inside while the owner signed off on the bill. The food had been individually wrapped with the precision and care normally given to origami. I carefully folded the box back up, wondering what I would tell the manager at Walmart.
It was the first time I left a tip at a McDonalds.