I watched America die a bloody, gruesome death in K-Mart last year.
Okay, okay, that was a shameless, hyperbolic ploy to raise your eyebrows. But I, like many of my countrymen, have a bit of a queasy feeling about some of the things I’m seeing around here. America seems to be sucking wind, and I think your local K-Mart is a perfect microcosm (petri dish might be more apt) in which to study this dynamic.
It’s funny how brand loyalties persist. K-Mart is part of Sears Holdings now; and while you’d think that most people would be indifferent about who’s selling their gizmos to them, people seem to have a nostalgic benevolence toward Sears that K-Mart does not find itself the beneficiary of. I don’t know if you can decouple Sears and K-Mart at this point without killing both, but K-Mart really is a boat anchor. The ones I’ve been in lately all commit the same four sins – unkempt stores (almost to the point of being ratty), an aesthetic I’d call Forwardish Thinking 1999, indefensible price points (about 15% more expensive than Wal-Mart for no discernible uptick in quality), and bad customer service.
The lack of customer service is probably the most grievous of them all. If I was a brick and mortar retailer in this economy and someone actually took the initiative to leave their home, drive on congested roads, navigate their way to my store, park, and walk themselves in, I would assault the fiery gates of Hell to ensure that they were provided what can only be provided in meatspace: human interaction. This somehow escapes K-Mart management. Attention stuffed suits: If I wanted to purchase mass produced items in the absence of other sentient beings, there’s an app for that.
And no, the eighteen year old girl who rings me up in lane eight, who is busily gnawing her thoroughly gnawed gum and in the dispassionate throes of a looking-bored contest with the eighteen year old girl in lane nine, does not count. I would hate to disturb the contest, because it’s a two horse race – she is, after all, the only other cashier working, minus the mindless busybodies at the customer service desk, who conveniently aren’t allowed to ring you up, forcing you to shuffle along in a procession reminiscent of a bread line circa 1931. Especially true since all seven of the frail people in America who still pay by writing checks out longhand are somehow in front of you in line at K-mart, who of course wants two forms of ID, a retinal scan and an epithelial swab from these people – even though they wouldn’t blink particularly hard about a guy with filed teeth and a spike nail impaled through the bridge of his nose swiping a Hello Kitty debit card belonging to someone named Brittani through the reader, because, you know, cards are all safe and stuff. The gum gnawers surmise this based on their inability to understand the technology, which is their threshold for assuming something is secure. This is why, when they see a padlock on the Internet, they assume that using “ilove” followed by their boyfriend’s name as a password provides a layer of impenetrable security.
This is a procession so mind numbing and life draining that when you at last get to the register, you’re torn between two principles: abandoning your purchase to prove that you’re a real person with a real soul and aren’t dependent upon the corporation’s benevolence in allowing you to purchase their precious product, or making your purchase, and another from the kaleidoscopic display of mints and gum you’re blinded by on approach, just to prove that there was some semblance of a point to the last ten minutes of your day that might, at some future time that is most definitely not now, further your overall welfare as a human being. You feel victimized, both at being forced to take the stand you did and at being a sissy for not making the other stand, and you wind up leaving doubly depressed either way.
All of this is a distant memory, because I can’t remember the last time I actually made a purchase at the K. For instance, last year I was in K-Mart and I had a question on specs for a certain headphone set. I scoured about 40% of the store before I found an employee; they in turn had to start begging on the PA for someone in Electronics to return to their post. It was one of those instances when you can almost see the snark dripping from the speakers, coming from the voice of one bound to their handset out of the fear stemming from the thought of having to traverse five acres of dingy tile floors trying to find a reclusive shelf shuffler:
Would an associate…in OR AROUND Electronics…please return to Electronics for customer assistance! I need an associate. In or around Electronics. To please return to Electronics for customer assistance. Thank you.
Twelve or fifteen minutes in, I get my coveted prize – a hipster doofus in a frumpled red smock. Not a hipster doofus in a Cosmo Kramer, so uncool he somehow transcends himself and becomes ironically cool kind of way – in an annoying I-wanna-[insert slightly dated fad]-too kind of way. I could tell that this fellow represented a significant chunk of the future of America. And I shuddered. I didn’t shiver, like ooh there’s a draft, I shuddered, like oh no what’s applying massive torsion to the hull of this battleship.
I could immediately tell this was the kind of annoying shrew who treats life like a walking sit-in protest against being misunderstood and maligned. A too-enlightened-for-here priss who listens to esoteric music that 1) nobody has heard of (anything that sounds like a mangled car crash at the intersection of Emo and Ska fits here) or 2) can in any way be construed as “underground” or “indie,” not because they’ve found their favorite niche, but just because nobody else listens to it. This can thus be lorded over everyone they know and/or don’t know. Music quality doesn’t matter – it could be the sounds of a baby being beaten with a cat, layered over someone doing a poor imitation of a screech owl in heat, so long as nobody else understands what in God’s name is going on and it exists as an ongoing opportunity to sigh in disdain at society’s lack of culture and willingness to be societal lemmings. Those stupid sellouts, listening to music that, you know, other people listen to and enjoy. This fellow thinks needlessly doubling a word constitutes phrase coining (bro bro, low low, right right). That patronizing benevolent corporations constitutes personal charitable giving. That he is the most important because he pays lip service to the least important. That sarcasm is a rhetorical device.
I ask my question, but realize I should have messed with his mind. Before I said anything, I should have said, “I am now writing the future,” then taken a piece of paper and written, “You’re going to say, ‘Well…’ then trail off to silence as you pick the headphone package up and study it in hopes of finding the answer on a huge orange sticker I somehow missed.” That would have been funny, because I knew it was going to go down like that. Then I could have blown his mind.
And it did go down like that. But I didn’t write the note in advance, and he wouldn’t have believed me if I’d told him that I knew what he would do. So I left. He may still be looking at the package. Not on my behalf…he’s probably comparing ohms or something, trying to figure out if they’re worthy of a discerning audiophile like him. To be fair, you do need a good set of cans in which to turn the baby/cat/pining screech owl noise up to eleven, so you can drown out the sound of your mom begging you to get your hemp-burlap shoes and Jets to Brazil t-shirt out of the living room.
But is this America circa the future? One represented by a dude who’s hapless and aimless, smelling faintly of smoke of unknown origin and missed opportunities? With no work ethic except when it comes to complaining about the drudgeries of reality? Who is defined by what he is opposed to?
And it just gets worse as you go down the line. When I was in kindergarten, the most heinous offenses I could fathom were cutting in line, talking without having been called on, and having the utter crass necessary to say the word “poop” out loud. One day Mrs. Russell put my name on the board for tickling Joey Collins during nap time, and I thought the universe was in the process of collapsing in upon itself and becoming a singularity in space-time…or whatever equivalent I would have understood at the time. Now my wife comes home with horrifying stories of kicking and screaming, biting and hair-pulling, refusal to acknowledge adults’ presence and openly urinating on the floor just to spite them. All the offenses of five-year-olds who seem to know the constraints placed upon their zookeepers when it comes to discipline and reprisal. Welcome to tomorrow.
I doubt this is the America that my father’s father dreamed of when he was sporting blistered hands, hoeing weeds out of twenty acres of watermelons when he was a boy. That my mother’s father dreamed of as he stood on the decks of an aircraft carrier off the bitter shores of Korea. That I, frankly, would care to live in. So what’s the answer? Well, it’s really big, so we’ll need to take it in steps. Let’s start small.
We would do well to just start caring. Not in a sappy, sentimental, believe it and you can achieve it, Care-Bears-circa-1986 kind of way, but in a maybe you could start giving two hoots in Hades about things that are not you kind of way.
It’s the simple stuff. Do you know your neighbors? No? What’s your excuse…that they’re hard to find? They live so far away? When was the last time you deeply listened to someone, instead of nodding while you worked on a story to top theirs in your head? When was the last time you committed a random act of kindness when you were by yourself? When was the last time you asked someone how their family was doing? When you made a mindful decision regarding your non-negotiables when it comes to the stewardship and generosity of your resources, whether that’s space, time, talent, or money? I can almost forgive the one who makes such a choice and chooses wrongly – at least they had the brass to stand in front of that bank of levers in their life and actually pull one. The Unconscionable are those who exist as rudderless societal flotsam and call themselves principled.
Maybe that’s what bothered me about K-Mart – it seemed to exist as a vast testimony to brokenness. Perhaps the answer is to start some institutions of our own. Monuments to Method. Temples of Thoughtfulness. Synagogues of Serenity. Pillars of Promise. Shrines to Studiousness. I pray for us the courage and diligence necessary to build them, so that they might serve as quiet, humble outcroppings of stability among people with increasingly gelatinous foundations. May we serve as harbingers and prophets of the dawning of a new day. One which shines a warm, orange light of redemption and hope.