I grew up in a small town, two hours east of Los Angeles. It is not the kind of town most people imagine when they think of California, or “Cali” as the non-natives say. There are lots of places in California that people don’t know about, can’t imagine—lots of places left out by that perfect, plastic, Malibu-esque diminutive. For every San Diego there is a Sun City, for every Pasadena there is a Pomona, for every Hollywood, there is a Hemet.
Though my town is not small in population anymore—about 120,000 people live in the valley—it still offers small-town opportunities. Most people commute to L.A. or San Diego to work, to shop, to have fun–if they have the money. But a lot of people in Hemet don’t have the money. When you don’t have the money, you can’t have nice things.
For a long time when I was a kid, Walmart was the biggest store in town. You could go there twenty-four seven. It was the only eye open, shining on late into the night. We got almost everything at Walmart, and sometimes went to Sears or JCPenney in the 10-store mall for Christmas dresses in December. I remember being excited when the first Target opened on the west side of town.
On each Thanksgiving, my dad would flip through the ads that came with the paper, and I’d ask if he planned to go out on Black Friday. Sometimes, he did. He was never that intent on getting any particular gift, but he always kept an eye out for sales and enjoyed people-watching, I think. As the smell of the turkey cooking wafted through the living room, he would spread out over the couch, and I would sit on the floor. He passed me the ads as he finished them—Walmart, Target, RadioShack, plus the sales for stores that were 40-60 minutes away, like Macy’s and Kohl’s. If I asked—and he wasn’t buying something for me—he’d wake me up at four-thirty or five a.m. the next day, and I’d put on a big jacket and jump in the back seat. Sometimes we’d have to spray the windshield with water first to get the ice off, if it had gotten close to thirty-two degrees that night, which seemed really cold to me then, and is still really cold for me, now.
We’d drive down Florida Avenue, the main street, empty at that time in the morning, with the heater blasting cold air until the engine warmed up. At Walmart, we’d look at toys for my brothers: action figures, Legos, Bionicles, maybe bicycles. Sometimes we got a few things; other times the lines were too long to be worth saving $7, so we went home and made hot chocolate and read the paper before anyone else was up. I liked being out with my dad when the sun was just rising. I liked driving through town and arriving at Walmart to find that everyone else awake at that hour had also sped through the sleepy streets to converge in that same parking lot. It’s fun being in a group of people who have the single, same purpose—whether it’s attending the same class, praying at the same church, enjoying the same movie, or finding a deal on a Christmas gift.
My enjoyment of Walmart grew as I got older. Since Walmart and Denny’s were the only spots open past ten p.m. (aside from a couple of dive bars), my best friends and I would drive there at midnight for candy, donuts, and ice cream. That was the best time to find anything at Walmart because employees were out stocking every other aisle, and only a few other souls were there after eleven p.m.: partiers or clubbers—often distinguishable by short bodycon dresses—or zombie parents picking up children’s Tylenol in the middle of the night. My friends and I would park in the empty lot, under one of the yellow lights and then run inside to frolic through the fluorescent-lit aisles, dancing to whatever song was playing on the sound system, and wandering around the upcoming holiday displays, the women’s clothing section, and the home décor aisles, talking as we picked things up and put them down.
The candy was displayed in the middle of the grocery aisles on the south side of the store. There were hooks for all sorts of small bags of candy by Mars and Nestle—it was a sea of yellow, red, and brown plastic packaging. The different types of sweets suspended in the air, delineated by capital letters, both serifed and non-serifed. On the end of the aisle, Walmart kept the nicer chocolates in display boxes that stood the bars upright. Here, black, dark brown, gold, and varying shades of purple dominated the gray metal shelves. Many of these chocolate bars defined themselves by the size or complexity of their cursive titles. Often, we picked a package from each side and headed for the registers.
Along the way, we’d inevitably end up with various household items we or our families needed—double-ply toilet paper, two-percent milk, ripe and under-ripe avocados, AA batteries, dry cat food. Afterwards, we’d sit in our cars and share a glazed donut, Cadbury milk chocolate bars, or a variety pack of Lindt truffles.
One night, we dressed up in ridiculous outfits—rainbow colors with sashes and hats, because, why not?—and two young men followed us through Walmart, always an aisle or a display behind. At first, we thought it was a coincidence, but then turned suspicious. We ducked into the registers, paid quickly, and ran for our car. They rushed out after us, but we slammed the door locks and sped off. Some nights, after Walmart, we drove up the main street, trying to identify the prostitutes that we heard of from others in town.
When I moved out after college and started working in the San Gabriel Valley, I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out which items to get at which stores for the best prices. For dry goods or cans—flour, sugar, oatmeal, and beans—I shopped with a debit card at WinCo. For fresh fruits and vegetables, I filled up at Sprouts, which used to be Henry’s, which used to be Boney’s. But for a variety of cheap household items, Walmart was by far the best place to go. Flip-flops? Two dollars at Walmart. Paper towels? Toilet plunger? Motor oil? Shampoo? Lightbulbs? Walmart.
I know that Walmart’s supply chain is sketchy and that they pay incredibly low wages with no benefits. I know they rotate employees’ schedules and keep them just under full-time hours. I want better for Walmart’s employees, but I wanted better for me, too. I was also working for nine dollars an hour at an office, for no benefits, at just under forty hours per week—with a bachelor’s degree. When I took on more duties after working there for six months, I got a fifty-cent raise. Later, I negotiated a ten dollar-fifty cent hourly out of a retailer in Pasadena, but they gave me fewer hours than I was led to believe during the interview (as did the newspaper I was writing for). Additionally, I had two on-call shifts per week for that retailer. There was no pay for being on-call, and when I missed the check-in time while interviewing for a third job, a manager wrote me up. When you are trying to make a life for yourself after college, that knowledge of Walmart’s business practices does not help you afford blankets and bath towels. There is more than a little privilege behind the statement, “I would never shop at a Walmart.” You have to be able to afford other options. Not only that, but you must first live in a city that’s big enough to offer options other than a Walmart.
Later, I married a New Yorker, who comes from the land of the small shops, and thus had never been to Walmart. Once, when visiting California, we needed to get an odd mix of things—a toothbrush, iced tea, unsalted butter, wrapping paper, and socks. Of course, this was a job for Walmart. But my husband, Brian, was skeptical that we would only have to make one stop. Surely, at least a drug store and a department store would be necessary. When we got to Walmart, we passed the bath products and walked down the aisle separating the produce from the juniors’ clothing section. “Wow,” he said, “it really does have everything!”
I frequently extolled the virtues of Walmart to him, and he was not unreceptive. Once, while out driving around Downey, California, I got sleepy behind the wheel. We passed a Walmart sign by an exit, and I spent ten minutes exiting, turning around, and winding my way through the onramps, praising the twenty-four-hour Walmart the whole way. It was close to midnight. I was close to nodding off. At Walmart, I told Brian, we could buy some lemonade or iced tea and cold coffee and take a turn about the aisles for a while until I woke up enough to drive the rest of the way home. It was the perfect plan.
When we arrived, however, we found that it had closed at ten p.m. I was shocked. Shocked, I tell you. What Walmart wasn’t open twenty-four seven? None that I had ever set foot in. Walmart was a safety net. Walmart was always there for you, with anything, all the time. It had Christmas tree lights when yours stopped working right before your dinner party. It had cough syrup for you in the middle of the night when you couldn’t sleep. It had granola bars and water bottles for your five a.m. excursion to the desert.
“I’ve been betrayed!” I howled under the dim lamps in front of Walmart’s glass doors. Brian stood on the sidewalk, chuckling.
I haven’t lived near Walmart the last couple of years, but when I’m home, I go with my dad on his trips. Often, I look for things that I know will be cheaper there: a ten-dollar curling iron that’s twenty-five dollars for the same brand down the street from me. Lotion for six dollars instead of twelve. Other times I just tag along, enjoying that warehouse smell and the vaulted white ceiling signaling infinite possibilities, wandering in an orbit around my dad and his cart as he makes his way through each section. The white and gray color palette of scuffed floors, metal racks and hooks, and white walls looks antiseptic, and adds to Walmart’s family vibe: wholesome, helpful, reliable—like duct tape or your favorite uncle.
I went home for my brother’s wedding last year—converged on my small hometown with aunts, uncles, and three cousins who had spent childhoods in Huntington Beach and San Francisco–glamorous California.
My family discovered, of course, that we needed some last-minute supplies the night before the wedding. I told my brother I would keep him company, and texted my cousins, who were staying across the street. They were down for a Walmart run. Late at night, both my brothers, all my cousins, and I piled into the family van to head through the residential streets and over the hill to Walmart, fifteen minutes away.
We prowled the aisles, teasing my brother as he pushed the cart just like my dad does, and hooting that this was his bachelor party. (What else would he have been able to do in town, anyway?) I don’t remember what we bought, now. Probably milk and toilet paper, as usual. Maybe extra hair gel or bobby pins or more silk flowers, or something else wedding-specific. I’m sure we bought candy, and I know we took pictures.
We probably tagged them #CaliforniaNotCali.
Caroline Mays, a third-generation Riverside native, brings Californian sunshine, bright colors, bomb MMA moves, and a love of writing to initially-reluctant community college students near you. She is currently in New York, teaching at Borough of Manhattan Community College, and has had work previously published in Inlandia, TL;DR, and Linden Avenue.