This article is taken from The Lifted Brow No 9 David Foster Wallace themed issue, published in April 2011. Why not buy the issue, or subscribe to the Brow? It is heaps good.
On Saturday the 8th of January of this year, when Jared Loughner shot thirty-one bullets into a political gathering at a Safeway parking lot in Tucson, Arizona, wounding Congresswoman Giffords clean through and through the head and killing six others, my foremost thought was “I’m pretty sure I slept in that car park.”
In the last three months of 2010 my girlfriend Corn and I drove through thirteen states of the USA, at the wheel of and sleeping in a loch-green 1996 Chevrolet Astro van. Coming from Australia—which in many ways is a miniature America, but in many more ways is the far-away down-under world of mythical and real monsters, the place where bullshit is condemned and those with affectations are kicked up the ass, where on one hand we hang with cracked fingernails onto our convict past and with the other knock eagerly on the door of the future—coming from Australia, travelling through America was like stepping inside another dimension, a dimension in my mind made up of every book, film, TV show, song, painting, photograph and website that I have ever encountered, ever. There’s this gauge: that to Australians our country-continent is the pretty girl you meet at a party and talk to for hours, the girl you eventually “date” and take home to meet your mum, whereas America is the strumpetish one-nighter with whom you suck down tequila and take home to maybe, maybe, show off to your dad. But in reality the relationship between the two countries is much too complicated to set down in such a stupid metaphor.
Now, our Chevrolet Astro was your standard-issue family passenger van that we hastily fitted out and kitted so that we could “live” in it; our bed was a jumble of hardware and camping store supplies (a piece of chipboard under camping foam under sleeping bags under quilt) lying on top of the two rear rows of seats, which we had folded down.
Why did we opt to semi-convert this mediocre van into our half-home? Or maybe more importantly, why did we choose to journey rough through America, when the traumaless option would’ve been to just not do it? Well, to avoid dredging up of any fatherly adages like “nothing good comes easy”, our logic went: the only way to really see the States is to drive it yourself; and we can save money on accommodation if we buy a car that doubles as a bedroom; and driving will be the most enjoyable way to spend our time. As it turns out we were correct on the first assumption, and employing elastic mathematics and a good mood, somewhat correct on the latter two.
At an essential level, and clearer to see now, it’s obvious we were after an old-fashioned adventure. Is there something wrong with chasing adventure? I don’t think so, although it feels strange to actually say it, as if it’s one of those things a lot of people do, but most don’t admit, like stealing a single hazelnut at the supermarket, or surreptitiously sniffing your fingers after scratching your armpit. In a 1980 interview, Bill Evans, the jazz pianist, said something about art which, if you replace the word “art” with “adventure” or “travel” or “life”, could be maybe applied to what we did: “I think some young people want a deeper experience. Some people just wanna be hit over the head and, you know, if then they [get] hit hard enough maybe they’ll feel something. You know? But some people want to get inside of something and discover, maybe, more richness. And I think it will always be the same, they’re not going to be the great percentage of the people. A great percentage of the people don’t want a challenge. They want something to be done to them—they don’t want to participate. But there’ll always be maybe 15% maybe, 15%, that desire something more, and they’ll search it out—and maybe that’s where art is, I think.”
Our lengthy jaunt began in Seattle with an under-the-table and somewhat-swindly purchase of the Astro van, and ended at Christmas in NYC with a city-halting, car-burying blizzard. I said to a friend recently that the drive through the USA was crowded with surreal, alien moments. I told him that parts of it felt like the Disney film Fantasia: you’re just doing something pretty routine, like sweeping, and all of a sudden you are surrounded by a million brooms that want to kill you. The USA is brimming with such instances.
Our trail snaked along highways and byways, along characterless interstates and in and out of unmarked small-town cul-de-sacs, along rivers and through national parks, from Washington and through Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, New Jersey and New York. If you were to go and look at a map now you’d be able to roughly trace your finger along the route we took; maybe it’d help you understand what we did a little bit, although probably not, as all you’d be doing is moving your finger a few inches along a map.
If, however, you chose to do as we did, and this included sleeping in your vehicle, every person and guidebook would tell you that the safest place to sleep is in the parking lot of the biggest department store you can find. Now these aren’t hard to locate, as even the most modest town will have some sort of jet hangar-sized store lurking somewhere in its outskirts. I used to think that in Australia our supermarkets and department stores were fairly substantial. After all, they’ve pretty much got everything you need and more. Right? But let’s do a size comparison. If a regular Australian suburban street shop (like a bakery or newsagent) is an animal, say a dog, then proportionally an Australian Safeway or Target is an elephant—a pretty sizeable creature in the kingdom of animals. But extend this globally and our stores end up looking like those cute little Thai elephants that walk around the streets in Phuket, eating cute little bananas and doing tricks. In America, department stores and supermarkets might be of the same genus, but they are woolly fucking mammoths, real prehistoric monstrosities, bigger than buggery and with tusks as long as a bus.
The parking lots of these gargantuan stores are safe, or at least considered safe, because the stores themselves stay open twenty-four hours a day. This means that there will be plenty of floodlighting, and there will be at least a handful of shoppers (a.k.a witnesses) around, and there will usually be a patrolling security car that will do laps of the hectares of asphalt for hour after hour, semi-official with its rooftop rotating light, the yellow flashes in your peripheries looking like a roving lighthouse. Also, a 24-hour store will have public bathrooms, which you will quickly realise is extraordinarily valuable. Not only will you not have to piss behind a caterpillar of shopping carts or brush your teeth using a water bottle, but a bathroom, funnily enough, gives you somewhere to bathe. As anyone who hasn’t washed in four or five days can attest, the human body just loves accumulating gunk, so if you can give your face and any other specific regions a quick once-over with a splash of water here and a wipe of handtowel there, you’ll feel like a freshly- scrubbed newborn.
Even furthermore, and maybe most importantly, bathrooms have mirrors. After spending months making do, mostly, with the Astro’s inadequate rear-view mirrors, I’m happy to argue that, at least in today’s more-developed countries of the world, mirrors have clambered up Maslow’s hierarchy to be at or very near the very top. Sometimes you simply need a mirror to look at yourself good and proper; in current Western society it is largely through our mirrors that we acknowledge and understand ourselves each morning. Can you imagine not seeing your reflection, even just for a day? We as a species may not be the only ones to truly recognise our own reflections, but we are definitely the most obsessed. We’ll spend an enormous amount of time observing and examining our reflections—close-up and from a distance, long lingering looks at home and quick glances in clothing store mirrors—and we won’t feel amiss about it, not innately. This is because the idea of looking at oneself is tied in with the idea of self-knowledge, of intimately understanding oneself inside and out, knowing every pore on our mugs and every globule of our bloodcells and every flash of our minds. We are almost turning ourselves inside out with the effort to understand ourselves. It’s like, have you ever seen a clip of an octopus or squid throwing its legs over itself and pushing its middle bits out to the world? That’s us.
Fishman writes, “Wal-Mart stores have a gravitational force, bending the land, the circulation, the rhythms of the communities where they are planted”. He goes on to clarify this with various points about how Wal-Mart stores, even before they open their doors, change the way people shop, travel, eat, drink, look, feel—pretty much change everything there is that is changeable in a person and in a people. I think this could easily be true. Corn and I stayed in towns both with and without a Wal-Mart and, no word of a lie, you could tell the difference between them. A Wal-Mart store forces smaller independent businesses into bankruptcy, it streamlines processes but does the opposite to BMIs. Hell, you can buy your favourite chocolate bars in two-pound bags. Snickers, Hershey’s, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, anything—why buy one bar for a buck, when you can get a hundred bars at ten cents apiece? Now apply this same idea to everything you can think of: food, clothing, electronics, books, DVDs, bicycles, furniture, homeware, medicine—and there you have Wal-Mart’s approach.
Always your Wal-Mart experience will begin in the parking lot. Fisher paints the scene: “at some stores, the parking lots are sprinkled with trees and small islands of grass, the shopping carts are collected diligently, and the Wal-Mart sign is brightly lit”. We seemed to see more of the implied opposite: parking lots that are barren and neglected and skid rowish. Rubbish plays a big part in many Wal-Mart parking lots; I won’t say “problem”, as no one seems to have a problem with it, not the litterers who feel comfortable enough to throw whatever they want onto the ground, not Wal-Mart which wants its customers to feel comfortable enough etc., and not the people whose job it is to pick up the rubbish, who have gainful employment as long as everyone else feels comfortable. The parking lot isn’t just used by shoppers and people sleeping overnight, though. In many towns it has become a community meeting point, if by community you mean a place where people gather to do nothing. During the day families will converge in a rabbly cloud of SUVs with kids sporting either military haircuts or no haircuts at all, doing what used to be done in parklands: picnicking and playing. The night will attract more SUVs (although these are normally black ones) and low-slung Cadillacs driven by males in low-slung jeans. The males pop their trunks to ensure everyone within blast radius can hear the T-Rex-footstepping bass from their car stereos, but somebody help you if you actually get caught sneaking a glance. Lastly, as a rule a Wal-Mart parking lot will be desperately huge, a low dustbowl-desert type place, except instead of sandy earth it’ll be gritty asphalt, and instead of cactuses waving hello there’ll be tall rigid signage warning of car thieves, and instead of slinking coyotes you’ll hear skulking shopping carts taking bites out of car paint. And of course there are the hundreds of allocated parking bays all marked out by the same diagonal white-painted oblong. It’s not hard to imagine what this system of interconnected white lines might look like from way above, especially if there were no brightly-coloured cars in the way of them: the skeleton of some new animal maybe, or one large and precisely-formed snowflake.
There are always multiple points from which you can enter a Wal-Mart. There are probably umpteen reasons for this, with just two of them probably being aesthetics and computer-modelled traffic flow. On the surface, though, it looks like it’s done to serve simplicity and laziness, in that it’s never too far to move out of your vehicle to the store. Now step through the motion-sensor doors and the two fundamental things that will first strike you are both heavenly: the vastness of the place, with ceiling and walls both only at an almost-imperceptible distance; and the blinding amount of lighting that’s forced into every nook, including those that sit behind your eyeballs. It’s the same concept of illumination used in other 24-hour places, like 7-11s and all-night bus stations and fast food restaurants. This is lighting like a flood that leaves nothing in its wake, no shadows and no flickering, lighting that squeezes beneath flat objects, lighting that is supposed to make you feel safe but instead just makes you feel rabbit-in-headlights vulnerable.
The first thing for sale you will see (apart from the vending machines in the entrance) is fast food. McDonald’s, Subway, Pizza Hut—all the biggies. These are normally just inside the door, meaning you have two chances—when entering and also exiting—to get stuck into a McRib or Meatball Footlong or mystery-meat-crust pizza. If you’ve been good and made sure you ate before you came so you’d shop sensibly, it will not matter, as by the time you’ve found your way out of the labyrinth you’re bound to be hungry and probably irritable—the archetypal mindset for gorging on fatty fare. However, it’s no easy feat to make it to the ordering counter. To get your fill of cheesy grease, you’ll have to find a path through all of the shoppers on wheels. Because: Wal-Mart offers a rank of motorised four-wheeled scooters with attached shopping baskets for those who can’t, or who don’t want to, walk around the store. Everywhere you look there are people, mostly obese people, humming along on these shopper-scooters, reaching over to pluck colourful items from the shelves like toddlers reaching out of Mum or Dad’s shopping trolley.
And like I hinted at earlier, Wal-Mart sells everything. Or: the only things they don’t sell are (a) items or services that aren’t desired by the mushrooming lower-middle class, or (b) items or services they can’t legally sell, yet.
Apart from the things you’re thinking of, Wal-Mart also sells guns. Guns guns guns, of every shape and size. We stumbled over this reality on one of our first trips inside, back when it was novel to wander around, when walking a basic lap of the store—which can take an hour or two, easy—still felt like a school excursion to the zoo, although instead of “look there are the lions” and “Sam stop throwing M&Ms at the monkeys”, it was “look there are fifteen different hunting magazines with photos of gutted elk on the cover” and “Sam stop applying for Wal-Mart jobs using the computerised job application machine”. The guns have their own section, the Firearm Department, and are housed under glass, separated from their ammunitions by further glass. We found the Firearm Department only sometimes staffed, every time by a solitary male in his forties or fifties wearing camouflage gear, who honestly honestly honestly resembled the one-armed Vietnam vet gun shop clerk in The Simpsons. The salesmen we met all had both arms, though.
As anyone who doesn’t live in Atlantis will know, guns in the USA have long been a matter of concern. The number of firearms-related deaths in that country numbered 30,000 people last year. This happened because there are something like 5698435083254 guns per person in America. People just have them on their persons, as if they leave the house and are like do I have everything, wallet, phone, keys, gun.
Take this: we were in a bar in Memphis one night, drinking cider, when we met a guy named Davis. Davis was from further down south, a white man in his late twenties, recently separated from his wife and two daughters. He was amiable, maybe a little bit too much, in that talk-to-a-stranger-in-a-bar kind of way, but nonetheless we sat and talked to Davis for a couple of hours. A whole range of topics, as you’d expect, came and went, but the exchange that sticks in my mind is when I told him which Wal-Mart parking lot—Memphis has eleven Wal-Mart stores surrounding the city—we’d been parking and sleeping in. He was flabbergasted.
“You’re kidding me. You’ve been staying there for the past few days?”
“Shit man. Shit. That’s a bad area man.”
“Really? Seems okay to me.”
“Nope, no way man. And how did you get here then?”
“Walked and then the bus. We walked, up through Main and around—”
“Yep, walked. Why, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong man, except you don’t go walking through that neighbourhood man. Fuck me, walked?”
“But why not, we didn’t have—”
“I ain’t here to tell you why not, all I’m gonna say is that I never even drive near that neighbourhood without my pistol in my back pocket.”
At this stage a couple of other guys at the bar murmured their agreement, and I was thus silenced. As it turned out we were leaving the next morning so we wouldn’t be spending much more time in this apparently lethal neighbourhood, and didn’t have to confront the fact that we were now aware of some danger. But I felt immediately that here was maybe one part of the problem: that if one thinks one is under threat, then one acts in a defensive way, inviting the danger that one is actually seeking to avoid.
Like the firearm, the Wal-Mart corporation is a levelling force, handing an increase in power to people and groups that are usually ignored. This could be construed as successful democracy, except it involves consuming stuff, and when people are not people but consumers, low prices take the place of common sense. Get this: at a Wal-Mart, sometimes the prices are so low that the corporation cannot possibly make a profit on some item, no matter how much they’re able to sell. And this isn’t (or isn’t wholly) just basic business loss-leading, where you use one product to get customers through the door and make your profits on the other items they’ll go on to buy. Wal-Mart just wants you to be at Wal-Mart. It wants you to be a Wal-Mart person. It wants to change your neural pathways so that you never again think, “oh we’re running low on ____ so I better go down to the local shops” but instead “I need ____ and I bet Wal-Mart can help me and I can definitely get all my other groceries there really cheap and also get some other things done like posting my letters and changing the oil in my car and getting my eyes checked and my prescriptions filled.” Wal-Mart will also accept “oh I have some spare time this afternoon so I’ll just pop into Wal-Mart” and “it’s 3am and I can’t sleep so I’ll just pop into Wal-Mart” and “my life is falling apart my husband has left me my position at work has been negated and I’m fat fat fat, so I’ll just pop into Wal-Mart”.
Corn and I didn’t actually buy much from Wal-Mart, especially considering the number of times we went inside. But one major purchase we did make, late in the trip, in the small hours of a silly night, coming to a grand total of $38.98, was two pyjama onesies. His and hers onesies, one red with white polka dots, one chequered grey and blue. You’ve probably seen these before, on infants. And looking at the onesie now, and thinking why we bought them, I’m coming to some recognition as to what Wal-Mart is. Wal-Mart, the company that promotes itself as an evolution in the story of shopping, that relies on being thought of as a paragon of progress, is actually representative of regression. All of the little things I’ve realised while writing this—about how being inside a Wal-Mart is a bit like existing below full consciousness, about how its lighting makes you feel vulnerable and naked, about all the people who seem unable to walk and so use motorised scooters and reach reach reach from them like toddlers—all this points to the idea that Wal-Mart is turning adults into babies. It’s like what David Foster Wallace realised aboard a luxury cruise ship, how the whole voyage was designed to make him feel the same level of comfort as he’d ‘enjoyed’ when floating in amniotic fluid. Wal-Mart wants to pamper your every want and need as if you were back at that coming-to-consciousness age of 0 – 2. It’s true—even during the couple of months that we frequented Wal-Mart stores it started to regress us too, to the frightening point where Corn and I, two adults who take some measure of pride in what we wear, each purchased a garment that should never be worn by a human being who can walk. This scares the shit out of me. But hey, perhaps having the shit scared out of you is all part of the backslide.
In 1961 a young Philip Roth, who’d just won the National Book Award for his debut novel, said with some despondency: “We now live in an age in which the imagination of the novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow morning’s newspaper.” And a few months ago, writing in advance of his new novel, 1Q84, Haruki Murakami discussed how he goes about writing fiction in a post-9/11 world: “Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world.”
There has for a while now existed a general accordance of opinion that many elements of modern America are simply unreal. A major contention in this line of thinking is Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacrum, a replication that lacks the substance or qualities of the original but which moves to entirely replace it. In the mid-eighties, Baudrillard drove through the States and then produced his travelogue, America, wherein he wrote about the violence of the Wild West, jazz, the empty deserts of the South-West, the neon lights of motels at night, tribal warfare between New York gangs, etc. Baudrillard saw America as a glittering emptiness, a savage, empty non-culture, in short, as the purest symbol of the hyperreal culture of the postmodern age. And it is this hyperreality that America still exhibits today, even more so than it did during the 1980s; the country has imitated and replicated itself in every facet, so that these simulations and copies have become the truth. Baudrillard’s simulacrum bears no reflection of any reality whatsoever; ergo in America there is no longer any distinction between reality and its representation—there is only the simulacrum, the mask.
When I typed “mask” just then I thought of those theatre props that were used in Ancient Greek plays and in performances in Venice, Italy, masks that deliberately caricatured features—huge upside-down mouths for sadness; jagged slanty eyebrows for anger—and often with embellished colours to match. The compelling nature of caricature is in its clarity, its simplicity, its intelligibility: a caricaturist will exaggerate prominent facial features far beyond the real, and a viewer will pick up on these features and be able to identify the subject, even though the caricature bears the subject, on literal terms, far less actual resemblance than would a highly detailed drawing. America, with its suburb-sized Wal-Marts and its stars turned politicians, with its Friends and Seinfeld followings and its elk-hunting soccer moms, with its Perez Hilton paparazzi love/hate relationships and its ten-year-old-superstars like Willow Smith, is now much more easily recognised for its masks, for its extremes.
One of Baudrillard’s conclusions was that somewhere in the postmodern condition we experience something he calls “the death of the real”: we live our lives in the hyperrealm, connecting more and more deeply to things like sitcoms, blogs, video games, or music videos, things that in theory merely simulate reality. “Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation,” he writes. “What draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious revelling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks. You park outside, queue up inside, and are totally abandoned at the exit. In this imaginary world the only phantasmagoria is in the inherent warmth and affection of the crowd, and in that aufficiently excessive number of gadgets used there to specifically maintain the multitudinous affect. The contrast with the absolute solitude of the parking lot—a veritable concentration camp—is total. Or rather: inside, a whole range of gadgets magnetize the crowd into direct flows; outside, solitude is directed onto a single gadget: the automobile. By an extraordinary coincidence (one that undoubtedly belongs to the peculiar enchantment of this universe), this deep-frozen infantile world happens to have been conceived and realized by a man who is himself now cryogenized; Walt Disney, who awaits his resurrection at minus 180 degrees centigrade.”
Driving through the United States of America is something I would recommend to anyone who is interested in looking at the world around them and seeing something preposterously real reflected back. Whether it’s in the big cities—walking the eye-gouging boardwalk of Los Angeles’s Venice Beach; or joining a party in the container of a Bud Light semi-trailer in San Francisco the night The Giants have won the World Series; or lairing about the utterly empty Coney Island amusement parks during winter in New York—or in any of the thousands of eclectic small towns, America is a mash-up of things that are no longer real. We saw but a few of the overt cases of facsimilation: re-enactments of historical events like Martin Luther King’s speech, or replicas of landmarks like the fake Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas. Baudrillard often referred to a Jorge Luis Borges story where the cartographers of an Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the Empire’s territory. Right now America is at the stage where their real empire lays in tatters, but the masks—like the places, people and situations depicted in this essay—are still quite intact.
It’s a much-written assertion nowadays that the USA is crying its swan song, that it is pretty rapidly losing its bite as top dog in the backyard called Earth. This may or not be accurate (let’s wait for time to show us, rather than try to guess) but whatever the case, it’s a remarkably bizarre and banal place. Foreign adventurers ahoy! Pay attention! Take off where we left off! I’m sure there’s an Astro van with your name on it somewhere in the home of the brave.
And just between you and me, I’ve recently heard this rumour: that somewhere in the interior states is a vast inland sea, a sea housed inside the biggest Wal-Mart store ever conceived.
1 “Clean through and through” is medically the correct phrase for describing the path of a metal projectile through bone and brain, even if it is wrong on most other levels. However, clinical accuracy is not why it fits here; it is its likeness with the phrase “to shoot clean through”. Back to text
2 Under several tables, actually. It is nigh-on-impossible for a tourist in the USA to buy motorised wheels, because if you go through the proper channels you must have a permanent address. Here I must send a (brusque) thanks to Don, a former car dealer who now churns a living helping international visitors align themselves with wheels by lending them his own postal address. Don will also “help” you zigzag your way through the state government’s obstacle course of vehicle registration, insurance, and title transfer; at least two cogs of these official machines are greased with $20 bills “hidden” within the applications. Don charges a set fee of $350—reasonable—but also makes a chunky profit on the sale of the car, something we only realised when we were a few states away and saw similar Astro vans for sale at much lower prices. Back to text
3 It doesn’t snow in my home city of Melbourne, so the only winter covering I’d seen before this trip was on a couple of occasions atop Australia’s one or two “mountains”. A measly couple of thousand feet above sea level, the snow on Australia’s peaks is patchy like someone’s applied icing to a cake that’s still too fresh and warm and absorbent. All in all these few post-snowstorm hours in NYC were pretty strange, but less disturbing-strange than what we’d become used to, and more strange-enchanting. Actually, magical. Back to text
4 The following are some such moments I won’t otherwise talk about. Witnessing a fight outside a Gold’s Gym in Tucson between a parole officer and a prisoner on day release, where the prisoner was heaving skull-sized garden rocks at the officer’s skull. Being pulled over by a police officer at nighttime whilst driving north from the frontier town of Nogales on the border of Arizona and Mexico, the officer demanding he poke around in back underneath our mattress and tarpaulin to check we weren’t harbouring immigrants. Reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 whilst visiting places like Nogales and Green Valley, and pulling into a Starbucks near these two towns and seeing a message board covered in Missing Girl posters. Eating barbecue at Abe’s Bar-B-Q at “The Crossroads” (see Robert Johnson) in Mississippi on a Sunday right after everyone else had been to church, and trying to count the amount of Suidae paraphernalia in Abe’s whilst also trying to hide our travelly grubbiness from all the nice white folks dressed in their Sunday best. Going on a pre-planned “wild” night out in Las Vegas, dressed in op-shop costumes which meant that Corn was dolled up as a southern belle replete with silver cotton diamante one-piece and ten-gallon hat, and me as nerdy teacher-on-vacation type with oversized Hawaiian shirt and gold-framed pedophile spectacles. Spending a quiet afternoon at the O Henry Museum in Austin, which is the original house, still with the original furniture, where William Sydney Porter (the true name of O Henry) lived for sixteen years; we were the only ones in the place except for the clerk, who was a real-life Miss Honey from Matilda. Winding up on Thanksgiving Day in New Orleans at the annual horseracing meet, which is an event seemingly intended for those without family and/or friends to have a sit-down meal with a real ragtag assembly of friendly fringe types who dress up outlandishly faux-formal and proceed to have an uproariously magic time. And compiling a ledger of animals we’d seen on the road, under three column headings: “alive and happy”, “dead”, and “suicidal”. Back to text
5 For another fun size comparison, have you seen that photo of the world’s tallest woman standing with the world’s smallest man? He’s standing between her legs, or rather, she’s standing over the top of him, and he’s all smiles and gaiety at first glance, but if you look long into his eyes and study his body language, you can see the fear, the real, subterranean fear, like he’s about to be sucked up by the tractor beam of a UFO, or something. Back to text
6 So you know: there was never a need for stealth, because we were not a rarity; most parking lots we bunked down in had at least ten other overnighting vehicles huddled more or less together. Some of them were obviously there for a similar reason to ours, but rarely were they vehicles as basic as our family van; at a minimum they were conventional sleeping vehicles (Kombis and RVs other newer varieties of van with proper built-in beds and other key amenities) but more often they were full-blown Winnebagos and other even bigger homes-on-wheels, like the ones you see in American films, longer than semi-trailers, sporting ugly designs of colour like purple and green or white and beige, popular with the post-retirement crowd. The second major group of people sleeping in cars in parking lots were doing so out of necessity, for they had no homes to sleep in. We met several people in this situation, people who had less money to their name than you or I pay for a couple of meals, people who spent their days in Starbucks on phones or old laptop computers trying to find work, people who couldn’t drive the car they were sleeping in to any job interview they were lucky enough to land because they couldn’t fill the car with enough petrol to get them there and back. The most extreme of these situations we saw in San Francisco, where there had been a law passed recently forbidding anyone to sleep in a parking lot, due to the large number of people forced out of their homes and into their vehicles during the financial crisis. The big supermarkets and department stores with their three-or-four-acre parking lots can overlook a dozen or so overnighting vehicles, but not a hundred or more. In San Francisco, this burgeoning number of car-sleepers had simply migrated as a whole to an industrial neighbourhood just a few miles out of the city. No one in the time we were there lobbied to move them on again, so these few city blocks resembled a dystopian caravan park, with street after street full of vehicles recognisable as homes: thirty-year-old cars with curtains pulled closed, and dilapidated caravans, and vans with all the telltale signs that they hadn’t been moved in at least weeks (flat tires, detritus under same tires, interiors crammed with doonas and pillows and other household possessions), all in the shadows of hulking warehouses and factories. Back to text
7 See fictional conglomerate Buy n Large in the 2008 film WALL-E for a better illustration of this than I could hope to make. Back to text
8 Comparing Wal-Mart to a virus does not emerge from an overt intention to portray the company as harmful. In fact, the word “virus” carries an incredible amount of negative baggage when you consider that a virus can just as easily be something good for us. It’s true: human beings could not survive without viruses. It’s true! No, the reason that I compare Wal-Mart to a virus is that I couldn’t think of a better analogy for something that spreads like wildfire and changes form rapidly like…wildfire. Shit. Back to text
9 You thought we were pretty zealous about that tarry, yeasty, salty black spread we call Vegemite? In America the combination of peanut butter and chocolate is something like an obsession. Try and play the sceptic with an American about the logic of this combination. You’ll end up with a mouthful of Reese’s Pieces, so that even if you still wind up disagreeing, you’ll not be able to argue because of a serious case of concrete mouth. Back to text
10 I’ve been thinking throughout this essay about whether or not to call them “parking lots”, considering that this gives a sense of borders, containment, and easy comprehension. Wal-Mart’s parking facilities are just too big to come to grips with. At times I’ve actually thought of them as more like “parking marts”, as they are a space for exchange almost as much as the stores themselves; I’ve also considered “parking worlds” because they are near-perfect societal microcosms. Back to text
11 A supposedly fun thing that I would do again is to read all the small town newspapers. It’s almost obligatory when you visit anywhere in the USA; the only way you could get a better insight into a town than the local rag is by talking to a bunch of locals and asking them the cutting questions, and that doesn’t always end well. One of my favourite pieces of small-town journalism was in a newspaper in a town a couple of hours north of New Orleans. It reported on how the principal of a local high school had recently cracked down on pants worn halfway down or even below “the buttocks” by arming his teaching staff with cable ties. Any student spotted with the top of their pants too low had their pants tied up, in class, by the teacher. But the twist of the news report came toward the end: students had started coming to school with their pants belted up around their nipples. This news event was still ongoing at the time of writing. Back to text
12 There was this time late one night in a parking lot when I was reading in the driver’s seat, and I looked up to see a bunch of people pull up in a small sedan. After a while a black cat jumped out of one of the windows. Four or five people stepped out of the car and started chasing the cat around; eventually they gave up, retreated to their car, and as the last person was climbing back in, what I swear was a wolf jumped out the other side and ran away. Back to text
13 Ever noticed how many commercial buildings and vehicles and other public-friendly facaded things are quietly designed to look like human faces? Have a look at the cars and trucks on the road, or your local standalone department store—see the eyes, the smiling mouths? We love to anthropomorphise, to humanise, and our machines and our buildings are frequently the target. Back to text
14 Much expensive research has been carried out over the past few decades into the configurations of department stores and supermarkets—research pertaining to the layout of aisles, about lighting, about temperature, about how people behave. Some of the most exciting psychological discoveries of our time have been a result of the same research. Most of this is (fairly) freely available to read. Back to text
15 Not an official statistic. Back to text
16 Another gun story was related to us early on in our trip by Don, the swindly car guy who made our road trip possible. (Keep in mind that Don is probably the type of unreliable narrator that ensures he as the protagonist comes off looking pretty good.) He told us about the time one winter night when he was driving to pick up a car—which he did regularly, towing the vehicle back to Seattle on the back of his truck—and he pulled into a trucker’s rest stop. There he saw a man and a woman get out of a car, and then he saw the man begin to slap the woman around. Being the big burly linebackery Italian-American that he is, Don immediately hopped out of his truck and instructed the man to stop. This man proceeded to spew a tirade of abuse at Don whilst still smacking the woman around. Don went back to his car and grabbed his pistol from under his seat. Don travels everywhere with his pistol; it is fully licensed and apparently a suggestion from the local police, as they “couldn’t be everywhere at all times, and so needed people like Don around to help them keep the peace” (Don’s words). Don walked back over to where the man was walloping this poor woman and instructed him to stop again, making sure the man now saw the pistol. The man stopped hitting the woman but instead walked at Don, thinking, maybe, he would call Don’s bluff. Don yelled out all the cop phrases he’d heard on TV crime shows and when the man still didn’t stop, Don shot over the top of his head to show him he was serious. (Think about this: in the heat of some confrontation choosing to shoot a bullet close to another person’s head.) The man realised he’d been defeated and proceeded, under Don’s instruction, to lie on the ground. Don then put the woman back in her car, told her to “just drive”, and then he too departed, leaving the hapless “criminal” to look after himself in sub-zero conditions. Then the next time he saw a cop car parked on the side of the road he pulled over and told the officer about the man back at the truck stop, sharing a few chuckles and back slaps over the silly human race they each had to deal with every day. Back to text