Thursday, December 06, 2007

Attention Walmart shoppers.

In November 1992 I did a column for the Los Angeles Times Magazine (inset) about a posh San Diego neighborhood reduced to near-civil war by a new business about to move into its midst. (This is another one of those topics where I'm tempted to invoke humorist Dave Barry in shouting, "I swear, I am not making this up.") What was this controversial establishment? A bail bondsman? A drug rehab center? An auto-salvage yard?

No. It was a clothing store. Ross Dress For Less.*

Not a few of the locals were tres upset that this unabashed discounter should have the audacity to sully their neighborhood (specifically their chic little strip mall) with its bargain-basement image. In my original draft of the piece I'd quoted a woman who'd told a newsman covering the melee—understand, people were actually picketing over this—"We don't want to dress for less! We want to look nice!" The quote ended up getting cut from the column for space reasons, which was a shame, because it's the kind of line that puts things into perspective in a way that hundreds of words of embellishment can't. It conjures images of some snobby, well-put-together beeatch with her nose in the air. I saw the interview on which she spoke the line, and believe me, the lady looked the part. What's more, she delivered it with the full fervor of someone who, a generation earlier, might've been protesting Viet Nam or the arrest of the Chicago Seven.... Yeah, you've come a long way, baby.

Lest you think my misogyny is showing, I was reminded of this yesterday when I got a call from a guy I know who lives in Manhattan, and who is himself a walking billboard for vanity run amok. I've found him to be a pretty good source on certain topics over the years, but beyond that, I also find him to be a shallow, self-seeking scumbag, which is why I don't mind saying that if he recognizes himself in this and tells me to go sit and spin, as we used to say in Flatbush, I could care less. The particular subject of his ire yesterday was Walmart,** or more precisely, the people who shop there. In the course of an unprovoked five-minute tirade, he basically portrayed Walmart shoppers as fat, illiterate lowlifes: trailer-trash ignoramuses who despoil the visual landscape by dressing in no-name rags, buy generic everything, divide their weekends between listening to Travis Tritt and watching Nascar, and shoot themselves in the foot election after election by voting Republican, something they do simply because Republicans—I'm quoting him, now—"hate blacks and gays." He concluded his dissertation by observing that the average Walmart shopper "is the kind of person who, if you look on their dresser, every bottle of cologne is called 'If you like...' " And he laughed at that, quite pleased with himself.

The way things are going, I may never get a deal to write that book on vanity the way I'd hoped to write it. (And I won't write it unless I'm allowed to write it the way I'd hoped to write it.) Regardless, I do have this little ol' blog, and I'm vowing here and now to take a stand on these matters whenever they come up. And in that spirit, I hereby offer a new affirmation for you smug, sophisticated types to repeat in your mirror each morning: "Yes, it's great to be me! I like to shop amid 'ambience' and therefore pay an outrageous mark-up for everything I buy, including the simplest staples of daily life like bathroom tissue and hand soap! I like to accouter myself in hats and scarves that were made at the very same factory in Indonesia as the ones in discount stores but cost four times as much! It makes me proud to know that I cheerfully pay obscene sums for clothing that advertises someone else's name, or trendy high-tech gadgets that no one needs in the first place, or that I drive a car that set me back six figures but can't corner or even stop as well as my neighbor's 20-year-old Z-car! It soothes me to know that when I check the time, it's on a watch whose value could feed, clothe and house 1,000 kids in Darfur! Or that I'll pony up whatever it costs to douse myself with perfume named after a rock star who can't sing or a socialite whose main claim to fame is that she's good at oral sex, or even a Major League shortstop—a freakin' shortstop! Yes indeed, it's great to be me...!"

* Which often goes nowadays simply by the name "Ross," perhaps because of some of the very issues noted here.
** Yes, I know that some people have other gripes with Walmart, and ironically, in a way, for reasons related to some of those cited here. But that's another column. I'm not "defending" Walmart, per se, so much as I'm attacking the mindset of people like the two individuals quoted here.


Cosmic Connie said...

I generally avoid shopping at Wal-Mart or Sam's, but only because of the way they treat their employees. I like to delude myself that I have a social conscience. :-) But I love Costco, the 99 Cent Only stores, and Dollar General. My favorite footwear is a 99-cent pair of flip-flops. Yet I'm still vain, narcissistic, and self-centered. I guess I'm the worst of both worlds -- cheap and vain.

a/good/lysstener said...

Are you kidding me? Walmart ROCKS!

And if I were going to smell like someone, it wouldn't be a shortstop. THough I must admit, the boy is very cute (she says, sounding about as girlie as a girl can sound).

Steve Salerno said...

By the way, I know there about 9 different spellings commonly (or variously) used to denote reference to Walmart/Wal-mart/Wal*Mart. I couldn't be bothered with all that; just spelled it right out.

In fact, from now on I'm spelling Sam's Club "Samzklb."

Greg M. said...

I think you go more than a little bit overboard here, Steve, especially in the contempt you appear to have for people who aspire to anything beyond mere subsistence-level living. I suppose there are many flaws one could find in consumer culture, but this diatribe of yours seems to allow no room at all for upward mobility (which is not a sin! Isn't striving what America is all about?) By your own logic, what is a person to do? Live in the most minimal circumstances he possibly can in order to share all of his wealth over and above that with others? Wear the cheapest hand-me-downs he or she can so as not to be accused of being wasteful?

The problem with all arguments like this is they reduce to individual perceptions of what constitutes "excess". I couldn't help noticing a few posts back that you ran photos of your car after hitting a deer. It looked to be a very nice car, probably bought new within the past few years, and likely with a sticker price of at least thirty grand. Why did you feel that you were personally entitled to that car and not a Toyota hybrid? And it would have to be a used hybrid at that. Or why not just ride a bike?

People who live in glass houses and all that, you know...

Steve Salerno said...

There's much more that I could say in response than what I'm going to say here (as I'm hoping that others will weigh in). And I'm not disputing that your points have some merit. However, Greg, I think you misinterpret the primary focus of my post, which was not so much on the waste, per se, as on the smug and superior attitude of people who consider themselves oh-so-sophisticated and "above" the rest of us. They assault us with the cost and overall ostentatiousness of their purchases and possessions; that is how they separate themselves from the rest of humankind and show themselves to be of "superior breeding." That is, indeed, how they rate and rank people. As per my "friend's" vile comments about Walmart shoppers. Often a person in this category buys things specifically because those things are expensive; such possessions have little or no intrinsic value to the person, beyond their value as status symbols. My Nissan is not a cheap car (though hardly an expensive one these days), but I bought it for its capabilities: It is a solid, reliable car that "does everything well," for want of a more intelligent-sounding phrase. (It can even survive deer attacks.) I certainly did not buy it as a way of broadcasting my superiority over my neighbors! That's a pretty laughable notion, actually, when you're talking about a Nissan Maxima.

The mindset to which I refer in the post--the apparent scorn some folks have for others who don't (or can't) live the kind of conspicuously consuming life they lead--is what I'm primarily commenting on here.

Lana said...

Everyone has a healthy need for status and personal self-worth. It is expressed in many different ways -- some prefer material status symbols, others like to vaunt their level of spirituality or humility (We're just poor church mice), others through their job titles (doctor, lawyer, investigative journalist). And, of course, everything falls on a continuum.

Personally, I don't like going to Wal-Mart. Most of the clientele are scary -- at least in the stores I've been in. I lived in a town where a new super Wal-Mart was built, and within three weeks the store was very dirty and damaged. The Wal-Mart in the upscale town where I live now has a problem with muggings and carjackings. Most of the criminals live in a nearby town known for its lower-income lifestyle.

I don't think of myself as superior to others -- I just want to shop safely in a nice environment. And I'll pay extra to do so. I would also "fight" to keep such stores out of my nice neighborhood.

Steve Salerno said...

Interesting points, Lana. I knew this issue was more multifaceted than my post suggested, and I didn't mean to imply that anyone who preferred other stores to Walmart was, by definition, a classist pig. Regulars of this blog may have noticed by now that often, I take a more strident position in my posts than I later exhibit in comments. That isn't evidence of schizophrenia, really. (Although on the other hand, I guess it is. Wink.) Seriously, I go back and forth on many of these issues, as will anyone who considers all of the facts, I think. But in writing a blog item, I like to build a case for something and run it up the flagpole. I always expect dissent from reasonable people who refuse to salute.

Mary Anne said...

I understand what you are saying Steve, because I see this attitude a lot. Oddly enough, it does not ususally come from people who were born into wealth, but people who are "newly" rich. I am not materially wealthy, but I am highly educated and cultured. I work with children's organizations to bring children exposure to the arts and I see this attitude quite often. The art currators joke they could sell them blank canvases as long as they think it will make them look important and costs a lot of money. To me it relflects how insecure and sad these people are. Yes one may drive a Mercedes, but is that ALL the person is made of? The question becomes what is more valuable the person or the status symbol?

Cosmic Connie said...

Greg, there's a huge difference between aspiring for something more than subsistence-level living, and engaging in what used to be called conspicuous consumption. Besides, I've read that there are many millionaires and even some billionaires in the US who live considerably below their means. They still shop at discount stores and they still clip coupons. They're not misers; they're just frugal. Some of them even say that's one of the reasons they've been able to sustain their wealth; they don't throw their money around just because they can.

There's no reason to feel guilty about indulging in a few expensive toys or vacations if you have the money, no reason to live in a rat hole when you can afford a nice home, no reason to drive an old clunker if you can afford something new and nice. But there's no good reason to rub other people's noses in the fact that you're wealthy and they're not. In any case, I've never gotten the impression that Steve is trying to discourage upward mobility.

That said, I agree that Lana made some good points too. Some of the suburban Wal-Marts (and the surrounding neighborhoods) are pretty scary.

Anonymous said...

You don't want to smell like a shortstop? Damn! I wish I knew that before I bought you two bottles of "Scooter Rizzuto" for Christmas! Now what am I going to do with this stuff?

Anonymous said...

I think your buddy has confused being a snob with having high standards.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon--don't know if you're the same Anon both times--but I'll take your comments in order.

1. Scooter Rizzuto actually doesn't sound too bad, because the guy always looked pretty sharp and well-put-together, to me. (Before he died, that is.) I think the real turn-off, however, would have to be a men's fragrance called GIAMBI. I don't think I've ever seen the guy when he didn't have buckets of sweat dripping off his hair.

2. Well, but see, that's a matter of interpretation. And I'll give you a perfect example. Some folks would say that ownership of a Rolls-Royce automobile indicates "high standards." However, evaluated as a means of transport, the Rolls actually places well behind cars that cost less than a tenth as much. It doesn't handle all that well, especially in emergency maneuvers; it accelerates nicely, but no more so than the (newly repaired) Maxima that reposes in my garage; and the braking is nothing to write home about. So why do people pay $200,000 and up to own it? It has to be snob appeal. OK, it's got lots of nice rosewood accents, and a kick-ass sound system--but if I really wanted to, I could have the rosewood and the sound system added to my Maxima for another five grand, tops. So what's the other $175,000 for, if not to say to the world, "Look at me, world! I can afford a $200,000 car!"

Lana Walker-Helmuth said...

Steve wrote: "So what's the other $175,000 for, if not to say to the world, 'Look at me, world! I can afford a $200,000 car!'"

My point exactly about how such people use expensive material possessions to get their innate need for status met. But isn't this a matter of relativity? How many of us buy things based purely on an item's functionality?

I think we'll always have to deal with the question of balance -- when is enough enough. Some people's appetite for status-through-certain-possessions is insatiable. On the other hand, the U.S. economy runs on creating stuff we don't really need. As long as the world can sustain the creation of these goods without harm, then there shouldn't be a problem, right? (I do believe there's a problem with this high consumption -- I'm just asking to make a point.)

Okay, I might have gotten off-point here! I tend to think in terms of how status-seeking, materialism, superiority, and so forth affects us individually and globally.