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Voices of the Walmart

There are eight million stories in a city. How many are there at Walmart? Random telephone calls made to hear about life inside.

Roger Kizik, Half and Half, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Dedee Shattuck Gallery, Westport, Mass.

Every Walmart in America answers the phone with the same woman’s voice. It is a slow and emphatic and tired-sounding voice: the voice of a mother being firm to her child. She does not say hello. What she does is very patiently thank you for calling Walmart. Then there are no more than three short rings, followed by the voice of the operator.

This new voice is precisely the opposite to the last: fast-talking, alive, often ornery and difficult to understand. This person’s job is maybe the most stressful out of anyone in Walmart. After all, the phone operator receives and directs every call in what is an enormous complex made up of a dozen different departments. Any given Walmart Supercenter—America has 3,421 of them, as of February 2015—takes up about 182,000 square feet, and sells everything from shotguns to prescription medicine to freshly baked bread.

In this way, however you may feel about late capitalism and suburban sprawl, one can imagine Walmart as a kind of reconfiguration of small-town commerce: the old idea of a walkable Main Street, collapsed and recast like a tent. 

Walmart currently employs around 1.3 million people in the United States, or about one percent of the total working population. They say there are eight million stories in a city. How many are there at Walmart?

 

Last week, an optician at the Walmart Vision Center in Midland, Texas, got into an argument with a customer about who was next in line. “There was lots of people that day. It was hectic,” Joe Cavasso, 26, who’s worked at the Vision Center for three years, tells me. “Then this wild-eyed guy storms up and says I skipped over him—deliberately. Starts yelling in my face and stuff.” 

“Are the waits usually that long?” I ask.

“Yeah, well, things have been a lot busier since the other Walmart closed.”

“The other Walmart?”

“The one on the good side of town. This is the one on the bad side of town. The other one closed last month. That’s probably the biggest news around here.”

Midland, which has a population of about 125,000, is in the Permian Basin of West Texas, surrounded by flat and arid desert. “It’s a big oil-field town,” Joe says about it. “Not much else going on.”

Joe explains that the official explanation for the closure of Midland’s other Walmart was unspecified “plumbing problems,” and that every employee at the store, without any notice, suddenly found themselves laid off. (In fact, four other Walmarts, in Texas, Oklahoma, California, and Florida, were all closed on the same day as the one in Midland, and that coincidence has led many to speculate about the actual reasons for the closures.) “That means we’re getting twice the business,” he says.

He proceeds to describe for me his alter ego, July Summers, speaking of her in the third person as though he’s got little control over her.

Joe has lived in Midland his entire life, and before getting his job at the Vision Center, he was a stocker in Walmart’s electronics section. “I’m also a performer,” he says.

What kind of performer?

Joe snaps his tongue and laughs, like I’ve caught him now and he might as well confess. “Yeah, I’m a drag performer,” he says, laughing. He proceeds to describe for me his alter ego, July Summers, speaking of her in the third person as though he’s got little control over her. “She’s not very conventional. She likes to do things differently. She’s known to not wear hair. She’s also worn Styrofoam pieces on her head. Also, 3D eyebrows, glitter in the beard.”

“Oh, she keeps the beard?”

“Sometimes she’ll shave it. Sometimes she won’t,” he says.

“Did you say she has 3D eyebrows?”

“Yeah, they’re made of scrap pieces of paper. You glue them on and they pop out of your face.”

“And so does she mainly dance?”

“Yeah, I mean, she kind of dances like a white girl,” Joe says. “But I guess if it makes people laugh, it’s working, right?”

“Do your coworkers know about this?”

“Oh, they know. Yeah, they’re great about it. How else would I get them to fill my shifts for me when I have to get ready for a show? My mother, though—she’s a different story.”

Joe explains that his mother is a very traditional Catholic. “My dad—he just pretends he doesn’t hear me when I talk about it. But around my mom I have to be careful. The thing she hates the most is that July is my real middle name. Oh, she hates that so much.”

Alas, Joe says, outside of the Zach’s club in Midland and the 20/20 club in Odessa, there aren’t many venues nearby for drag performers. “That’s why I’m getting out of here. I’m moving to Dallas as soon as I can.”

“That sounds kind of scary,” I say. “Leaving the place where you’ve lived forever.”

The line is silent for moment, then Joe takes a big breath. “Well, July is definitely ready for it,” he says with a laugh. “I guess we’ll see how I feel.”

 

On Friday in Prescott, Ariz., a customer came up to the Walmart Bakery to complain about the doughnuts being stale. “Yeah, he complains about something like every week. Real weirdo,” Wendy, the young woman who’s working the counter when I call, tells me. “Like, he actually wears a trenchcoat. I’m not making that part up. That’s weird, right?”

“Were the doughnuts stale?”

“No, they weren’t stale,” she says. “They’re just—from Walmart. What do you expect?”

Wendy would rather not give out her age, but by her voice and manner I’d guess she’s 19 at least. She’s worked at Walmart for about a year and a half, she says, but despite the occasional creepy customer she really enjoys it. “I really like decorating cakes,” she says. “I can’t help it.”

“I don’t expect to be here much longer. I’m ready to get out, do some traveling.”

What’s her favorite part about decorating cakes?

She starts telling me about a wedding cake she just finished before I called: white with blue and teal frosting. “And this morning I made a graduation cake,” she adds. “It was white with red frosting and said ‘Congrats Grads’ in blue. I think that’s my favorite part—the lettering. But it’s probably just because I used to be so bad at it.”

Wendy was born in Southern California, but her family moved to Prescott when she was just a baby. “My stepdad moved here to be a park ranger,” she explains. “But I don’t expect to be here much longer. I’m ready to get out, do some traveling.”

“Any idea where you’ll go?”

There’s a long pause before she answers. “Oh, anywhere,” she says, yawning.

“New York? Or back to California?” I prod her.

Another long pause. “Well, I need to save up some money first. Then I’ll decide.”

“Do you think you’ll want to go on being a baker after you leave?”

Wendy groans. “God, how should I know?” she snaps. “Hold on, I’ve got a customer.”

She hangs up.

 

On Saturday afternoon, the only cashier at the Walmart Tire and Lube in Richmond, Va., answers the phone with a low and begrudging, “Go ahead.” 

I explain my shtick about calling up people randomly, how I’d like to interview him if he has the time. There’s a pause where I imagine he’s looking out the window to see if any cars are out there in the parking lot, waiting to get their oil changed. “All right,” he says with a raspy voice. “You got two minutes.”

I give him my standard first question: How do you like your job?

“Oh, I love it,” he says readily.

“What do you love about it?”

“Everything.”

I try again. “Anything unusual happen lately in the store?”

“No.”

“I do love it here. I know everyone, and I know where everything is. Sometimes I think I live here.”

“No problems in the past week or so? Or maybe a funny story you might have told somebody?”

“There ain’t nothing unusual here. Everything is just peaceful and quiet.”

“Really?” I say, a little incredulous. “Nothing’s happened?”

The man makes a happy sound through his mouth—a kind of high whimper, like he’s just eaten a delicious treat. “No, sir,” he says. “I like it that way.”

I ask the man his name and age.

“Richard,” he says. “Seventy-two.”

Over the next several minutes, I’m able to coax Richard into admitting a few bare facts about himself: namely that he’s worked at Walmart since 1996, that he’s a retired postal carrier, and that he’s a widower with at least one grown daughter. Still, he refuses to elaborate on any of his previous answers, or for that matter use any sentence that’s longer than four or five words.

“Where was the post office that you used to work at?”

“New York. The Bronx,” he says.

“Wow. That must have been a big transition.”

“It was OK. It’s the same.”

“Living in the Bronx is the same as living in Richmond, Va.?”

“That’s right.”

“It’s not different in any way?”

“All right,” he says, exhaling. “It’s safer.”

“Safer how?”

“No bulletproof glass at the register. That’s nice. Not so noisy where I live. People keep to themselves.”

“Do you like keeping to yourself, Richard?”

He chuckles. “What, you can’t tell that by now?”

 

A blue pickup truck caught fire in the parking lot of a Walmart Supercenter last Tuesday in Statesboro, Ga. “I didn’t see it—I had to man the counter,” Teresa K., 52, tells me. “But a couple of the others from the pharmacy went out there to watch. There was a big fire engine and all that. Quite the show.”

Today, though, Teresa hasn’t noticed anything unusual. “I’ve just been filling these bottles with prescriptions, bagging them up,” she says. “Just any old day at Walmart.”

“Did they find out what started the fire?” I ask.

“Aw, it just overheated. No foul play or anything,” Teresa says, laughing.

“Do you remember the make of the truck?”

There’s a slight pause on Teresa’s end, as though she doesn’t quite follow me. “It was on fire,” she repeats slowly, leaving it at that.

Teresa has worked at the pharmacy in Walmart for nearly 20 years. She lives in nearby Brooklet—about eight miles east of Statesboro—where the rent is cheaper and every summer there’s a peanut festival with a local beauty pageant, a 5K run, and a competition to see whose tractor is the slowest. She moved there from Keokuk, Iowa, after her husband got a job at the Brunswick Bowling Company, working in a factory that made bowling balls. When the factory moved to another state, the young family had to improvise. “After that he sold insurance for a while. I did all kinds of jobs—babysitting, waitressing.”

For a non-native, Teresa sounds remarkably Southern to me: She says “Ah” instead of “I,” and she pronounces “fire” with one fond syllable. When I mention her accent, though, she denies that she has one. “Maybe it’s rubbed off a little from living here. But if you were from here, you probably wouldn’t be saying that.”

Does she like working at Walmart?

“Sure. Even more than my husband, I think,” she says.

“Wait. Your husband works at Walmart, too?”

“The night shift. He does maintenance overnight.” she says. “My son works here, too. He’s in the produce section.”

I ask her what that’s like, having so many people in her family work at the same place. Do they ever carpool or have lunch together?

“I’d like to say that we get to see each other a lot, but the truth is that this place is so big and our shifts are usually so different that we hardly ever do. My son comes over to visit about once a month these days—to the house, I mean, not the pharmacy. I don’t blame him, though. He’s got his own family to take care of now.”

I ask Teresa what she thinks her family would be doing if the Walmart in Statesboro had never opened.

“I don’t really think about that much,” she says. “I imagine life would just be different. There’d be other stores to work at. But I do love it here. I know everyone, and I know where everything is. Sometimes I think I live here.”

biopic

TMN editor Matt Ray Robison is a fellow at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. He lives in Ann Arbor. More by Matt Ray Robison