I was one of many who got hooked by the first buzz of socially conscious documentaries that hit the Netflix scene some years ago, you know, the ones telling Americans about the destruction caused by supporting monopolies and mindless consumerism. The films detail the perils of fast fashion, globalization, unhealthy eating, unethical trade, and downward spiraling economies that we enable every time we break bread with big business. The problem is, my socially conscious mind has needs that stretch beyond my pockets’ capabilities.
I’ve spent many shopping trips stretching my coins at places like Whole Foods; wrapping my dollar around small jars of foods that promised to be good for me while benefiting the principled business who created them. I’d grab my two brown paper bags by their handles and try not to notice the bareness of the bags stuffed with a week’s pay. I’d hold my head high and glide through sliding doors, right past the suburban moms who were trying their best not to stare at me, while I tried not to notice. I wanted to feel like I belonged to the group that drew the line on who was good enough and privileged enough to deserve better things and it wasn’t working.
I thought that an experience at Whole Foods, or a store of similar ilk, was to be earned, if you were there it meant you had read enough, and earned enough to know that you should be there. That you belonged there. Being there said things about you. I pretended that it didn’t hurt to spend six dollars on a small loaf of frozen bread, smiling at the price cards as if I wasn’t formulating ways to lengthen my coin and shrink our stomachs to make this measly meal last for my family, until my next paycheck. Keep in mind, I make far above minimum wage, I have a big girl job, yet food and daily living items that can be purchased with integrity and at a good price remained a concern.
One day, out of exhaustion of putting up the good fight, I resolved after years of avoiding it, to making a quick stop into the place of blue uniforms and yellow smiley faces; Walmart. I was tired of the creativity it took to be working class and healthy in both body and morality.
Fair trade, fair wage, environmentalism, and racism seemed cavil when hungry and on a budget.
Immediately upon entering Walmart I could feel the warmth and heaviness of the air created by the friction of pajama clothed bodies — rushing and wondering. Aisles were meeting capacity as eager Americans stomped and pushed full carts down deal ridden rows. Their eyes were like machines scanning and swiping shelves for deals, pausing near yellow smiley faces that promised roll-backs. For a moment the consumers’ tinge of worry is replaced by the endorphin release of finding a steal. Survival is now a pleasure deriving activity. The game of spending the least money and sporting the most shit is the competitive sport. This place is where poor people stunt on each other.
I said an overly healthy amount of ‘excuse me’ as I shuffled my cart and my kids by crowds of folks without stepping on any feet. I slid by mothers with buggies full of children; the stress of carrying the children — financially and gestation-ally — weighed visibly on the women.
I headed to the cash register to check out. It’s a race to the shortest line. A competitive sport. I passed workers whose blue and khaki fits blurred as I increased speed. I took in the club like feel of it all, while some employees moved quickly, others moved sluggishly, diverting eye contact hoping the less questions asked the less that’ll have to be answered. We all wanted to go home.
I stand in line, searching for things to think about. I wondered how the employees felt to have their wage amount advertised out front on big boards that are meant to welcome new employees to the plantation. Plastered wildly by the entrance, “Hiring Now, Starting at $12 an hour,” do they care about privacy? A quick thought.
As I stood, I held close to me the desire to feel above the fray, with a partial smile hanging from my glossed lips I take in the egregiousness of it all. Children weep in response to yelling parents that appear to have no other place to release their pain, what better place to exert rage than on the smallest versions of yourself? My attention is pulled to my own children, I see the mold-ability shining in their faces as they tug on the hem of my shirt, begging me to buy them a bit of everything they see that is strategically lining the check-out lane. Candies and toys promised to bring joy for a small fee. I without shame tell them no. “Do not let the knick-knack racks keep you company.” I said as we shuffled forward to the register.
There is controversy in the survival of an American. Not many outside of Americans understand what it means to be both poor and rich at once. Documentaries dedicated to spreading awareness continue to bubble and urge us to do better. Judgement from those who can afford better continues to be caste. Yet, the powerhouse businesses still eat on the desperation of the working class that can’t be weaned off the tit of dirt cheap goods. The clothes. The food. The home goods. The tools. The entertainment. The lifestyle items. All in one place begging everyone to compromise. Begging you to do what’s easiest for you and your family.
I compromise from time to time, I admit. Yet still I encourage my peers to shop with ethical businesses, my arguments are often quieted during these spirited conversations of where to spend our dollar because I am cloaked in a portion of the destruction we discuss. I’m aware of the hypocrisy and I am always exploring that in its fullness. It’s a struggle every day to bite the hand that feeds me.