“I’m going to ask you a question,” the man behind the counter announces to the two teenage girls who are waiting for their coffees, both in pink sweatpants and winter coats. “What came first – the chicken or the egg?”
The girls look at each other awkwardly, clearly eager to get their mocha Coolattas without answering age-old philosophical questions. One shrugs at him, scuffing a foot absentmindedly against the grimy linoleum tiles. A few feet away, a Statue of Liberty replica, cartoonish and blue, demarcates the tiles of the Dunkin Donuts outpost from its Walmart host.
“Well, that’s okay if you don’t know. When Dartmouth guys come in they get it wrong with their fancy Ivy League educations, but you know, they’re dumber than a box of rocks,” he says, looking expectantly at the girls, who crack a smile but still don’t say a word.
“Well, for the next time someone asks you, the answer is the egg,” he says, handing them their coffees and lingering at the counter. He ignores the growing line of customers before the register to fix his attention on the girls as if waiting for them to ask why. But they take their coffees and walk away, striding into the Walmart proper.
If the apocalypse or a natural disaster were impending, it’s easy to imagine that the Walmart would become something of a Noah’s Ark for this rural New Hampshire town. Among the rows of strip malls that offer liquor stores and thrift shops, the Walmart is comfortingly enormous. The megastore might not have two of every animal, but it surely has a menagerie of plastics – piles of colored umbrellas, single-serving microwavable macaroni and cheese cups, mistinted paint at a deep discount, holiday lights, kitty litter, three-dollar wine, blowing bubbles, 31-inch Darth Vader figurines, instant coffee, guns, DVDs, power saws, neon yellow sweaters. If you set yourself up in here, you’d have the supplies to eat, entertain the kids, redecorate the aisles to have a certain homey feel, and shoot any zombies or wild animals threatening to bust pass the automatic sliding doors. You could even use the adhesive in the arts and craft section to decorate the check-out area with severed heads: the American goal of rustic individualism finally realized in a post-apocalyptic Walmart.
The man behind the Dunkin Donuts counter has long, brownish-gray hair that is matted and curly, vaguely biblical. Set against his brown hat, brown apron and brown sweatshirt, his bright blue eyes are startling. He drills them into each customer, who comes for a coffee but get trivia on the side. He’s a walking, constantly-talking encyclopedia: a Walmart sage.
To each customer who asks for Splenda: “Did you know that this stuff was originally used as an organic pesticide for soybeans? It’s true, but you’ll never hear it from them.”
The customers never change their orders, but they shift their weight around and look vaguely uncomfortable. “No, I didn’t know that,” they all say.
To the customers who give him change: “Did you know that over 4 billion dollars of pennies are thrown away every year? They’re saying by the end of the year, they’ll get rid of the penny.”
Unaccompanied children are peppered with historical facts: “Did you know that the Constitution was written on hemp paper?” “Did you know that you shouldn’t say ‘holy cow’ because the cow is holy to Indians and the Hebrews?”
Though the customers tend to be teenagers or women, the occasional man – likely clad in hunting camo – stops by to order a small coffee, black. You can tell he takes a different tone with these weary, laconic men, as if he’s been saving the real trivia for them.
“Did you know that in the next ten years, we’ll double our deficit?” he preaches. “We’re giving up all our money to China, and we’ll never pay it back. It’s pretty ridiculous, man: they’re trying to bring on the New World Order, set everyone back to zero. Did you know that every president we’ve ever had is related to the Queen of England?”
The customer, standing next to the small American flag planted on the counter, shakes his head forlornly. “Man, I didn’t know that.”
“They train kids to be president. Not just anyone off the street can be president, even if you are smarter than them…here’s your coffee. You have a wonderful day.”
The man thanks him and moves on to his shopping. Maybe he grabs an extra case of bottled water on his way out.
The incredible part about this megastore wiseman is that all of his trivia is false – the sort of urban legends that zing around the internet from spam folder to Facebook to chat forums to more spam folders, eventually settling into scores of American brains. This man is the reason why Snopes was invented: to clarify that the Constitution was written on parchment, not hemp, that only $1.2 million of pennies are thrown away every year, that Splenda has never been used as a commercial pesticide. But what is a fact-checking website compared to the solidity of human certainty?
In this world, where a dumb-as-rocks Dartmouth student might become president because he was hand-picked as a child, the Walmart offers certain unalienable rights. There is freedom in the unlimited aisles of stuff, in the cheap prices that leave enough change in a wallet for a coffee. Here, there is dignity in being able to afford what you need, and even what you want. In this rural New Hampshire town, far from any center of power or influence, what’s real is what’s here: the scores of families, most in sweatshirts or camo, scraping by at the Walmart. With 11,000 stores in 27 countries and 2.2 million employees, it’s an American empire for the disenfranchised.
The handful of young men and women in expensive parkas or Dartmouth apparel stand out awkwardly, clearly out of their element as they search for a cheap pair of shoes to wear out to fraternity parties. They will hurry back to Hanover a few miles away, where coffee is never packaged in Styrofoam cups. Their peers become senators and CEOs, who set minimum wages, legislate gun control, and bicker about unemployment benefits. After graduating, these students will shop at Target, not Walmart.
The man behind the counter is deep in a similar politics lesson with another man who requested a plain coffee, a little Splenda. “Pretty soon, they’ll put barcodes on our arms. They’re all in on it,” he says.
The customer nods knowingly. “The big man ain’t on our side.”