I was leaving Wal-Mart the other day with my son when he suddenly ducked into the little arcade at the front of the store devoted to a series of broken down video games, mechanical rides, and “win a prize” machines. I parked our cart in the brightly lit area and watched him move gleefully from game to game, poking inert buttons and reading the hyperbolic promises of great toys and “Fun, Fun, Fun!” to all foolish enough to drop their quarters into these little money traps.
I don’t like Wal-Mart. At least not my local Wal-Mart, where the white-haired greeter at the door doesn’t smile at customers so much as she assesses them with a vaguely churchlike air of judgment. I go about once a month, generally on a weekday morning, to pick up the sorts of cleaning supplies and such that Wal-Marts discounts to a degree I struggle to ignore in spite of my (undoubtedly liberal) misgivings about how Wal-Mart achieves those savings they so happily pass on to me.
Where I live about a third of the Wal-Mart employees are Bosnian refugees. Those I’ve talked to never seem particularly happy, but neither do they seem angry or upset. They’re just tired people stocking shelves with a kind of eastern European resignation—there’s going to be an unavoidable degree of unpleasantness in life, which you endure.
Based, I’m sure, on the time at which I happen to shop there, my mental stereotype of a Wal-Mart customer falls into one of two categories. Category One is a sullen-looking, heavyset man or woman wearing sweatpants who rolls a heavily laden cart slowly through the aisles with a distracted air. Category Two is a slow-moving, dour elderly woman who looks somewhat suspiciously at me and my son and never smiles at him no matter what he says or does.
(I should confess a strongly ingrained bias I have against old people who seem to dislike children—I don’t trust them. I have no problem with people choosing not to have kids of their own. I can even understand younger people—into their forties, say—being nervous and uncomfortable around children. At that age, if you don’t want to be a parent but could easily end up becoming one without certain precautions, the presence of children is perhaps an uneasy reminder of what might be. But when you’re in your sixties and older, if a cute child can’t make you smile, I get uncomfortable. At that age kids should represent fond memories, hope for the future, or just a certain innocence. If they make you scowl or turn away, there is something bitter in your mindset that I can feel on my skin like the taste of sour fruit on my tongue. There might be perfectly good and unhappy reasons for that sort of reaction, but it comes across to me as a warning sign.)
Given that my local Wal-Mart seems like such a sanitized and methodical place patronized and staffed by people who all look like they would rather be somewhere else, the presence of the little arcade throws me. I’ve never seen anyone in there playing any of the games. The video games are old and seem to cater to a specific mindset: there’s a deer hunting game, a bass fishing game, and a Nascar racing game. I feel a bit like I'm back in Texas just standing next to them.
The sole exception is some odd contraption called the Batcave, a big plastic rock just large enough for a small kid to climb into and face what might be a video screen. I can’t tell from the controls—a lever and a series of big colored buttons—whether this machine is a game or a ride of some sort. Aside from the video games (and the Batcave of uncertain purpose) you’ve got a little car you can sit in that will bounce around, a horse that does much the same thing, and a very small metal merry-go-round filled with metal animals that look very uncomfortable to sit on. Then there are the games like the Claw and a couple other oddities where you’ve got to grab, push off, or knock down some crappy prize that you can then break on the way back to the car.
I grasp the idea of putting old games in a store on the off chance that some bored child or even more bored adult will waste 50 cents or more. I have a hard time figuring out how much profit you can actually make if you have to pay the store for the right to put the games there, though this might explain the price gauging on the cost of the games themselves. (I’m old enough that the idea of paying 50 cents to play outdated games that are exactly the same as games I played for 25 cents as a kid repels me.)
It’s the addition of the prize games and the rides that disorients me a bit. Because taken all together they give this little brightly lit, linoleum-floored arcade the feel of a disheveled carnival midway dropped down in the midst of a hyper-efficient, soulless megastore. The dirtiest things in the arcade are the games themselves, which need polishing, wiping, and general repair.
It’s as though someone at corporate headquarters saw the ease with which the carnival operators separate people from their money in exchange for “prizes” that are worth, monetarily at least, no more than the cost to play the game. Why not set up the same operation at the Wal-Mart, which after all within a certain price range aims to be all things to all people ?
But those of you who have been to a carnival know that you’re not paying for the prizes. You’re paying for the experience of being at the carnival, of being smooth-talked by some carnie guy or gal who can push your buttons even though you both know they’re full of crap. You’re paying for the possibility of winning and in doing so impressing the other rubes passing by, perhaps luring them to their almost certain failure at something you were lucky or skilled enough to succeed at.
I won a huge stuffed bear at a carnival for a girlfriend of mine when I was in college. I did it by making two baskets in two tries shooting slightly lopsided basketballs at a hoop that was tilted, fifteen feet away, and a good foot higher than a regulation basket. The bear looked nice but quickly fell apart. But I still remember the feeling of achievement at hitting those baskets, in part because I watched about five other people miss all their shots before I figured out how I needed to shoot the ball to have a chance of making it. (For those keeping score, I shot with a very high arc, a lot of backspin, and intentionally banked both shots in. Yeah, like you cared to know.)
Who is going to watch you win or lose at the Wal-Mart? There is never anybody else around in the little arcade. Certainly nobody to try to sell you on the idea that beating any of the games will mark you as a winner. The games themselves are ancient and in poor repair. The rides are a rip-off even by the admittedly low standards of such rides, because they are so short, not to mention sized for a generation of American children in the age before childhood obesity became an issue of concern.
It’s as though the little arcade is a half-hearted gesture, a token symbol that Wal-Mart is a fun place. But placing the little piece of the carnival in the middle of the megacorporation machine just strips away the veneer of style and mystery that makes the carnival itself bearable. What’s left is the grubby reality behind the curtain, which is a simple attempt to separate suckers from their money as efficiently as possible. It's not just the loss of magic--it's the sense that nobody saw that the magic was there in the first place. They don't even know it's gone.
I dutifully put my son on top of the horse and rocked it back and forth a bit. I let him explore the cramped confines of the Batcave and told him we would not be playing the Claw game. Then we went home and I took him to the park, where for free he rode on a springy little duck and rode a big slide. The nice thing about being a kid is that you can transfer your enthusiasm from one topic to another with greater ease than an adult. I hope that magic lasts as long for him and my daughter as possible. Because I will know when it is gone.