Daily Archives: January 22, 2007

Night at the Supercenter

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I’m not sure how the conversation started, but I do know what it was about. It was the undisputed subject du jour all over campus. Our small college town had just acquired its very own glowing beacon of capitalistic perfection—a Wal-Mart Supercenter. It had everything we had come to expect from Wal-Mart—bedding, light bulbs, toilet paper, duct tape, underwear—plus food! And as if that weren’t enough, this glorious fount of all-the-stuff-you-could-ever-need was open 24 hours a day!

That got us thinking, my friend Sheila and me. Everyone’s familiar with the Wal-Mart Time Rift. You run in for five minutes to pick up a 12-pack of Coke, and before you know it, it’s two and a half hours later and you’re standing next to your car with a basket full of merchandise and a receipt for three hundred dollars, shaking the fog out of your head and wondering what hit you.

“How long,” one of us wondered aloud (and I really don’t, after all this time, remember who), “is the longest someone has ever stayed at Wal-Mart?” Could a person spend four hours shopping there? Six? Ten?

What happened next is a little bit fuzzy, but I attribute it to typical college sleep-deprivation and the presence of an admiring audience. Somehow, Sheila and I hatched a plan to set the Searcy, Arkansas Wal-Mart Endurance Record. We would be the first (and maybe only) ever people to spend a solid twenty-four hours in the Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Being students, and in the habit of extensive documentation, we wrote it up as a proposal, including the starting and ending times, objectives we wanted to accomplish, and activities we could do to help us pass the time. Our friends, who were gathered around our table in the student center, alternated between clucking in disbelief and excitedly contributing ideas to our plan. With a date set and an agenda in hand, we agreed to meet in the Wal-Mart parking lot that Friday afternoon and walk in together to meet our destiny. (Insert inspiring music score here.)

Next comes the only part of the story I’m a little embarrassed about. You see, I’m usually a rule-follower. And rules were in ample supply at our conservative, Christian university. They weren’t generally oppressive, but one of them definitely stood in our way as Sheila and I reached out to achieve greatness: the midnight curfew. So I did something I had never done before. I signed out of the dorm to spend the night at a friend’s house, and somehow I ended up at Wal-Mart instead.

Here are just a few of the things from our Supercenter marathon To Do List:

*Fashion Show—Within a time limit, assemble the most mismatched, garishly hideous outfit imaginable (with accessories) and go to the dressing room to try it on. Model your creations. Take pictures.

*Scavenger Hunt—Hide slips of paper with clues written on them leading hither and yon across the store (between stacked muffin pans, inside the pocket of a jacket, or under a flower pot, for example) and send your partner off to find the item at the end of the clue trail. If she finds it, you have to buy it for her.

*Basket Relay—Fill a basket with ten assorted items of merchandise from all over the store. Your partner must find the proper place for each item and replace it where it goes before running back to the starting line. Switch. The person with the fastest time wins.

Sheila and I kept running journals of our adventure, and whenever we bumped into someone we knew, we explained what we were doing and had them sign our guest log. The comments ranged from “You two are crazy and clearly headed for a life of dubious outcome” to “This sounds like so much fun and you had better invite me next time!” Before long, friends were going back to campus and actually sending people to see us. I was starting to feel like a monkey in the zoo, but I am nothing if not a glutton for bananas. The star entry in my own guest log came from one of my professors, who stopped by way after curfew and signed in with a shake of her head and a conspiratorial wink.

When we were hungry, we bought food. When we got cold, we bought sweaters. When, in the wee hours of the dawn, we felt grubby and tired, we bought toothbrushes and washcloths and performed our morning ablutions over the white porcelain sink in the bathroom. Everything we needed was on hand, and we filled our minutes and hours easily, sitting and talking in the café, hiding from the Pine-Sol Zamboni, chatting with the night stockboys, and prowling unnoticed through the alleys and streets of our tiny kingdom.

Well, mostly unnoticed. There were a few close calls.

Once, in the middle of our scavenger hunt, a man came up to us and flashed a badge, explaining that he was an undercover policeman, hired by Wal-Mart to stop a rash of thefts. We must have looked panicked, because in the next breath he assured us that he could tell we weren’t stealing anything. What he wanted to know was what in the world we were doing. Relieved, we explained the scavenger hunt game (leaving out the part about spending the night in the store), and left him chuckling, I’m sure, about the foolishness of the young.

The only other censure came from the Wal-Mart employees themselves. We had brought in cameras to document the ensuing hilarity, and document we did. We took pictures of ourselves in all manner of poses—wrapped in life vests and carrying paddles from the sporting goods department while we pretended to shoot rapids, curled up “asleep” on the shelf between all the bed-in-a-bag sets, wearing lampshades on our heads—and we figured it would be the perfect capper on our self-contained adventure to have the photos printed at Wal-Mart’s very own One Hour Photo developer.

Not a good idea.

An hour after we dropped off the film, a voice on the intercom called us to the front. When we got there, we knew something was wrong. Fanning out the pictures of Sheila and I making free with the in-house environment, like a tough cop displaying the incriminating murder weapon to a suspect, a stern-faced employee explained that there was some rule against taking photos in the store (who knew?) and asked us to please leave.

Dilemma! It was only about nine-o’clock in the morning, and we still had several hours to go on our Wal-Mart marathon. After a quick huddle, we decided that, given the circumstances, adjourning to the parking lot would not affect the outcome of our challenge, since it was still, technically, part of the Wal-Mart grounds. We hung out for a couple of hours in Sheila’s car, and then snuck back inside and lost ourselves in the growing Saturday crowd.

You probably know the rest. We achieved our objective, lived to show our journals and pictures (which the Wal-Mart sentinels of corporate espionage did allow us to keep) to our friends, and the whole episode went down in our personal histories as a remarkable, if weird, college stunt.

Am I glad we did it? Yes. It stands out in my mind as a manifestation of the spontaneity and spirit of exploration that marked that unique time in my life.

Would I do it again? No. Because no matter how many times I washed them, the clothes I wore that night forever after retained a certain Wal-Mart-y smell. That’s a high price to pay for adventure.