Welcome to Wal-Mart

The vast majority of the world in which we live is invisible, I believe. Every object around us was initially conceived and shaped by an unseen complex of synaptic connections in someone’s mind, and nearly every conversation we conduct is guided not so much by the words we speak but by the vast stretch of words we don’t allow ourselves to speak. Everyone we pass by on a sidewalk contains years into decades of memories, feelings and beliefs to which we have no easy access. And for all of us, the past is not some distant country but our next-door neighbor, and an incident from, say, fifteen years ago is the secret force behind a sudden anger or a tender gesture, like the dark matter of the universe tugging at stars.

Perhaps that’s why I still enjoy paging through Studs Terkel’s Working, originally published in 1974. For this book Terkel interviewed a wide range of people about their jobs, what a working day was like for a strip miner, a dentist, a book binder, a piano tuner, a jazz musician, and so on. One of my favorite entries features a hockey player, Eric Nesterenko, who once played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Chicago Black Hawks.

Now, hockey is not my game. Whenever I watch I can never follow the damn puck, can only glean its existence by the shifting strategies of the players on the ice. The entire experience feels to me like trying to find a tiny Waldo who’s traveling at warp speed. But reading Nesterenko’s description of what it’s like to hurtle across the ice, I’m willing to reconsider:

“You can wheel and dive and turn, you can lay yourself into impossible angles you never could walking or running. You lay yourself at a forty-five degree angle, your elbows virtually touching the ice as you’re in a turn. Incredible!”

And another point, Nesterenko describes a favorite photo of him playing in a game, and here he shifts from angles and diving to the poetry of the world within:

“I’m leaning into a turn. You pick up the centrifugal forces and you lay in it. For a few seconds, like a gyroscope, they support you. I’m in full flight and my head is turned. I’m concentrating on something and I’m grinning. That’s the way I like to picture myself. I’m something else there. I’m on another level of existence, just being in pure motion. Going wherever I want to go, whenever I want to go. That’s nice, you know. (Laughs softly.)”

Inspired by Working, in 2000 a set of editors released a book that served as an homage and update of Terkel’s book: Gig, Americans Talk About Their Jobs. The folks here include a crime scene cleaner, a video game designer, a plastic surgeon, and a flight attendant (who offers a hilarious account of a flying hamburger). Again, I have my favorite, the very first entry: a Wal-Mart greeter.

I suppose we’ve all walked past a greeter while on the way to our desired shopping experience, and perhaps we’ve all, to be honest, felt a little tug of contempt for the person standing there in that dead-end job, welcoming us as if we were long-lost friends. Well, no longer for me. Because after reading Jim Churchman’s account of his job, I can see past the goofy uniform:

“I guess they gave me the greeter job because they like the way I deal with people. At Wal-Mart, they observe how you work with everybody, even when you’re just stocking or pulling freight. They look to see if you have people skills, to see if you like people.

“And I do like people. I’m a retired educator, I worked as a schoolteacher and principal for a long time and I guess I’m good with folks. I taught school in University City, Missouri—that’s a suburb of St. Louis County—and lots of other places in Missouri and Illinois. I started off in a self-contained classroom and then I went on to become a principal. I got my master’s and then my doctorate in education and I taught fifth and sixth grade for a long time. I liked that a lot. I like kids that age. They’re still pretty nice and don’t know everything yet. I like this job a lot, too.”

If you had given me a typewriter and all eternity, I never would have written the words “Ph.D.” and “Wal-Mart greeter” together. Probably because my imagination is no match for the vast store of secrets the invisible world contains. And Churchman’s surprises don’t stop there. His wife is fighting cancer, and so he keeps his hours to a half day; he plays the guitar, and at times, some of his fellow Wal-Mart colleagues who are also musicians converge at his home for a jam session.

We feel the pull of dark matter’s gravity, and we contain dark matter ourselves, and even a Wal-Mart greeter, with the proper nudge, can alter what we too easily assume about a stranger, even as we head, distracted, for the aisle where a suspiciously inexpensive blouse or baseball glove or table cloth awaits us.

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  • 6 Comments

    1. Michelle says:

      “A group of editors”: the once-legendary, long-defunct, Word.com web magazine doesn’t even warrant naming in 2010. So sad! “Gig” started as a recurring feature there. I always loved it, so I bought the book when it came out, and that’s how I found out about “Working,” and on from there to the rest of Studs Terkel, who I don’t think ever produced a book not worth reading. Thanks for the little walk down memory lane.

    2. Emma J says:

      Thanks for this – – elucidation of the dark matter. I’ve just discovered your blog through Brevity’s link to the Oranges post. And am glad.

    3. admin says:

      Thanks, Emma. And happy biking . . .

    4. Jason says:

      You’ve provided me with a great perspective on viewing occupations. while I can relate as a high school teacher who came to love a hated job, your inclusion of a hockey player really helped me to see past the job title and look into the character of a person.

      What Nesterenko said about is hockey is true. People often see the sport as savagery because all that is ever highlighted is the fighting and teeth-shattering body check. Yes, the game is physical; and yes, the fighting and checking accurately exemplify the raw emotion that makes hockey entertaining to watch and play. But until you’ve actually played the game – even at a recreational level – one can never appreciate the grace and kinetic poetry that goes into the sport. Being able to (briefly) defy gravity, shift directions in a near instantaneous reflex, transition from forward to backward to forward seamlessly, and to hurl a one-inch by three-and-half inch disc of galvanized rubber through the tiniest of holes for a goal or a sweet pass – it’s unlike anything else. It’s a ballet, only way more manly and with less teeth.

      Sorry to ramble, but I guess that’s what happens when you give a hockey player the ability to convey thoughts into words. I enjoy your writing, and I plan to visit your site more often.

    5. admin says:

      Thanks, Jason, you out-Nesterenko Nesterenko here!
      And I hope you have more teeth than you imply.

    6. Marian Swank says:

      I do not typically give feed-back, though actually do love your website – so kudos for posting and also have a fantastic morning

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