Second Thought: Wednesday, May 15, 2003
America’s Petri Dish

Happiness is a free paring knife.


I don’t often go to Wal-Mart. This is not because of snobbery on my part — their merchandise is affordable and as good as any other department store. I can even handle their mind-numbing, knee-jerk “patriotism.” But I hate giving my money to an organization that treats its employees (“associates”) so despicably. Among their sins: union-busting, shamefully low wage scales, and a policy that forbids paying overtime rates but makes working it virtually mandatory, even if it’s illegal.

Recently, however, I faced an automotive imperative: I badly needed a pair of pliers for some engine work, and Wal-Mart was the cheapest store open on a Sunday night. Pennies are something I have to count, because I am not paid a living wage, despite being one of the more experienced people in my department at work and also possessor of a bachelor’s degree.

So The Love Of My Life (heretofore referred to as TLOML) and I make the long, dreaded march to the Wal-Mart on Rufe Snow in North Richland Hills. It takes just a few minutes to locate the pliers, which are indeed very affordable, and the mandatory 12-pack of Vanilla Coke. I wonder if they’ve gone back to putting cocaine in Vanilla Coke, because everyone I know who likes it, loves it. They must have it, every day, in a big way.

We are about to make our escape when I hear the announcement over the P.A: All “guests” who can find a red booth at the corner of the boys’ wear section get a free paring knife. Free ... knife. I know there must be a catch, but we already happen to be at the corner of the boys’ wear section and can see, right before our eyes, a small podium, temporarily covered in red cloth, with a handwritten sign atop it: “This is the spot.”

“I want a knife!” I tell TLOML. He gives me a worried look, but assents.

We wait 10 minutes before an older-looking guy takes the podium and whips off the red cloth. Don’t worry, he assures us — we will all get our free paring knife in just a few minutes. But first — how many of us have seen one of these advertised on tv? He produces an orange plastic juicer-corer thingy and mutilates a helpless piece of citrus fruit. He then produces a serrated knife and launches into a full-scale demonstration of the many amazing things the knife can do, which basically amount to having the ability to actually cut things. He slices a tomato. He cuts a groove into a cutting board. He makes a notch in a steel hammer. And then he cuts a tomato again. I keep wishing he’d pass out some of those pieces of tomato so we could have a snack, but no. The tomato is not for eating, only for slicing. Finally, we get to The Pitch — the first five people who give him $23 get not just this amazing knife and the paring knife, but two more paring knives, two serrated knives, and two orange plastic juicer-corer thingies.

As amusing as this spectacle is, I would have given up and gotten me, TLOML, my pliers, and my Vanilla Coke out of there long ago if it hadn’t been for one thing: the audience. Despite — or because of — the transparent hucksterism going on, people are transfixed, some literally with their mouths open. They happily smile and answer his prompts like young children competing for approval. And when he makes the pitch about the first five who can give him $23, they get out cash, plastic, and checks and wave them in the air. He can’t process the orders fast enough — wait, he has one more set for the sixth person! And just one more for the seventh! And maybe one more for the eighth!

I, of course, am not among them. Keeping my pocketbook firmly under my arm, I stand my ground in the swell of humanity pushing toward the podium. “Just the free paring knife, please,” I insist, ignoring the umbrage radiating from the huckster and the pitying looks from the True Believers.

I have now seen the people who buy from Home Shopping Network. I have seen the people who keep televangelists in Rolls Royces and bad haircuts. I envision their homes, filled with Pocket Fishermen, a herd of Chia pets, and plates from the Franklin Mint. I think this mindless acquiescence to demands for money might be their way of feeling as if somebody likes them. They will go home and pretend to their spouses that they got a good deal, but I think in reality this was a sort of consumer version of becoming something larger than themselves.

I don’t know why this surprises me. We have all been raised to think the right lip gloss will make that special guy love us and that a new pair of shoes is just what we need to stop terrorism. Perhaps the only thing that separates those of us who can resist from those who cannot is that some of us have never had money to spend on ridiculous things, and long ago had to develop a razor-sharp sense of essential and non-essential. I watch, vacillating between thinking this is hilarious and thinking this is incredibly sad. And then I go home, drink Coke, and cut things with my amazing free knife.

Amber Rollins’ short stories have been published in literary magazines, and she’s working on a book about women in Japanese Buddhism.

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