I found myself waiting for the bus at the Wal-Mart again.
I hate going to Wal-Mart. I hate having to ride the bus to get to Wal-Mart. And I especially hate waiting for the bus home at the Wal-Mart, having to share my personal space with the sort of white trash that rural Indiana churns out with ruthless efficiency. It might be an East Coast Elitist thing, I don’t know.
But I somehow managed to lose my bike lock and I was planning on doing stuff that weekend, so to the Wal-Mart I went. And there is no easier way to get me thinking about the inevitable extinction of the human race than forcing me to wait for the bus at the Wal-Mart with all manner of societal detritus.
Muncie’s dispossessed and disenfranchised come here in droves the day everyone’s welfare checks arrive. It’s supposed to be the busiest time of the month. The air reeks of cigarette smoke, car exhaust, and body odor. Last time I was here I had to share my personal space with three spherical twenty-somethings. One had two family members in prison. The two others apparently didn’t believe in condoms or birth control, and seemed a touch cavalier about this whole “parenthood” business. There’s a crusty old guy on the bench next to me. His face is beet red. When he isn’t puffing on a dirty brown cigarette, he’s coughing up a lung.
The Wal-Mart sits on Muncie’s suburban hinterland, at the west end of a massive suburban strip bisecting the north side of town. You can see it, way out there. It’s indistinguishable from any other suburban strip you care to name. Restaurants, banks, and retailers, from one end clear to the other.
Not a single small business in sight.
I look around. There’s a Lowe’s. A Taco Bell. A Marathon. Best Buy. Petsmart. H H Gregg. I’m standing in front of a Wal-Mart. This was probably all corn fifty years ago. The sky is overcast and vaguely threatening. I’ve heard stories about the thunderstorms around here, language like “Old Testament skull clutchers.” Every Friday at eleven Ball State tests its tornado warning sirens. It’s only rained once in the two weeks I’ve been here.
Last weekend had highs in the nineties. In May. That Saturday I found myself in the farms of far northern Delaware County. Right around when this nation was founded the Delaware Indians were sent here so the white man could have more space. Eventually the government just killed them all. This Wal-Mart has not one but two enormous American flags on its property.
While in the country, I came across this one cornfield whose crop was literally roasted. Charred. Torched. Baked. A total wash. It was probably the sun. There’s no way the farmer’s gonna use that field this year. It was in the low nineties that Saturday, the capstone to, thanks to an unusually mild winter, the warmest twelve months in North American history. There’s an article somewhere saying that drastic action on climate change has to happen this decade, or else it’ll be irreversible. There’s another article in the New York Times stating emphatically that if Canada starts seriously exploiting its tar sands for oil, it’s “game over for the climate.” The way things are going, there won’t be a climate change treaty worth the name until around 2020.
Some dark clouds are looming off to the west. It’s getting windy. Surprisingly for a college town, most of the cars in the parking lot have Indiana tags. A popular license plate design is the American flag with “IN GOD WE TRUST” superimposed in a big white serif.
This was the first cold wind I’ve felt since I’ve been here. I hear the desertification of the Plains is supposed to seriously intensify in the next few decades, that dust bowl conditions will eventually be the new normal. A semi-arid—or totally arid—strip from North Dakota all the way down to Texas. I saw a huge, lush photograph of North America a few months ago, taken from I think the ISS. Everything from the Pacific to the Appalachians was brown.
A young family is walking past me toward the Wal-Mart’s entrance. Their three-year-old son has a death grip on the shopping cart. His feet don’t reach the ground, so he’s standing on the lip thing on the cart’s bottom. He’s leaning way back. I thank the churning heavens his mom’s keeping his hands on the cart. I don’t want to worry about three-year-old brains all over the Wal-Mart floor.
I think I see a flash of lightning off in the distance. I wonder how long it’ll be before the desert reaches Muncie. I wonder how long it’ll be before the Wal-Mart and the Lowe’s and the restaurants and chain stores and gas stations are abandoned to the sands, a testament to man’s Ozymandian nature. 10% of this country’s malls will be dead in ten years. Detroit can’t afford its power bills and is shutting off half its streetlights. Chicago sold off its parking meters. Philly’s hollowing out its school district.
And every welfare recipient in Muncie descends upon this Wal-Mart the instant the checks come in.
My bus arrives. Pittsburgh, like a lot of economically depressed cities, is taking a hatchet job to its bus system. I don’t think they’ll have a bus route to the airport out there, anymore. I pay my fare and sit down, grateful to be out of the wind. Once I’m off the bus it’s still a twenty-minute walk to my apartment.
On the way back I’ll pass a construction crew building a house. It’s on its second floor now, and five days ago it was just a concrete foundation. Its first floor doesn’t look like it’ll have windows. I’ll also pass a ratty old house with what looks like an eviction notice pasted on its front door. Its windows are broken and boarded up. There’s junk on the porch. Someone spray-painted an anarchist logo on the siding.
There was no rain, no thunder, just cold and wind. It’s supposed to be in the eighties tomorrow. I have errands to run. Hopefully they won’t involve returning to the Wal-Mart.