Black Friday: SF Weekly Takes Masochism to a New Level, Spends 24 Hours at Walmart

The sales at 5 a.m. are a non-event. There isn't much left, the caution tape has been removed, and the lines don't snake through so many aisles. Calmly and quietly folks turn in their blue cards and take their TV. After all of the hooplah, all of the hype, ads, and news stories, Black Friday at Walmart is basically a TV sale. I eat breakfast at McDonalds, and head out to the Richmond Walmart store. I have no business driving.

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Richmond Walmart Store #3455

This Walmart is much smaller than the Superstore in American Canyon. It has low ceilings and a distinctly blue color scheme that makes me feel like the walls are closing in. There is no McDonald's, and nowhere to get a cup of coffee. Striking workers are gearing up for a demonstration outside, which I suspect is working -- the store isn't very busy. The striking workers wear neon green shirts and a New Orleans-style marching band keeps an uptempo beat. The music, the sun, and the protest chants mix together to create a festive atmosphere. "We're gonna go on strike, we're gonna shut em' down. Richmond is a union town!"

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Some of the protesters are your typical lefties that show up for any chance to stick it to the man, some are from other unions marching in solidarity, and some work for Walmart. A girl named Semetra tells me that when a co-worker tied a rope around his waist to try and move something heavy she heard a manager tell him, "If it was up to me I would tie that rope around your neck." Another worker, Antwon, tells me he's demonstrating because, "we want people here at Walmart to be able to feed their kids and have health insurance."

I go back in and ask the greeter what he thinks about the scene outside, but he just points me to another person, who ends up pointing me to another person, who tells me I need to find the Walmart media rep. Each time I get passed along to a new person their clothes get nicer, but their lips get tighter. I wander around the store again, hoping for something interesting to happen. A young girl goes down the up escalator; rainbow colored disco balls are on sale for $24.97.

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I can't find the Walmart media rep anywhere, and I don't want to leave them out, so I make up a statement. It goes something like this:

Walmart appreciates all of our employees and supports their right to free speech. We regret that these few employees have had an unpleasant experience working for Walmart. We are planning to examine this situation closely and will take action if necessary. Our number one priority as a company has always been our customers, and we look forward to continuing to provide the best possible price on everyday items, while treating our employees with respect and in accordance with all relevant labor laws.

Then, I get in my car and hear Walmart's actual statement on KQED radio. They call the demonstration "illegal union picketing," and are filing charges with the National Labor Relations Board. I liked my statement better.

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Semetra with her family.

Union City Walmart Store #2031 

For once, I am glad there is traffic. The longer it takes to get there, the less time I will have at Walmart. The Union City store has the same low ceilings and oppressive blue of the Richmond Walmart, but it has a McDonald's and a better selection of goods. It's also crawling with children. The most common language is Spanish, but Tagalog, Farsi, and English all make the occasional cameo. I take a lap around the store, grab a light lunch, and head back out to my car for a nap. The sun pushes drowsy heat through the car windows and I fall asleep quickly.

When I wake up I'm drenched in sweat. For a moment I don't remember where I am, but then realization washes over me like heavy marbles poured out of a bag -- I have four hours to go. The nap has left me dazed and I stumble back into the store. The children and parents eye me warily, like you might watch a drunk behind the wheel, or a sick person about to fall over. For the first time, I seriously consider abandoning one of my writing projects -- there's a fine line between adventure and stupidity.

I find TIME's Year in Review on the magazine rack and take it to the furniture section. I remove a folding chair from the shelf, set it down in the aisle, and read undisturbed for over an hour. When an associate comes to tell me I can't just sit and read in the store without buying anything I don't say a word; I am beyond speaking.

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I go out to the parking lot and walk aimlessly. It's one of those endless mall-type plazas and I walk past La-Z-Boy Furniture, Chili's, PETCO, Michael's, and Office Max. Maybe I'm not technically in the Walmart parking lot anymore, but aren't all of these stores the same anyway? These big box formula retail stores, with their huge parking lots, discount goods, and underpaid staff have been taking over America for 30 years -- aren't they really all Walmarts?

I head back inside to the McDonald's and get coffee, determined to make it the entire 24 hours. Two associates on their break sit next to me and complain incessantly about Walmart. They talk of long hours, annoying managers, and stupid policies. They swap tales of screaming customers, and lament how often they have to tell people an advertised item is not in stock. "I just hate disappointing people. This is not the place to be if you hate disappointing people."

I walk out of the store at 5:50 and it's getting dark. Young men drive around the parking lot in cheap hot rods on low, adjustable shocks revving their engines, while older ladies sell tamales. The tamale ladies do it slyly, calling out "tamales" in a low voice, like drug dealers on Haight Street or in the Mission. They're either really shy, or Walmart isn't too keen on entrepreneurs in the parking lot. I sit in my car for the last few minutes, refusing to budge until 6. On the way back to the city I cross the San Mateo bridge, which has a $5 toll. It feels like the best $5 I've ever spent.

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2 comments
xtinaskywalker
xtinaskywalker

Great article Devin, you are a trooper. You should have come home to do your article..24 hrs. in a Wal-mart in Paducah, Ky would have been a lot more interesting I'm sure. Wal-mart is a soul-sucking place to be, which is why I haven't stepped foot in one in 4 or 5 yrs. The world would be better without Wal-mart or any other big box stores for that matter.

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