In the land of Walmart, goods are cheap, low-wage jobs are plentiful and outrage is elsewhere

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Carlton Clarington, barbershop owner. (Steven Boone)
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WARNER ROBINS, Ga.—I couldn't get any Walmart employees to talk on tape about their experiences at the world's largest superstore, but the sentiment was unanimous. They're happy to have both a job and a cheap place to shop.

Well, sure. When I landed here after leaving New York, I went online to apply for a job as an associate, the entry-level position at Walmart.

But when I asked a friend for a reference, she was outraged.

Her email: "Oh Boone, applying to work at a Wal-mart? What's going on? Can't it at least be a Target where you will be treated like a human and get benefits? Wal-mart is the ultimate of what you stand against. Have you seen the docu The High Cost of Low Price?"

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No, I'd somehow never gotten around to watching the 2005 documentary, but of course I knew all about Walmart's history of exploitation, pollution, racism, sexism, and anti-labor abuses.

But hadn't the company cleaned up its environmental act? Wasn't the plantation-style Walmart model dismantled over the past seven years? Wasn't it trying to get out of the obesity-and-diabetes racket?

Back in New York, I had relied upon the White Plains Walmart for Straight Talk prepaid phone cards. The store, which opened in 2006, was nothing to write home about, in terms of size, evildoing or spectacularly low prices. It struck me as a mediocre combo of the Astor Place Kmart and the downtown Brooklyn Target.

The Walmart in Warner Robins is a fortress. Inside a complex spacious enough to house a good portion of the local air squadron, there is everything one would require to survive and even flourish in the coming apocalypse. From home furnishings to hunting gear to fresh produce to $8 Blu-rays.

Still, after finally watching the Walmart doc at my friend's command, I put my application on hold. The film revealed little that I didn't already know, but I'd assumed the company had taken steps to make itself less terrible since then. How could they not without inciting a consumer-worker rebellion of Occupy proportions? 

Carlton Clarington, who owns a barbershop in Warner Robins, told me I shouldn't sweat it. 

"They have run into problems in the past, by running little mom-and-pop operations out of business, but they've also done some good for small companies that get into the Walmart network," he said. "They've blown up businesses that needed the sales in order to produce more jobs." 

Does he shop there?

"Oh yeah, all the time. Prices, can't beat 'em."

He admits it has affected some local businesses.

"I guess your local sporting goods stores, bait and tackle ... But, as a whole, this is America, man. Only the strong survive. I feel for the mom-and-pop operations, but, hey, it is what it is."

Carlton is a black man standing about 6' 2", with short, neat, slightly graying dreadlocks and the general presence of a tough, friendly dock foreman.

"The story of Walmart is a success story in itself," he says, a bit of boyish enthusiasm brightening his tone. "I read Sam Walton's autobiography, how he came up, and it wasn't easy. He had the right idea. People wouldn't listen. Benjamin Franklin stores didn't listen from the early outgoing. So he proved 'em wrong. That's what America was built on, man." What about the accusations of institutional racism at Walmart? A grin crept across his face before I finished the question.

"All companies got that," he said. "You can't please everybody. And when you hire as many people as they do, you're gonna have issues like that. I don't see anybody not having issues like that." 

I happened to be chatting with Carlton at the gas station down the street from my house. In the neighborhoods set back from the main boulevards, gas-station convenience stores are the only alternatives to the Walmarts, Targets, and dollar stores.

Roberta Micola works the register at this one. She is the sunniest convenience-store clerk on earth (imagine Kathy Bates playing an earth-mother sweetie), but she had a scowl ready for Walmart.

"Their impact has been huge here in Warner Robins," she said. "Every day of the week it's filled to capacity."

Her complaints are the usual ones, chiefly that Walmart undercuts local stores' prices.

"I try to shop at some of the smaller chains," she said. "I kinda feel bad because some of the ones I used to shop at, like Winn-Dixie and Food Lion, unfortunately went out."

"It has no effect on how I feel about them," said Carlton. "And I'm pretty much anti-union. I was manager at a trucking company for 23 years and we were unionized. The only way to keep costs down is to stay non-union. So I guess I'm with the corporations, man."

Micah Goguen recently moved to Warner Robins from Atlanta, where Walmart recently descended. Originally from Macon, he looks like a slim, stylish Brooklynite, and, but for the Middle Georgia twang, sounds like one: "This overall area is now dedicated to consumption. Stores back-to-back, so that's the dominating presence Walmart has here." Walmart landed in Atlanta after the city had fought it for a while, with Target paving the way for the bigger company's invasion.

Micah's sister-in-law Mandy, waiting for him in her S.U.V. in the convenience store parking lot, says she loves Walmart: "I think it's very convenient. It's right down the road. They have everything you need when you need it."

Has she heard about any of the protests over the company's practices over the years?

"Um, something about the women workers or something, being paid less than the men...?" What about the sweatshops and union-busting?

"No, I don't know anything about that."

Micah doesn't know much about Walmart's dark deeds, either. He just hates the atmosphere and the mentality that big box stores cultivate in a community.

"Personally, I don't really cling to a lot of material things, so I get overwhelmed in there," he said. "I think it's way too much. The more they try to add for convenience, the more anxiety I get. I don't even know where to begin looking for stuff at times. I don't really like leaving out with a handful of stuff. If I really need to go there and there's absolutely nowehere else I can go, it's usually like two items, and it takes me about 45 minutes to locate those two items, dodge through the crowds and get home."

I feel his pain. Outside of the home-electronics department, which is like a mini-Best Buy, I have never had an easy time finding specific items in the store's maze-like layout. The place seems designed to suck customers in, spin them around and shoot them back out dizzy, loaded down with dry goods.

Poor us.

Back in New York, public officials continue to talk tough in response to every Walmart overture, but low prices are a drug that everybody eventually gets hooked on. Rarely have I come across a Walmart-hater who didn't also shop there on occasion, when, like Micah, they could find no affordable options.

From down here, the arguments in New York City about preserving the character of neighborhoods seem quaint. The difference between the landscape of pure consumption Micah described and the one I knew in Manhattan, after all, is mostly the difference between vertical and horizontal. And a lot of the indignation about the changes Walmart would bring is based on the assumption that things are OK the way they are. I guess for people who are doing well, it's easier to focus on individual actors than on what's wrong with the stage.

For the rest of us, a dollar loaf of fresh bread is a steal. Tell me who I stole it from and I'll apologize, after I eat.

I never completed my Walmart application. I'd like to to say I withdrew it out of a sense of principle, drawing a line in the sand. Truth is, Walmart must compete with many others for my labor, out on the main strip. I have applications in at Marshalls, Books-A-Million, the Marriott hotel, the local multiplex and Logan's Roadhouse, to name a few.

Watson Boulevard is a land of opportunity for local minimum wagers, and for billionaires living God knows where. It's a long way from New York, but not as far as people think.

Steven Boone is a film critic and Capital writer-at-large who has written about homelessness in New York. He currently lives in Georgia.

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