Back when I was growing up and dinosaurs roamed the earth, we got 12 television channels. We were a stage past turning the selector knob (although there were still one or two of those old sets in the house). It feels archaic in retrospect, but it was perfectly normal back then.
I don’t remember the channel number, but where that TV landed more often than not was the local Maryland Public Television station. At the time, it fired up the transmitters at around 5AM and signed off with the national anthem around midnight. Public broadcasting was my first exposure to a lot of programming that I consider formative and central to who I am today – most notably shows that taught me to appreciate the British sense of humor. But grainy Monty Python episodes aren’t what made me think about public television today. That distinction belongs to seemingly inexhaustible variety of “animal shows” they were fond of running back in the early 1980s.
While it doesn’t have the quiet, authoritative dignity of Wild Kingdom or a Jacques Cousteau special, there’s something of a flavor of these shows in my regular trip to Walmart. After pulling in on Saturday morning to see half the not insubstantial parking lot occupied by a car show, I knew I was in for something special. All I can tell you is Walmart didn’t disappoint.
The very next thing I saw after the visions of chrome was a geriatric man pushing his easily 600 pound wife/significant other/pet wildebeest and a fully loaded basket of groceries out of the store seated on one of those carts built to have multiple small children strapped to it. I’ll admit it, I was transfixed. My only regret is that I already passed the scene before realizing I should really have taken a picture (so it would last longer). Now, I’m not a small man in any sense of the world. I don’t make a point of mocking the obese, because by any legitimate standards I am one of them. But I still manage to walk my fat ass into and out of the grocery store without requiring a two man lift and a push cart to make it happen. Honest to God, it took me a good five to ten seconds to process and come to terms with what I was seeing.
You’d think it might be over once I got parked far, far away from the door with at least once side of the truck protected by a curb, but no, there’s more. Saturday at Walmart was the gift that kept on giving. Near the front door were three cars all attempting to occupy the same bit of the space-time continuum at once. As I drew near, I heard the unmistakable sound of the deeply inbreed female redneck screeching three kinds of hell in the general direction of the (most likely) equally inbred male redneck who had stopped his Clampett-mobile in the middle of the travel lane to let his female companion take the wheel. This was just seconds before the older, female Alpha Redneck leapt from her car with the agility surprising for a woman of her age and apparent state of drunkenness. And then she took a swing at the male driver for daring to block her way. This all led to three full sets of paired North American Rednecks swearing and threatening each other in full plume. Honest to the little baby Jesus the only thing missing was a banjo player.
At this point all parties turn to look at the guy who was holding his chest and laughing his damned fool head off while walking past the commotion and staring at the shambles of six utterly wasted human lives as they further shattered on the hot asphalt of Walmart’s parking lot. It was truly one of the most monumental displays of redneckery I have ever seen in person… and had you grown up where I did, you’d know that’s really setting the bar quite high.
So there you have it, my friends. I hope it’s clear now how we got from basic cable in the 80s, to public television, and back around to how Walmart is possibly the 5th circle of hell. Like the African savanna, it’s an interesting place to observe wild creatures in their natural environment, but the moment we start interacting with them, we’ve endangered them as well as ourselves. The best and safest course of action is for all of us to avoid contact and allow this devolution to run its course, hoping that in time these roving bands will slaughter each other into a state of relative equilibrium allowing those who have more than a handful of firing neurons to complete further field studies.