You can find out a lot about a town by walking into the local Walmart. I learned this lesson about a decade ago. We were up in New Jersey and staying with my in-laws in Toms River. Dawn comes early on the Jersey shore. I was awake and moving around by 6:30. When I was in college I was known as “the amazing sleeping man.” Well, those days were long gone by this point in time. I don’t know if having kids plays havoc with your sleep cycle, or maybe the ability to sleep in is just one more thing Father Time steals when you’re not looking. Whatever the cause, the sun was up and so was I. My caffeine-addicted brain demanded coffee. I knew that banging around the kitchen with my wife sleeping in the next room was a bad idea. Instead, I grabbed my keys and headed out into the gray of the day. I came across an open Burger King, went through the drive-through and got a cup of joe. I should have held out for Dunkin Donuts. There’s practically one on every corner in New Jersey.
I had a good hour before my wife, kids and in-laws would be rousing. Since I had forgotten to pack socks, I decided to see when the local Walmart opened. And wouldn’t you know it, the enterprise that created a family of billionaires and kick-started China’s rise to economic superpower was already doing business. Walmart may be the eaters of worlds when it comes to local businesses but, by God, it sure is convenient.
The parking lot wasn’t packed but I was far from the only customer. I made my way through the automatic doors and was met by the Walmart greeter. This boy was easily 80 years old. He addressed me with a hearty, “Welcome to Walmart, you need a cart?” He was leaning heavy on the shopping cart and wheezing a bit. He needed that cart way more than I did.
“No thanks,” I said.
He nodded and patted me on the shoulder as I passed. This octogenarian was happy to still be alive, happy to have a job, and really, really happy that I didn’t take away his cart.
I was easily the youngest person in the store…by about fifteen years. And it made me feel great.
Now, time for our quiz. What do we know about Toms River from our early morning Walmart shopping spree? If you’re from Central Jersey, you already know the answer. So, button your lip. Anybody else? Give up?
Toms River is a haven for the social security set. Subdivisions are named Silver Ridge, Holiday City and the like. Homes in these communities are small single story ranches. Staircases and basements simply do not exist. Ditto for front lawns. They are replaced with expanses of colored pebbles that never require mowing. Enormous stop signs are installed on both sides of a street on all four corners of intersections. This is meant to improve road safety. It doesn’t. Motor vehicle accidents caused by driving while dying from a myocardial infarction are commonplace. Compounding the problem are the ubiquitous liquor stores which do an excellent business. And prescription drugs are plentiful since medical practices of every speciality abound. Best of all, the town is home to a nuclear power plant that was built in 1968. In short, it’s paradise for those who are along in years but young at heart.
That’s right, the old guy at the front door and the age of the customers tells you everything you need to know about Toms River…except for the local radioactive power planet. And even that shouldn’t surprise you.
These folks aren’t spring chickens. They’ve already seen it all. Nuclear reactors don’t melt down very often, so why worry? Of course, their atomic neighbor may be spewing plenty of carcinogens that will eventually kill the nearby residents. But seniors aren’t terribly worried about “eventually.” They are very much “in the now” people.
Waking up in the morning, getting a ride to their endocrinologist, buying a lottery ticket and seeing the grandkids, that’s what’s important. And if tomorrow morning the Oyster Bay plant turns into Chernobyl, well, at least its been a good run.
I haven’t been back to that particular Walmart in a long, long time. To be honest, I’m a little afraid to make an appearance. I’m not a spring chicken anymore either. I’m getting to the point where the store manager might just walk up to me and ask, “So, are you here for the greeter job?”