When I was a kid, box stores like Wal*Mart and Ames represented a clean, safe, well-lit place. Box stores and shopping malls were exciting public spaces: full of people, carefully organized and neatly presented. They were the brands they represented. They were identical. They were reliable. They were indestructible.
Lots of people wanted to destroy box stores, because they were killing small businesses and cozy urban communities by driving consumers out to the suburbs. The dependance on foreign labor, importing, and bargain-basement salaries drove wages down and contributed to a trade imbalance. Despite all this, going to Wal*Mart or Target was like going to a theme park, where a couple of dollars would win you a giant teddy bear. A giant, colorful teddy bear of your choosing. And a bag of gummy bears. And a new vacuum. And silver spray paint. And sponges.
Getting older, though, I began to notice some changes. More and more, box stores and department stores started to get drab. Floors would be dirty and unswept, shelves unstocked, displays disorderly. On very close inspection, you might find a cobweb or a little fiy buzzing around. Maybe one of the fluorescent lamps would be out. Things weren't shiny and new anymore.
Things started to get really messy, especially around the holidays. The shoe aisle would just be a pile of unsorted dirty flip flops. The entire electronics section would be placed under smudged, fingerprinted glass. Finally, when I was 19, I started to notice cigarette butts on the floor at my local K-mart (or "Big K").
They weren't safe places anymore, either. Around the holidays, especially on Black Friday, rioting and mob-mania would lead to violence and people being trampled to death. Stories popped up about people being mugged in Wal*Mart, kidnapped from Wal*Mart, even giving birth in a Wal*Mart. A monkey got into IKEA. Things had gotten out of hand.
I know what happened. Wage cuts, personnel cuts: fewer people have been hired to perform the same number of tasks in fewer hours. Standards must slip. You know. "The economy." "Hard times." It took a couple of decades for box stores to evolve before our eyes: from a clean, safe, well-lit spectacle of American life to a dark, dingy, unsafe symbol of wage-slavery, poverty, child labor, wealth inequity, and debt. Maybe box stores never changed. Maybe we just grew up and learned.
Now, a lot of major retailers are going under. Stores are closing. Fingers are pointing to online shopping. A box store in my hometown was closing up this week and I thought I would go take photographs: sort of a "death of the American empire" story. I actually spent a couple of hours going around, getting really good stuff. Let's call this place "Cay-Mart."
After a couple hours, a middle manager came over and told me to pack it in. Obviously, photography is not allowed inside the store--I was aware of this, but when I asked why, she just responded "liability. corporate."
At that very moment, the paramedics arrived. Serious looking guys, maybe 5-10 of them, in official jackets with words on the back. Some wearing masks and rubber gloves. Some carrying medical equipment.
"Are we having a problem?" said the middle manager, authoritatively. A "Cay-Mart" employee in plain-clothes was leading them back across the floor. "Yes," she said, and shot over a look. Her voice said "I'm handling this, don't get involved, stay where you are." But the look held fear and uncertainty.
The manager scuttled off and I put my camera away. I began to meander around the store, really browsing now, not photographing or looking for shots, but really shopping. There was almost nothing left; the store had been stripped to a lot of shelving and hooks and hangers and racks and hardware. I found a Polaroid One on a table of store-owned used electronics and began to wander around with it, intending to ask someone if they knew whether it actually worked.
Leftover merchandise, mostly broken or messed up, was piled up in little piles all around the store.
The paramedics had gone into the restrooms in the back. They didn't come out. Not for 5 minutes. Not for 10. I saw them standing in the back, talking to employees in hushed and mechanical voices. I thought I heard a young woman say something shrill, gasping. I saw them bring in a stretcher. After awhile, the flashing ambulance out front closed up and left.
I was rattled. I'd expected to photograph the metaphorical skeleton of an American icon and was instead faced with the proximity of an actual death.
Ok, I'll calm down. There is no conclusive proff that someone actually died while I was at "Cay-Mart." But I just keep thinking about Europe. I've travelled a lot in my life and, even though many places in the world have less crime or better education, transportation, and infrastructure than the U.S., I've never felt safe anywhere else. When I think on why that is, I know it's because of our consumer culture. The boxstore: the clean, 24/7, organized commercial spaces in every American city. You can go there any time and reliably find food, water, blankets, public restrooms, medicine. Europe is far from 3rd world, but where do you go if it's 3am in Madrid and you suddenly need Advil or a granola bar? Or 3pm for that matter. Damn those siestas.
The moral of the story is this: people need a clean, safe, public space. That onus doesn't fall on corporations, but when corporations built the box stores in the suburbs that turned Main Street and the town square into a ghost world, the system that used to be in place fell apart. Now box stores are ghost world and where are we supposed to go? The internet? The internet is really good but it's not a clean safe place; it is a palace of porn and cats that you need to pay to access.
People need a clean, safe, public space. For all the terrible things American corporations have done, they once provided this in return.
I'm leaving these photos up until someone from "Cay"-Mart corporate contacts me and asks me to take them down. Then they will be removed. There are about 20 more that need to be aligned for HDR. Ultimately I would like to show them in real space; please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a space and are interested.