Selling in Minnesota
Barbara decides to try the experiment one more time in Minnesota. When she arrives in the city, she has an apartment to stay in for a few days until she finds work. The one drawback to the apartment is that she has to share it with Budgie, a cockatiel, which has to be let out it its cage for exercise. Budgie has a bad habit of walking on the author’s scalp and is constantly sticking its beak in her face.
In Minneapolis, Barbara seeks out a woman who in real life did start all over again. The woman’s name is Caroline, and when she could not survive in Queens NY, she moved down to Florida with nothing but a couple of bus tickets, $1600, and two children in tow. She worked cleaning hotel rooms for $2 and $3 a room. After meeting the real thing, Barbara admonishes herself for being nothing more than a fake.
The first two jobs Barbara lands are at Wal-Mart and Menards. Menards is the Midwest version of a Home Depot. Barbara gets both of these jobs by taking the initiative and walking into the store to seek out an interview. Both these jobs require personality and drug tests. At Menard’s, Barbara will be working an 11 hour shift for $10 an hour, but when the author finds out that this is an inaccurate quote and that she won’t be getting time-and-a-half for overtime, she decides not to take the job. This leaves Wal-Mart, where she works in women’s soft lines. Her first experience with the company is an eight hour-long orientation where she learns the history of Sam Walton and the three company principles: respect for the individual, service, and excellence. She also learns about time theft which is doing anything other than working while on the job, including talking to one’s neighbor.
Wal-Mart is a world unto itself. As her work there progresses, Barbara’s shift advances through the day, so that it seems to crowd into more and more of what she calls a home life. In many ways, her shift seems to swallow her time and her life and seems to stay slightly ahead of her just like the cart she pushes. As she returns wagons full of clothes to the racks, she sees her life measured out by the cartload.
As she spends more and more time in soft lines, she becomes more and more skilled at keeping up with the returns. She becomes quite possessive of her department in the late hours and the “guests” begin to become the interlopers. She begins to despise them for their childish sloppiness.
It is a different combination of events that bring out Barbara’s frustration and anger at Wal-Mart. First, there is her housing problem; she never really escapes from the Clearview Hotel. Her hotel is not clean, the screens are ripped, and the doors don’t lock. The stress of her home life gives the author a nervous habit of pulling at her clothing. At one point, she wonders if her tick will blossom into the skin-picking habit that afflicts her grandmother. Barbara tries to find cheaper housing, but opportunities evaporate in between phone calls. Barbara’s description of one of the Clearview rooms is as follows:
I now breathe a mixture of fresh paint and what I eventually identify as mouse droppings. But the real problems are all window-and door-related: the single small window has no screen, and the room has no AC or fan. The curtain is transparently thin; the door has no bolt. Without a screen, the window should be sensibly closed at night, meaning no air, unless I am willing to take my chances with the bugs (151).
Management is not really a problem for Barbara at Wal-Mart aside from hiding from Howard when she is talking to her co-workers. There are the depressing stories of the young associates who are sent out of the store in tears or the sadistic boss who uses a stick to sweep all the items off an improperly stocked shelf. And there are the perpetual time-theft watchers.
It is the all-consuming nature of Wal-Mart with its service ethic combined with the almost uninhabitable conditions at the Clearview that bring out the angry and frustrated side of Barbara. She begins to associate her new spiteful self with her nameplate that just reads, “Barb,” and she doesn’t like what she sees. We see her Hyde-like self come out one night that begins with her being warned about being late by the changing room monitor. Then she has another negative encounter with a woman she has never seen on the late shift before. Barbara is accused of putting the wrong clothes in the wrong place because she is not matching the SKU numbers. This sets her off, and she tells the tiny woman that she is not she only person who could have mismatched the clothing and wouldn’t it make more sense to work on the returns together instead of one person wasting time folding.
Between the 26-year-old managers, the withheld pay, and the inability
to find inexpensive housing, the experiment starts to fail. Barbara makes
a last ditch attempt to save her soul by using the taboo word, “union,”
around the other associates, but it only sparks a few ambitions for a
short while. The truth of the matter is, as she said in the beginning
of the chapter, the author is not the real thing, and it is just a matter
of time before she can escape back into her privileged life.