Thursday, February 10, 2011

Walmart Redux

Thursday, February 10, 2011

This afternoon I found a place to stay in the motor home in Azusa, at a small trailer park with a few spaces for RVs. It costs less than half as much as the nearest KOA, but then it's not exactly bucolic or charming. Just a place on the pavement with hookups for electricity, water, and sewer. It is ideally located for exploring the area, between the 10 and the 210, 23 miles from downtown L.A. and closer than that to many of the places I'll be visiting. As long as I make a point of staying off the freeways during rush hour everything should go smoothly.

Also this afternoon I visited the Upton Sinclair house in Monrovia. It turns out it's not a museum, just an attractive, privately-owned residence with plaques in front stating that it's a National Historical Landmark. Having listened to The Jungle on my walk I was interested in seeing where he had lived, although he didn't move there until years after The Jungle made him famous. He moved to Monrovia in the 1920s, and during the years he lived in the particular house I saw, 1944 to 1966, he was writing miscellaneous fiction for which he's barely remembered at all, including some of the fourteen books in his now-forgotten, but then best-selling Lanny Budd series. In fact, of his over 90 books only maybe The Jungle and Oil!, recently made into the movie There Will Be Blood, are still read much today. Some of his other works have intriguing titles, though, like The Wet Parade, The Enemy Had it Too, and Damaged Goods. Time magazine called him "a man with every gift except humor and silence."

I've spoken of Walmart so many times that I thought I'd do a little wrap up on it. As of the official end of the journey I had stayed overnight in Walmart parking lots for a total of 189 nights at 85 separate locations, in all thirteen of the states I've walked through from Michigan to California.

Over the year and a half since I stayed at that first one back in South Haven, Michigan, I have become quite fond of Walmart, and it has been good to me. I won't insult my readers by trying to extol the virtues of this cut-rate retailer. It's true that as an employer it offers low-paying deadend jobs for the most part. And it's true that it stoutly resists unionization of its employees. As a right-thinking (or rather left-thinking) person, I deplore these truths on general principles. But look, half of the jobs in this country are low paying and deadend, and a lot more than half are nonunion. So boo-hoo and Solidarity Forever. Those who seek social justice from a purveyor of low-cost, foreign made household goods might be barking up the wrong tree. On a broader front, unless and until full socialism along Marxist lines is realized in this country (which will definitely occur when monkeys fly out my butt), the basic wrinkles in the fabric of American economic life aren't going to be ironed out anyway.

Despite its drawbacks, Walmart does have this one bit of charm and generosity that virtually no other nationwide retailer has, namely its unspoken but open invitation to travelers to use its parking lots as refuges on the unarmed road of flight, as it were.

I do have a problem, not with Walmart itself but with those who report on it. Throughout the journey I've consulted sites on the internet that list Walmart locations. If you Google "Walmart in California," for instance, you'll get two or more of these sites. They are very helpful in pinpointing the exact locations of the stores. They also contain information about whether overnight parking is permitted, and here is where I take issue to some extent with their advice. Probably a third of the Walmarts where I have stayed have been listed as locations where "users say no overnight parking," based either on inquiries to the stores themselves or on the existence of local ordinances prohibiting RV camping in such places. I have read that the proper protocol for parking at any Walmart is to call ahead to the store and ask if it's okay to park there overnight. At first blush that would indeed seem like the sensible and polite thing to do. But I believe many RVers have been misled by posted signs or by the "users say" notations on the internet sites. For instance, in West Lafayette, Indiana, I woke up on my second morning at a Walmart right under a sign that said overnight parking was prohibited by local ordinance. In New Mexico one of the Walmarts I stayed at had a separate section unofficially reserved for motor homes in which over twenty of us were parked on the night I was there, clustered together like a wagon train or a reunion of old Canadian cheapskates. On each of the lightposts in that lot was a sign clearly stating that overnight parking was verboten.

My readers know that when I reached southern California I ran into a couple of Walmart glitches for the first time. In Redlands I was advised to park on the street next to the Walmart parking lot, but not in the lot itself, because of the cops. Then in Upland the parking lot security guard warned me that the police would ticket me and make me leave if I tried to stay all night. In both these cases the guards were sympathetic and assured me that Walmart didn't mind if I stayed. I believe them. I also believe that if I'd stayed put in all likelihood nothing would have happened.

With these two notable exceptions, throughout my journey I was never turned away from a Walmart parking lot or told to leave--by management, police, or private security guards. With that in mind, I would ask my readers to trust the advice I am about to give. Here it is: ALWAYS assume you can park overnight in a Walmart parking lot. Find an unobtrusive spot at a far corner of the lot that isn't in the way of automobile or truck traffic. If you value darkness and quiet during your sleep, try not to park under a light, and don't park near semis, which tend to idle their stinking engines all night long. DO NOT ask the management of Walmart if you can park there. They may be obliged to tell you no because of local ordinances or police guidelines. REST ASSURED that the overarching policy of the Walmart chain is what really matters, and their policy is to allow RVers to park overnight in peace and to leave them alone. NEVER underestimate the general indifference of the public, the management, or security personnel to your presence. If by chance you are told to leave a Walmart, do not let that experience put you off--it's an aberration. Try again at the next Walmart you come to. And there's usually another one just down the road.

I still don't know exactly what would motivate a town or county to pass an ordinance prohibiting overnight parking in large otherwise unused parking lots, but I have a couple of ideas. One is that such ordinances are aimed primarily at semi trucks, which are perceived as noisy and noisome, as indeed they can be. But Walmart parking lots are usually not right next to residential areas, so I can't see where even gatherings of trucks would bother anybody. These places almost always have enough room for double the number of vehicles that are in their lots at their busiest times, so I don't think it's a matter of freeing up space for shoppers. It may be that there's an atavistic anti-gypsy sentiment at play here, going back to our European roots--the fear of The Other I've spoken of so many times. To some prim and respectable city fathers and mothers the thought of hobos and wayfarers drifting through town and polluting their otherwise classy Walmarts and Targets and Home Depots with their caravans might be frightening. This despite the fact that many of the motor homes I've seen parked at Walmart cost as much as the nearest house.

My own purely unscientific conclusion is that many laws on the books, from those banning parking in certain places to those prohibiting the sale or use of various intoxicating substances, simply have no basis in rational thought or practical application.


Billie Bob said...

I think the answer lies in the behavior of the local "establishment", mostly the business community. Those good old boys and girls influence the passage of local laws much more than voters. So if you are a hotel or campground owner, you want people to cough up their cash to stay over night at your place. Wal-Mart undercuts their profits. The locals themselves probably don’t care if anyone sleeps in the parking lot. In fact, many of them probably do it when they are traveling.

Too bad the rest of the business community didn’t realize that if you don’t pay for a hotel room, you have that much more money to spend at all the other places in town.

Peter Teeuwissen said...

Maybe more the hotel people than the RV park people, because Redlands and Upland have virtually no RV campgrounds. Still can't figure it out, though, because I've stayed in Walmarts in lots of towns with both hotels and campgrounds. I think it emanates from a sort of bluenosed attitude such as you encounter in places like Ann Arbor, for instance, that consider themselves a little more upscale and "serious" than their neighbors. I suspect that when Walmart wanted to locate there the snobs were afraid it would draw in the lowlifes from out of town, but they reluctantly said, "Okay, as long as you keep your signs tasteful and discreet and don't let any of those awful gypsies stay in the parking lot."

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the ban could be related to the anti loitering ordinances. I remember being ejected by the police with my teenage friends on warm summer nights from the only stripmall parking lot in town. We were a pretty rowdy bunch-lots of underage drinking, back seat sex. fighting as well as public urinating. Maybe they are afraid of RVer's urinating in the parking lot? Just a thought. Anguish