On this moment in our country, camping in Walmart parking lots, and where do we go from here
This is me in my van 11 years ago on the first night of the big research trip for The Real Americans, about to camp down in a Walmart parking lot. I slept in lots of Walmart parking lots that summer. There was an informal brother/sisterhood of truckers and RVers; they’d advise you where to avoid the bright flashing lights of the safety patrol cars that beeped around at night. Walmart welcomed us all, they knew we’d buy water at night and milk in the morning. When I came in bleary-eyed with a toiletries bag, they’d point to the bathroom and nod.
When there’s mass shootings in the past, I’d often read the particulars about the place and between sighs of anger, quietly confirm that it’s probably not a place I’d be. Drinking in a strip mall? Nah. At a first-run blockbuster movie? Not likely. A sick-calculus of post-mortem self assurance. (Increasingly, there’s the shield of being white, too. Though spending lots of time in Black churches, Latino neighborhoods and other cultural spaces of color, it’s a horrible thought exercise: how accurate would a white supremacist be?)
I made two trips to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez in researching BORDER PEOPLE. It’s an incredibly interesting part of the country, the biggest border city, with lots of people living cross-border lives in fascinating ways. I didn’t visit the Walmart that was attacked, but I’ve been to so many. I bought the jeans that I wore for over 400 performances of The Real Americans at one in Le Mars, IA. I met Roy, the inspiration for a character added to the new version of the show in 2016, waiting in line one morning in Clarksdale, MS. I bought lots of clothes with American flags on them in Waynesville, MO because at that time I wanted to blend into small-town America and at the same time not cede the patriotism and iconography of the flag to the Right.
Yes it’s nuts to celebrate Walmart, a wrecking ball to small-town Mom and Pop stores, community commercial districts, and unionization. At some point though I came to understand Walmart as the town square of the 21st century, a place to get a pretty good cross-section of opinion on any issue.
Picking up the paper on Sunday morning and Monday morning, back to back mass shootings, I recoiled and thought of my son. I cursed, unfolded the paper, and started thinking about all the places we go. What places are safe now?
In writing this, part of me is saying, oh don’t make these horrible tragedies be about you. It’s not about you. But that shudder that passed through many of this week confirms that of course it’s about me. And about you. Because we live in this country. We vote in this country. We can organize in this country. We can volunteer in purple states and have conversations with those voters on the fence early on, and help those to the polls who will be facing resistance on the day of the election. I’m looking to tour BORDER PEOPLE to purple states in 2020 up to the election. And do GOTV volunteering in those states along the way.
This anger and violence didn’t start with Trump, and it won’t end if Trump is voted out. As I wrote in the program note to The Real Americans in 2010 (which someone sent me after the 2016 election) “I believe the anger I encountered is going to have a profound impact on this country for a long time.” I didn’t foresee it reaching this level and being championed by the President. Trump is pouring gasoline on that anger and the results are so clear. Let’s organize to vote this President out in 2020. We are all in this together.