A good friend of mine just pointed out something important (and something I should be picking up from my technical writing courses): Context is important. I have not provided the proper context for the last few “Short Story Alerts” on this page. So to repent: The last three installments are chapters from a book I’ve been working on for the past few years. Called “Slouching Toward Bensonville,” the book follows the adventures of two young people who get caught up in fighting against a big box juggernaut bent on dominating the world through easy retail, mind-manipulation and free nachos. Obviously, it’s a work in progress, and I doubt it’ll have a happy ending. I’m posting it here to get a feel for how well it works, or how well it doesn’t work. Plug away.
Of the Helpless Rabble of Willing Victims
When cavemen shopped, there was only one store. It offered, grudgingly and through thorns, claws, thistles, horns, stings and poisons, whatever the shopper had the strength and will to hunt or gather. The proprietor, though willing, literally, to stock every item imaginable on earth and under heaven, was just as apt to hurl lightning bolts or introduce a new, saber-toothed predator – adding to the antagonism of a typical monopolist – as he was to offer half-off deals on dead gazelles.
And so Quanult Creek’s first consumers lived in a cave left under the desert turf by flowing lava; a cave they shared with bats and the occasional coyote. They ate camas roots, snared the occasional rabbit or grouse, and generally lived a life as easy as could be found in a place where the nearest water hole was seven miles distant and rain fell only occasionally – and often horizontally.
Understandably, these people wished for something better. So about 6,000 years ago, one of them, a barrel-chested man named Thunk, dug a channel from the far-distant watering hole, digging in the general direction of the clan’s cave. The clan found him drowned when they thought to look for him, lying in his canal, of which he’d excavated nearly a mile with tusks left over from a slaughtered mammoth. Times being what they were, they ate him. But thanked the gods nonetheless that the water was that much closer to home.
Modern denizens of Quanult Creek had a similar triumph, when, after more than a decade of inquiry by ravenous natives, the Olive Garden chain announced plans for a franchise on the west side of town.
Six months after it opened, however, they were already bored with it.
Such attitudes would rankle Quanult Creek’s white settlers, who had visions of scratching civilization out of the wilderness, thankful for any merchant who settled there rather than move on. Their hard work at building roads, canals, log cabins, churches, parks blistered by the desert sun and ash trees that would scarcely grow to knee height during their lifetimes, in order to build for the future and keep their city growing.
To track the city’s progress, then, it’s necessary to consider its history. So at about the same time the Pilgrims sloshed ashore at Plymouth Rock, Quanult Creek looked like this:
Even an apprentice cartographer would have been quick to draw in the river, its islands, perhaps a few of the scattered cottonwood trees and juniper bushes. An enterprising cartographer may also have noted a random game trail, the lazy creek, and perhaps sketched in a few clumps of sagebrush and other doodads to fill in the vast, blank empty that Quanult Creek, in the 1620s, presented. But for those who draw maps that go in phone books, Quanult Creek, the now-bustling city over the Western hills and smack in the middle of a sage-dominated desert, was the blank page begging for the funeral home advertisement. Those are the people drawing our maps.
Even ten years after Franklin V. Coffin, the first white man to slip in the mud at Quanult Creek, first wandered through the general area searching for signs of his horse, which had bolted from a camp he’d set up near a spring seventeen miles south on the river, Quanult Creek still would not have interested the phone book map makers.
It wasn’t until 1862 when “Crow” McGill decided to hell with going to the Wilammette Valley, set his oxen to grazing and tacked together a few rough-hewn boards over the canopy of his weary family’s Contestoga coach that Quanult Creek has its first building – a church that doubled as a saloon and, in bad weather, an oxen barn.
McGill’s presence in Quanult Creek would have made the phone book cartographers take notice, thusly.
Not impressive, say, in comparison to Chicago, but enough to show that Quanult Creek, like every other fly-specked, dust-chocked, tick-infested rutted excuse for a wide spot in the trail had the same promising future as Seattle, Spokane, or Pocatello.
But because commerce begets commerce, because the collection of human souls in a particular spot tends to make others collect there as well because they’re damn well not going to walk on and find something even worse that where they are now, Quanult Creek, like Seattle and Spokane, grew.
Ten years after McGill, eighteen after Coffin, Quanult Creek looked like this.
It wasn’t called Quanult Creek yet. It was known, quaintly, as McGill’s Hole and, believe it or not, already appeared on a few of the maps enterprising cartographers were selling in Independence or Winter Quarters, enticing would-be Westerners with the glories of the west that the cartographers would absolutely be visiting again as soon as they earned enough money selling maps to travel to Boston and open a printing shop.
Quanult Creek became Quanult Creek, rather momentously, in 1889 after the death of McGill, who died in a mysterious explosion that left his oxen dead and a rather large carter at the site of his church/bar, where he had been experimenting lately with various fuels he brewed out of alcohol and oxen dung, in an effort to stop the city’s growing dependence on imported lamp-oil.
The committee of town Elders – minus McGill, of course – solicited the United States Post office to change the town’s name to Quail Creek, in honor of the formerly abundant ground birds who left the immediate area once they saw what a dump the humans were making of the landscape. But because the telegraph operator sneezed mid-transmission – and because the elders and the operator never came to terms on the price of sending a second telegram to correct the first, the town became Quanult Creek - much to the relief of the thirteen other Quail Creeks established in the territories that year.
Cartographers, of course, noted the change. When maps began circulating in 1890, the newly-christened Quanult Creek looked like this. By then, obviously, the railroad had arrived, and with it the city’s first smear of industry, boiled down to a coal yard for the passing trains, several water butts, a shack grandly named the Quanult Reek Rail Depot and an assortment of bars, hotels, gambling houses and tent villages pitched in the trees down by the river.
As in other cities spread across the plain and Western wilderness, commerce arrived. Quanult Creek had its fair collection of dry goods stores, tin ware shops, general stores, blacksmiths, dentists, doctors, lawyers. With a population of only 3,800, it had three newspapers, all started by Eastern newsmen disaffected by working for someone else and wanting to work on their own. In each square acre of Western earth lay the promise of founding your own enterprise, your own function, your own bureau.
And they were distinct. Unique. True, from town to town, each doctor had tools ordered from similar catalogs. Each dry goods store ordered from the same warehouses, the same salesmen. But in each village, shoppers found the things they wanted.
And because Quanult Creek possessed greater opportunity than the likes of Los Angeles and Salt Lake City – in the form of cheap land the current settlers hadn’t thought to lay claim to because 1) They already had what they wanted, 2) The quail needed some place to live, and 3) No one had had the gumption yet to dig irrigation canals, the city boomed once men with Big Minds came in and set the city on the road to commercial and industrial prominence. Large farms and ranches sprouted on the arable land surrounding the city, soon to be joined by stockyards, feed lots, a factory to process sugar from beets, grain elevators and the associated detritus of shops, businessmen, banks, newspaper editors, offices and do-gooders needed to wrest civilization from the Wild West. All virtue flowed to business, as the Big Men reasoned churches, a library, schools, paved streets, would only make the town more attractive to other men of their ilk, just as long as they were bringing in complimentary, rather than competitive, business. By 1915, the town looked like this, and actually had its main streets done in cobblestones.
It also had its first chain store. An A&P grocery store, an enormous, dazzling 1,800 square feet of goods purveyed to Quanult Creek from not only across the nation, but from across the world. Its arrival on Main Street – only two blocks from Mancini and Odeen’s, the city’s oldest grocers – caused a sensation, and much conversation in town, specifically among the customers of Mancini and Odeen, who noticed the A&P had the same goods they wanted, but at less expensive prices.
Mancini and Odeen fought back, selling local produce at less expensive prices than the A&P could muster for its goods, which often arrived wilted or moldy.
Shoppers – specifically those interested in cabbage – noticed the difference. They bought their produce from Mancini and Odeen, but bought nearly everything else at the A&P and counted themselves ahead in the bargain.
Mancini and Odeen began to suffer. They offered canned goods at less expensive prices than before, and forced their delivery boys to smarten up their dress to compete with the A&P’s men, who wore starched shirts and bow ties.
And they continued to suffer as people flocked to the A&P, which expanded its Main Street presence, tripling its size within the first ten years.
The cobblestones, of course, were torn up in 1928, when automobiles outnumbered horse-drawn carriages and everyone felt the cobblestones made the roads too bumpy and the town too old-fashioned.
Mancini and Odeen, whose children wer far-flung studying law, aviation, millinery and education, were desperate. They appealed to the Quanult Creek Courier-Journal for assistance. But the editor, a cynical Easterner wearied – by only four years of residence in the West – of the West’s anti-East harrangues, wrote a scathing editorial, revealing George Washington insisted on buying a pewter tea-serving set from England rather than buy one locally – even from silversmith and fellow Patriot Paul Revere – because he thought those made in America were of lesser quality.
Mancini and Odeen’s was not the first Quanult Creek store to close its doors, and few, except Messrs. Mancini and Odeen, noted its passing. Within three weeks of its closure in 1931, its former storefront and the four floors of building above had been converted to the Quanult Creek Business University, to be haunted by the ghosts of a failed Quanult Creek enterprise, and its endless number of cabbages, until the university itself folded due to lack students decades later.
By 1932, Quanult Creek had its White Way, with lights blazing forth a glory unparalleled since the time the town’s settlers could open their tent or cabin door and look up into the night sky to enjoy the stars not drowned out by the quiet white noise of the White Way.
The White Way, of course, represented Progress to the boosters and he-men of Quanult Creek, a place where merchants could locate near each other to encourage a lot of healthy competition to benefit the city dwellers and farmers alike, namely by secretly fixing prices so no one had to go out of business, or go in to work more than 30 hours a week, if they didn’t care to. Quanult Creek’s White Way quickly became the bustling commercial center of a five-county area, with farmers and their wives and children, dressed in their Sunday best, could come once every other week from as far away as Mayfield to pick up the things they’d ordered from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue and to buy custard tainted with gasoline.
And on the White Way, among the local businesses, more national stores arrived, much to the joy of the populace and the Quaunult Creek Boosters Club, who decided they would take growth no matter where it came from. A few local businesses here and there – and even a few professionals – complained when they brought more competition in, but since they were not full dues-paying members of the Quanult Creek Boosters Club, their complaints were dismissed as complaints of cranks intent on Quanult Creek remaining in the past.
In 1943, when the city’s Chamber of Commerce successfully solicited the War Department to build a munitions plant on the edge of town, Quanult Creek looked like this.
Residents of surrounding counties poured into the city, bloated and prosperous during the years of rationing, gold stars and Victory gardens. A church, driven west by mobs, built its sixth temple in the west in town, and selected the city as the site for a university, which blossomed to six buildings within the first ten years.
Workers at the munitions plant – expanded three times before World War II ended – turned out tons of anti-tank shells, built by local people who hoarded their money against the day that there would be consumer goods to buy again, without rationing. The school district built a new high school as housing tracts spread to the city’s west and south. In ten years’ time, the city’s population doubled, then threatened to treble in 1948, when the Atomic Energy Commission announced it would build a slew of nuclear test reactors in the desert fifty five miles west of town.
By then, the glow of the White Way had faded a bit, with downtown buildings starting to show their age and the city starting to show the wear of war plants and the automobile. But Quanult Creek citizens had money to spend, and were more than willing to flood downtown stores, buying all manner of clothing, toys, household goods, cigars, suits, polka-dot dresses, automobile tires, barbecue grills, records, sodas, and shoes with their wealth.
Then, the 1950s. Boom time for the nation. Nuclear test reactors and associated buildings that were hastily built but rarely talked about, sprang from the desert like jackrabbits. Inhabitants of Quanult Creek moved into duplicate stucco boxes and reveled in earning wages paid by the Federal government. By then, the munitions plant had converted to the peacetime activity of turning nitrates and phosphates into fertilizer, and employed nearly as many workers as the bomb plants had before the war brought an end to that chapter in the city’s commercial history. By the time 1965 rolled around, the city looked like this.
The city boasted three movie theaters, sixteen grocery; stores, the state’s first K Mart and a population of nearly 40,000.Older parts of town looked more worn, but were still busy with businesspeople, store clerks and shoppers.
Then, in 1967, the city got its first shopping mall.
Built of stark, modern concrete, hung with luminous round globes of light inside, hanging from a polished cherry-wood ceiling. Sears moved in. And Lamont’s. Between the anchors lay two dozen shops, acll connected by a cool, immense hallway.
Downtown started to crumble a bit after the mall opened on Hitt Boulevard, equidistant between downtown and the city’s first exit on the Interstate.
But the city’s denizens loved the mall. Felt it made the town, with its golf courses, fledgling museum, orchestra and ballet company, a cosmopolitan center, worthy of visits from DOE honchos from DC, Argonne leaders from Chicago. Many of those visitors, when they found jobs in town that paid well, settled there, selling their modest homes back east for a huge profit, then building mansions on the cheap Quanult Creek land.
Downtown still thrived. The mall brought new stores, new competition, but enough new people moved into town every year that there seemed to be plenty to go around. Penney’s and the Bon Marche stayed in their downtown buildings, surrounded by passels of local stores, Ferrell’s and Captain’s Quarters selling clothing for men; the ignominiously-named Wayne and Marlene’s Bojangles selling clothing to teenagers, who thought the store was too hip for words.
Still, there were more home-grown businesses than chains. Going to McDonald’s was exciting, because one expected the servers to break into song and dance as they do on TV, but eating a burger at the local Scotty’s brought a taste sensation – of salt and grease – no different than at the Golden Arches. Who needed Taco Bell when one had Taco John’s?
Then in 1984, a coup.
Marsha Wharton, then Quanult Creek’s mayor, succeeded in persuading a development company from a neighboring state to build a new mall in town, rather than on a piece of county-zoned land ten miles to the north along the interstate. A big deal, the city’s denizens thought. Even bigger, they realized, when the found out Penney’s and the Bon Marche had been wooed from their downtown locations to set up at the mall, no matter where it was built. Well, if the department stores had to move, may as well move within town, rather than leaving, they said. So the mall rose like a pyramid on a path of farmland near the city’s northeast corner, a patch to which the city had to build several new roads, lest the existing roads – which directed traffic downtown, past the soon-to-be-vacated storefronts – become too crowded with commuting shoppers. And because Americans are wowed by the new, even at the expense of the old.
Some fretted. What many thought as progress, they said, was just the opposite.
Too much consumerism, they said.
In part, they were right. But at the end of World War II, something had to be done with the military-industrial complex built up and gared for wartime production. Manufacturers figured if it were patriotic for men and women to build tanks and mess kits and shells and the like, it was just as patriotic to build alarm clocks and toasters and televisions, which they did in abundance after the war ended.
But since there was little to be gained by carpet-bombing Japan with toasters or shipping televisions to war-ravaged Europe, those goods, produced with the same efficiency that brought the world the Tommy gun, had to go somewhere. New targets were needed. Industry settled on the American consumer, targeting them with the ack-ack of friendly fire.
So progress came to mean the construction of goods, the creation of mass markets to sell the goods, the building of stores to stock the goods. Progress meant, in many eyes, the arrival of stores thus advertised on national televison, stores heretofore visited when the denizens of the outskirts of America shopped in larger cities, far from home.
When the stores arrived in Quanult Creek, citizens became giddy at the prospect of being able to buy color television sets, popcorn poppers and fanciful gelatin molds and Yugos without an eight-hour trip to inconvenience them on the way to the store. No longer were they held at bay by tyrannical local merchants, reluctantly ordering what their customers wanted, if they didn’t mind waiting three weeks to get their goods. What they wanted was available immediately at the new temples of cinder block and glass. Those who couldn’t produce immediately would suffer consumers’ wrath.
So as new stores came, old ones faded. And few seemed to care. Captain’s Quarters and Bojangles disappeared, their landlords converting their buildings to office space. Blocks, the city’s venerable department store, died quietly. Buell’s, the department store rival, hung on, resisting the flow of shoppers to the former White Way, now known as Hitt Boulevard, the Happy Highway.. Buell’s remained the sole holdout on a downtown block razed by the city through eminent domain to make way for a new public library. And it hangs on still, fueled by a dying breed of customer whose fathers shopped there. Their children do not. Buell’s days are numbered.
Every city has its growing pains, many said. Quanult Creek was entering puberty.
Cities everywhere are beginning to look the same, lamented others. Franchises litter the suburbs and outer rims.
Downtown is doing fine. Full of professional offices and banks, fueling our city. Leave well enough alone.
Law firms can’t replace stores, others said. No one shops downtown any more. No one interacts any more. We all drive to the stores, hurry through the aisles, buy what we want then scurry home to put what we just bought in closets with the rest of the crap we bought last week. And the traffic is atrocious.
That’s efficiency. Increased productivity paying off for a better-off population. And a lifestyle unparalleled in modern history. Besides, downtowns worked before the auto. Now, there’s no where to park.
We wouldn’t need the suburbs if cars hadn’t been invented.
So we should all live and shop together, with each others’ wash flapping in our faces?
At least people talk when they live close together.
About what? Underwear stains? Fags at the art show and druggies at the drum circle?
It’s better than golfing.
You liberals are all alike.
And you conservatives won’t be happy until every last bit of this planet is paved, with a McDonald’s and Wal-Mart on every corner!
And you liberals won’t be happy until we’re all living in teepees running around nude and using yucca plants to fight off ticks!
And so on. But cities like Quanult Creek continue to grow. And cities smaller than Quanult Creek see the new Quanult Creek. And queue up for their turn at progress.