Social Class, Sex, and Public Space: A Recent Trip to Walmart

I saw them as soon as I pulled into the Walmart parking lot.

The couple in the faded red sedan, about three spots over. She was stroking his face, pulling him in for a deep kiss. Their bodies pressed against the middle console.

I walked past, crabby toddler in tow, and headed for the Lawn and Garden entrance.  I could see them making out, like teenagers in someone’s basement.

I was there to get painter’s tape.

The lady who’d owned our house had a penchant for peach: band-aid colored walls, backsplash in pale cantaloupe, orangey front door. After two years in our home, I finally got around to painting, but I’d run out of tape just in time to start the bathroom.

Walmart is not a classy establishment. Or, rather, it’s specifically known for being un-classy. A one-stop shop for bottom-line prices on bananas, fishing line, and enormous panties. We’ve probably all seen People of Walmart, know the stereotypes.

Of course, such sites paint a too-uniform picture of Walmart’s role in the American retail landscape. Still, I hadn’t seen anyone in the Publix parking lot making out at 5pm.

“Keepin’ it classy, Walmart,” I thought, as I wove through discounted garden supplies.

—————

The couple was still there when I came out,  now skooched  into one seat, still going at it.

Something welled up inside me. Disgust, anger, disapproval. A mix of these.

I flagged down a cart-kid, the one who’d been using his walkie-talkie, and awkwardly explained the situation.

His eyes widened a bit, mouth forming an “O.”

“Is there any chance you could get someone to come talk to them, a manager or something?”

“Well,” he said,  “I could try, but I don’t know they’d be able to stop them.”

To be fair, there’s no law against making out, especially in one’s  car. Let’s just say I couldn’t see any hands.

“I know, it’s just the middle of the afternoon,” I explained, “People have kids with them.”

“Aaaaaok, I’ll see what I can do,” he replied, as I walked off.

I turned back just in time to see the car speeding off, the couple obviously clued into my intent.

Keepin’ it classy, Walmart. Keepin’ it classy.

————–

Something still bothers me about that day.

What exactly went on there? (Not in terms of actual, physical goings-on but motivation.) The incident seemed (and still seems) icky. Who makes out in a Walmart parking lot at 5pm on a Tuesday? Did they-of-the-red-sedan come to that lot specifically, or were they bringing out groceries when the mood struck them? The store was busy with people getting off work, buying food for dinner. If this were a lover’s tryst, why not pick a more secluded spot?

Clearly, at least one of them was with-it enough to realize they’d been spotted and reported. It was the “reported” part that ran them off.

Voyeurs?

I consider myself pretty openminded about sex. So long as people are willing and in a state to offer consent, they can do what they like. I see the appeal of some risqué behavior – of public sex or sexual encounters in usual places. Humans are complex beings, our appetites and what satisfies us no less so.

The kicker in this situation, I think, and what prompted me to intervene, was the crabby two year old on my hip.  Part of what makes public sex enticing is the danger of detection and the thrill of an audience. I have to assume this couple knew people saw them, even wanted to be seen.

Which gets into the issue of consent.

I was an unwilling participant in their public display. More importantly, so was my two-year-old daughter, which is unequivocally not okay. Beastie didn’t see anything indecent, per se, but her presence alone made her a participant. I repeat: Not. Okay.

———

There’s another layer to my disapproval, though, one that troubles me equally.

Would I have responded the same way to a couple in a Volvo in the Publix parking lot? Would I have read the situation similarly: as a tasteless and disgusting display by people too trashy to know any better, or who got off by having an audience.

I would still have found the Volvo couple tasteless and disgusting, but I wouldn’t have reported them. There’s the difference.

Part of me – the classist yuppy I don’t like to claim – was unsurprised at the couple’s behavior. They simply affirmed my preconceived notions of who shops at Walmart and how they behave. (This from the person who was, indeed, shopping at Walmart.)

I’ve been to such sites as The People of Walmart and marveled at the grotesque strangeness of what some people wear when buying milk. But part of that strangeness comes from class disparity and prejudice. The site’s pictures reveal as much about poverty, obesity, mental illness, and transphobia as they demonstrate tackiness on the subject’s part. A central factor motivating these pictures – usually taken on the sly – is a satisfied sense of superiority. “Who would dress like that? Can you believe it?” Posted examples become carnivalesque objects, put online for the entertainment and titilation of more in-the-know, wealthier viewers.

In all honesty, as I walked over to report the couple, I felt superior to them because of their appearance. That part of my reaction had nothing to do with what they were doing and was integrally tied to how I perceived them.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s recent Salon article takes up a similar issue. She explains how her son, who has autism, threw a tantrum in the middle of Whole Foods. While letting the boy calm himself in the car, an anonymous bystander – misreading the situation – called the cops, accusing Lee and her husband of mistreating the child. Fortunately, they were able to convince the cop otherwise. One of Lee’s realizations, though, is that her  middle-class  appearance neutralized the situation: “It seems all one has to do is add a little race or class difference to a dollop of self-righteousness [in cases of disapproval]…, and you’re off to the races.” Here, races = possible jail time.

My story is not analogous to Lee’s. The Walmart couple was clearly acting inappropriately, regardless of their motivation.  Yet, how I responded to them hinged on my own prejudices regarding behavior and class. I know for a fact I wouldn’t have bothered a wealthier-looking couple. Judged them, yes. Notified a passing cart collector, no. It’s this distinction that keeps me thinking about the situation, and it’s one I find deeply troubling.

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One of My Defining Moments as a Teacher, and I’d Take It Back If I Could.

Tim hung by the door as I walked up, a few minutes late to class. His pink hair, black eye liner, and neon tank presented a contrast to the individual I’d met the previous semester.

Then, he’d worn his Appleby’s uniform as often as his beloved purple hoodie. Often unkempt, his blond shaggy bangs obscured his eyes as he looked up from the front row.

In his mid-twenties, and seasoned by years of menial jobs and failed college attempts, he  finally had his shit together. He was also a stand-out writer – fluid and thoughtful in ways you just can’t teach.

I was so tickled, so thankful when a group from that class took my Comp II in the spring.  Tim was one of those students.

He came back from winter break with pink hair, and his physical transformation continued from there. Nose stud. Eye liner. He mixed up his clothes, discarding the functional, even dowdy, pieces of the past semester. Clearly, something had given way, and we were getting glimpses of a new Tim, or at least a side he’d kept hidden.

Then, in a journal entry, Tim revealed something he’d kept secret for awhile: he’s genderqueer.* The changes I’d seen suddenly made sense, and I was grateful for the opportunity to witness part of his evolution.

Unfortunately, Tim’s personal security seemed  inversely affected by  this transformation. Early that semester, he moved out of his parents’ house –  an unhealthy environment, apparently – and proceeded to couch hop through different homes. I honestly don’t know the specifics; I heard stuff piecemeal, following crumbs of information he dropped in our conferences.

Tim’s unsettled home life and brutal work schedule leveled his class performance. About the time we started Hamlet – a play I knew he’d love – he started skipping class, didn’t turn in assignments, then major essays. We met and discussed strategies for how he might proceed, but the strain became too much.

That day, outside our class, he came to tell me he wouldn’t finish.

That he couldn’t. That he needed to focus on courses he might pass.

He was visibly distraught, nearly crying, and I was conflicted. He’d taken so many knocks and was breaking apart right in front of me. What could I do? I wanted to give him hope, to tell him even his worst writing could pass.

I wanted to slip my arms around his waist and squeeze that hope into him. I wanted to take his face between my hands and tell him it would be okay, though I had no way of knowing, no right to tell him so. It seems so juvenile, so petty, to think that hugging Tim would help, but it’s all I had at that moment, when words failed me.

But I didn’t do it. I didn’t hug him, or tell him things would be okay, or plead with him to reconsider.

Was this what he really wanted, I asked.

He said it was.

Okay.

He turned away, and I walked into our waiting class.

Like so many times in the past, I was paralyzed by intense emotion. The struggle to say something helpful rendered me silent. The edict that teachers not touch their students stayed my arms, and instead of doing everything I could to help, in that moment, I did nothing.

I’ve replayed that moment hundreds of times, and I would give anything to change it, to do and say what was in my heart. I’ve tried to make it right ever since.

As soon as I got into class, students busy with a quiz, I emailed Tim asking him to rethink his decision. I told him, however, that I understood. I tried to communicate that I wasn’t angry with him, or disappointed, and that, ultimately, he needed to do what felt right.

I never heard back. I’ve tried emailing again, several times, even messaging on Facebook, but he hasn’t responded. It’s been five months. I don’t know if he’s upset with me, or embarrassed, or just hasn’t seen my correspondence, but I’m haunted by the knowledge that I didn’t respond as I should’ve that day, and that Tim doesn’t know why I seemed aloof.

It’s a strange dynamic, the relationship between students and teachers, especially at the college level. As teachers, we are commanded to keep professional distance, yet the best of us are passionate and take an interest in our students’ lives. We learn about them, and they us, and our paths get intertwined, somehow. This is especially the case in humanities classes, where we wrangle with issues of self expression and identity. The writing my students do – at least the best of it – depends on a particular intimacy and trust that spans between us. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Where does this leave teachers, then, when we lose a student? Or when it feels like we lose a student? How do we respond when we see turmoil and frustration but can do nothing to help?

I don’t know.

I’m not advocating that teachers become integral members of all students’ support systems – that’s asking too much. Yet, we do fill that role on occasion, for some students. What are we then? Friends? Mentors?

I’m reminded of Roethke’s poem “Elegy For Jane,” which ends with the speaker weeping over the grave of a former student:

…I speak the words of my love:

I, with no rights in this matter,

Neither father nor lover. (lines 20-22)

I care deeply for Tim, but I’ve reached the point where contacting him further would seem presumptuous or forward. Assuming he’s seen my messages, he doesn’t want to talk, so I won’t keep trying, at least not directly.

This post is my bottle cast to sea. It’s my way of saying, Tim, that I hope you’re okay and have found a measure of peace and stability. I want you to be happy in yourself. I think of you every time I teach “Ozymandias” because you loved it so, and I look for you in the hallways of my building. Perhaps I shouldn’t, or don’t have a right to worry about you any more. But I do, and if I could, I’d rewind to the last time I saw you, walking away. I’d call you back and reach out the way I’d wanted to then, but couldn’t.

………..

*I refer to Tim as “he” in this post because, at the time, he didn’t directly specify another gender identification.

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Winging It On the Web

I don’t like not knowing how to do things. You could say I’m a control freak, especially when it comes to creative endeavors. 

So, after saying good riddance to my dissertation in May – becoming a bonafide PhD – I switched gears completely and threw myself into learning HTML/CSS and the basics of CMSs. 

Some backstory: A fellow doctoral student and I are in the process of forming a literature-related online community, a combination webpage/Youtube page. We want complete control over how it looks – logos, navigation, overall look. I can’t do that on a standard WordPress.com site, so we considered upgrading or starting somewhere else, ending up on Bluehost using the Modx web building program. 

I went with Modx mainly because I can build a dynamic site using its system of chunks, snippets, and templates without knowing PHP. Overall, the design process has gone pretty well. I created a (basically) functional site (main pages and blog) from scratch, and I think that’s pretty good for only having two and a half months of training. I even have a version of this site hosted there, completely redesigned. It’s just not done yet. 

Here’s my problem. Although a quick learner, I have some pretty big knowledge gaps. I don’t know PHP or Javascript, which is problematic even on Modx, which relies on these behind the scenes.

I also learn on the fly, teaching myself stuff as I go along, which can be frustrating. Modx doesn’t have nearly the tech support/community as WordPress. Its forums have been great, but I haven’t been able to find as many online tutorials and Youtube videos showing how to use various elements and addons. 

And sometimes I just get stuck.

Like right now, where, on my revamped personal site, I’m trying to figure out the getPage program used for creating page navigation within the site. It’s just NOT WORKING. I’ve triple checked the calls and code – it should work, but it’s not, and I’ve spent all morning trying to fix it. 

I could (and probably will) post my issue to the Modx community forums, and someone will help me figure out the holdup, but I’m stubborn and I hate asking for help. I’m also self conscious about my lack of computer know-how. Posting makes me feel like an idiot, even though I know I’m not and no one’s ever treated me like one. 

Ultimately, what I’m realizing is that hosting my sites elsewhere – and making them functional/presentable – might take more time than I’ve got. Teaching takes up the bulk of my child-free hours during the day, and I’ve been spending all my nights/weekends ironing out web design problems rather than actually promoting and fleshing out my sites. I’ve put off getting the lit site up and running because I want to do it right.  

Even worse, in the 2-3 months I’ve been learning this stuff, I haven’t written anything of my own. That’s a monumental problem. 

I don’t want to say I’m giving up on learning the skills to build and run a professional site, but I am frustrated and impatient. Do I give up a good bit of creative control (and the sense of accomplishment on learning something new) in order to move forward more quickly with my project? 

I know I’m going to have to fill in those knowledge gaps I mentioned. I’m considering sitting in on classes offered where I teach. Indeed, we want our organization to be affiliated with my college, so there’s the potential of partnering with tech/design students who can help us run the site. 

But I’m a control freak, so that just doesn’t sit well with me. 

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Harold Bloom, on Reading

Came across this today while reading. It reminds me of why I read, why I’ve devoted my life to literature in one way or another. Enjoy!

There is no single way to read well, though there is a prime reason why we should read. Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found? If you are fortunate, you encounter a particular teacher who can help, yet finally you are alone, going on without further mediation. Reading well is one of the great pleasures solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in your friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life. –Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why, p. 19

 

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Goodbye, Grandpa K

I profiled my Grandpa K in an earlier post, and I’m sad to say he finally lost his battle with lung cancer two nights ago. He’d lived longer with it than anyone expected, only succumbing after nixing more rounds of chemo.

Tomorrow, my family and I make the long drive from east Tennessee to central Iowa. Fifteen hours in all. I have twenty first cousins and a team’s worth of aunts and uncles. Many still live in Iowa. I never got to see them much, growing up in TN, but I’m reminded each time we visit of how much I like my family.

Well, most of the time. A family as big as mine is crosshatched with differences of opinion, especially regarding politics and religion. We run the gamut. Tree-hugging liberals, the reddest of conservatives, agnostics, atheists, die-hard evangelicals, and those who are apathetic or ambivalent to all of the above. Settling service proceedings for my grandpa’s funeral, for instance, required a conference call between eight people, some of whom would just assume forego a church service and some of whom fought tooth and nail for just the right hymn and Bible reading. I’ve learned who I can talk to about religion and politics while visiting, keeping my mouth shut on such matters when around others. This trip will be no different.

Then there’s Aunt B. From the day she married my uncle, she’s done nothing but disparage my family. She delivers most of her taunts in the most backhanded, condescending manner, but she’s not above leveling absolutely maddening insults. My family is midwestern, which means we try to keep the peace, but Aunt B is enough to test the patience of the most stoic of Iowans.

My grandma K’s funeral almost, ALMOST, broke the veneer of tolerance between Aunt B and the rest of my family. Not because she insulted us, but because her assumed grief grated absurdly against her usual animosity towards the woman we were there to celebrate and mourn.

There we were, mingling, chatting with second cousins, trying to ignore the macabre spectacle that was my grandmother’s embalmed, be-coffined body in the corner. Aunt B – ever seeking attention – had been working the room, putting on her best “mourning” face. Really, she outdid herself. Then, about halfway through the event, Aunt B decided my grandma needed some color.

In the middle of a conversation, my Aunt S gasped and pointed over at the coffin. Aunt B was leaning over grandma’s body, applying lipstick.

To be sure, my grandma loved her lipstick. Her dark hair and blue eyes worked fabulously with a red lip, and she wore one whenever she could. But Aunt B shouldn’t have been the one to apply it.

In hindsight, I actually find this situation morbidly hilarious. It’s the sort of thing you’d find in a Eudora Welty short story, chronicling the chaos and madness of southern families. Thankfully, no one made a row over the incident. Perhaps we would’ve, if we’d been southern and not midwestern.

I am excited to see my family. I don’t look forward to the potential for discord, or the funeral arrangements, for that matter. The religious faction held sway during planning, and so my grandpa – the man who never willingly entered a church – is having a respectable, solemn funeral service. It seems more about satisfying the desires and concerns of the living (some of them, at least) than the will of the dead.

If I had my way, I’d perhaps follow a New Orleans tradition, and stage grandpa in a familiar pose, amongst familiar possessions. I might have him propped up in his golf cart (a birthday gift from his eight children, probably ten years ago), wearing his sweatpants and pullover, or a pair of shorts and jacket, with a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket. What he wore everyday in life. We’d make potato salad and hamburgers, and cut up some watermelon. Maybe we’d order in some pork tenderloins and chocolate malts from Starbuck’s (not the coffee chain but a local diner pre-dating it).

This is the way to honor grandpa K, and I’ll be thinking about it during the coming week, trying to enjoy my relatives and keep my cool in the family drama that is a loved one’s funeral.

Rest in peace, Grandpa. I hope there are Westerns playing wherever you’ve made your final destination.

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