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Invasion of the Wal Martians

The Wal Mart shareholders meeting and extravaganza was last week.  Once a year thousands of shareholders and associates (employees aka Wal Martians) converge at Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas campus here at Fayetteville.  There are free concerts by some big names in entertainment.  This year, Sir Elton John showed up.  Celebrities also make surprise appearances.  This year it was Hugh Jackman (who performed a song from Les Miserables) and Tom Cruise.
If you grew up here, as I did, it’s a bit mind-boggling that these people find their way here at all.  It’s a testament to Wal Mart’s influence and deep pockets.  Having the world’s largest retailer headquartered a few miles up the road adds a different layer of quirkiness to Faytown.  The Big W has always been up in Bentonville, but it hasn’t always been the world’s largest retailer.  If you’ve been here for a while it’s like having the goose that lays the golden eggs grow up from a gosling in your back yard.

I’ve just started writing a novel about Fayetteville that takes place just before and during shareholders week.  It’s a quirky humor story I’ve had stowed in my brain for a few years now and the time feels right to start it.  Friday night I took an information-gathering field trip to Dickson Street because I knew some Wal Martians would be there to dine out and cut loose after the last day of the event.  I took a friend with good vision so he could point out weird and funny people.
Since my vision got worse ten years ago, there are few things I miss more than people-watching.  
It was a perfect evening to be outside—low humidity and in the 70s.  We ate outside on the balcony at Hog Haus—a perfect vantage point to observe Arkansas’ favorite street.

I wanted to talk to at least one foreign Wal Martian and I wasn’t disappointed.  A table of British Wal Mart associates was at another table on the balcony.  One young woman had on a blue T-shirt with a Superman logo on front and a red cape with writing on the back.  It was something about the British version of Wallyworld and it was the ice-breaker I needed.

It turned out she was from Yorkshire, the same part of England my family came from a few hundred years ago.  She chatted with us quite a while and I asked her if she’d seen Elton John before.

“No, he’s too expensive to see in England.”  I loved the irony of her seeing a fellow Brit performing in Arkansas of all places.  I wondered what the place must look like to all these foreign visitors.  Then her friend from Manchester joined her.  For a country around the size of Arkansas, the accent can change a lot from place to place.  Her friend said something that didn’t even sound like English.

“What did she say?” I asked my friend.

They all laughed.

“She said a lot of people here can’t understand her.”

Later we ran into other English Wal Martians on the street asking for directions to a karaoke bar.  Why, I wondered, would they want to hear karaoke with all these great bands performing?  But I didn’t want to sound like I was looking down on their culture.  I know Brits like to get drunk and sing in pubs over there.  Hearing an English accent (I never encountered people from any other countries) added a bit of surreality to a street long known as a place where you might see or hear just about anything.

My biggest laugh came when some women told us they were from an area of England called The Midlands.

“You know—where the big rugby stadium is,” she said.

We never heard of that and tried to explain where The Midlands is.
“Well, I figured you weren’t from Midland, Texas,” I joked.

“No, if I was from Texas I’d sound like this…”  Then she did (or tried to do) a Texas accent.  I couldn’t understand what she said even after she repeated it for me.  Trust me, it was hilarious.
By this time next year I plan to buy some Wal Mart stock so I can observe it all up close.  I’d like to think I’ll be finished with the novel by then, but it’s unlikely.  Part of the plot will require me to research a few things I don’t know much about.  I wish that information gathering could be as fun as Friday was.  Most of it will involve looking things up online.

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