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I stand in front of the display of coffee pots at Walmart, paralyzed for too many reasons. My own coffee pot—a free one from Gevalia that worked great for two years—has stopped working, so I need a new one. For the past two mornings I’ve been boiling my coffee in a big pot that I usually take camping; this is called “camp coffee”. My dad taught me to make it about 30 years ago: that’s how we made it in deer camp, and then for one full year when I was in college, I made camp coffee in my studio apartment. I didn’t want to waste money on a machine when I could boil it for free. That was a no-brainer.
Now that I’m an adult, I’m used to dealing with machines. I know how to get rid of a broken clothes dryer and arrange for a new one to appear in its place. I can unplug the cords from my computer, actually take the tower someplace else for repair, then bring it home, hook it back up, and it works. That in itself is a small miracle. I even have a car that I’m in charge of.
So I’m my own super, like Schneider on One Day at a Time, though I don’t particularly enjoy wielding my super-powers. That’s what a man is for, but every one of those I had went on the fritz too. I used to be more afraid of a broken garage door than I was of a broken heart, but not anymore—I toughened up because I had to. Despite all of that, picking out new appliances is still daunting. They’ll probably last longer than any boyfriend, so the pressure is always on to buy the right one.
All of this runs through my mind as I stand in Walmart, looking at the coffee pot display.
I’m also conflicted about shopping at Walmart in the first place. I’m an educated woman and have listened to bright people bash Walmart for years: “I refuse to shop there! They treat their employees like slaves. No benefits, long hours, no chance to advance—I’m not supporting that!” I know other people who won’t shop at Walmart because of the customers who shop there: low-income women with a gaggle of screaming kids, dirty men just off work picking up beer and a pizza, fat people. God forbid they insert their expensively clothed bodies and good manners into the fray of Walmart.
Whatever. Since Walmart is a half-mile from my house, I shop there. I’ve Chatty-Cathied employees before about whether or not advancement, raises, and benefits were available, and they all said yes. What’s the difference between shopping at Walmart and eating at McDonald’s? Who do you think makes the uniform your server is wearing when he hands over your kid’s Happy Meal? That’s right: the starving garment workers in Bangladesh. Get over it.
The coffee pots sit in a row at eye-level, looking relatively the same but for different prices.
They wait for my inspection, my tentative touch. Are you my new coffee pot? Is it that one? All I want is a machine that makes a pot full of drip coffee. I don’t want any fancy features. In fact, because I am me and this is my luck, the one I want is on display and out of back-ups: this is the only one left, the one that has been handled by millions of people with grubby hands, breathed on by cigarette and dollar-menu breath, sneezed into, germy for sure. Pregnant women and unemployed men have picked up the carafe to imagine what it would be like in their own kitchens. Carless apartment dwellers with dandruff have cradled this coffee machine in their arms, wondering if it’s light enough to carry home.
That’s the one I want, the one on display, because that’s how I build my immune system: by exposing myself to as many toxic things and situations as possible, hoping to become stronger and more resistant. I heard yesterday that one quarter of the patients after an Ebola outbreak end up being the nurses and doctors who care for the patients. I can totally relate to that kind of commitment, having abandoned myself to fate long ago.
I pick up the display model and carry it awkwardly up to the check-out, making sure not to trip on the cord or drop the carafe. I place it on the belt and it moves into the check-out lady’s line of vision. She looks at it and says, “Where’s the box?”
“It’s the display model,” I say. “It’s the last one left. I don’t care if it works; I’ll bring it back if it doesn’t.”
After conferring with the assistant manager—more proof, incidentally, of one’s potential for moving up the ladder at Walmart—the check-out lady tells me that I can’t buy the display coffee pot.
“Why not?” I ask. The Mystery of the Unavailable Display Model is about to unravel.
“Because it could be defective from customer handling,” she says. “It could be cracked. We don’t wanna be responsible in case it leaks and you get burned.”
I push out my lower lip, say thanks anyway, and leave without the coffee maker. I am sure that this particular machine—a plain Black and Decker—is the one meant for me, but there’s no way I can have it. I drive across the street to Target and find another Black and Decker that is brand new and still in the box, but it’s not the same model as the one at Walmart. It’s a couple steps up. I give in and buy it, and in a matter of minutes, something fancy is coming home with me.
I’m more nervous about this than I should be.