It Is What It Is?
My friend Pete is a former cop in Miami. A Cuban-Italian, he’s seen some things and done some things and frequently tells me that his philosophy on life is that the bravest thing people do each day is to get up. You know, carry on, face another day, not throw in the towel, face the world.
But I only got up today to buy a gun. And it gets worse: a Walmart gun. I sense Pete frowning somewhere inside Dade County. Some days, maybe it’s just better not to get up after all.
Western North Carolina, a sparkling new Walmart. It’s bright and antiseptic unlike the dingy, fetid Walmarts I’m used to near the Rez and on the eastside of Indianapolis. My boys and I are road-tripping. We’re on the ‘Buying a Gun in The US Tour, 2010.’ In the South, I figure this will be like getting an ice cream cone. No big deal. So, even though I know nothing about guns, ammunition, or caring for firearms properly, I approach the clerk at Walmart with certainty and confidence and tell him, rather than ask him, that I want a gun and I mean right now. The clerk isn’t wearing the ridiculous blue vest and he looks a little like the morbidly obese guy who runs the comic book store in “The Simpsons.” He isn’t as fat and his breathing isn’t as labored, but he strikes me like the cartoon guy. I try to remember if that character in “The Simpsons” wears a hairnet or not. I can’t remember. It’s funny where your mind meanders when you’re buying your first gun.
I stay firm, on task, and - to use a George W. Bush word - “resolute.” Must have gun. I send my kids to go look at video games but they come back with a tub of green Hawaiian Punch which they inform me only costs $1.97. I’d planned on buying a gun only but all right, a gun and some Lemon-Lime Splash Hawaiian Punch in the twenty items or less check out lane might be fun.
The clerk is apologetic, almost ashamed. He says, in hushed tones, “We don’t actually sell guns at this particular store.” He seems concerned beyond a normal clerk-can’t-do- what-customer-wants level, maybe because I seem to have my entire existence based upon leaving this store with a firearm. Maybe he thinks I’ll get belligerent, or at least bellicose. But I’m quietly intense, staring without blinking, calm. I won’t get loud, I just want my gun. So I say, “This is the South. People here are angry. Republicans. You believe in guns.”
The clerk counters tentatively, “This is he South,” – he confirms as if talking to an unpredictable child – “but we are near Asheville and this is a liberal sort of ‘artsy’ area.” He makes the finger quotes as he says artsy. His fingers are pudgy. I sense that he’s been rejected by liberal, “artsy” people in Asheville. I almost feel bad for him but I’m too focused on getting a weapon to be overly empathetic. His tale will sidetrack me, I think. I get sidetracked too easily as it is. His air quotes reminded me of the group Finger Eleven and I don’t like them. They remind me of Nickelback, horrible Nickelback. I pull my attention back to the clerk.
“\Walmart thought it would be best not to sell guns in this store yet,” he explains. Yet, huh. Well, I’m not waiting for the suits in Bentonville, Arkansas to change their mind. I pack the kids in the car with the tub of neon juice and we start our westward trek toward the Rez. My lease hasn’t run out yet on the Reservation so we’re headed to see how the other 1/ 99th lives on the Zuni tribal reservation in western New Mexico. I’ve been gone for a few months and I haven’t missed the dust, dirt, and squalor one bit, so we’re taking the slow, scenic, indirect route. I dread and loathe the thought of returning, actually. I just don’t have any other home at the moment. And I have my heart set on getting a gun before we get there. In fact, my entire existence revolves around it.
Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma offer revealing case studies in socio-economics as we traverse the country. Tennessee and Oklahoma are relatively affluent and pleasant but Arkansas is a completely backward-ass armpit with seemingly no redeeming value. It seems hard to believe we elected a president from such a place. The women are hefty, the hotel is dank and the mosquitoes and gnats seem to be having a population war. I apply the “law of professional sports” as an economic theory. If a state has a major league sports franchise of any kind – i.e. Tennessee Titans of the NFL or Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA – it will be relatively more economically developed compared to a state that is professionally sportless. Think of the states that lack professional sports entirely: the West Virginias, Mississippis, Alabamas, Dakotas, Kentucky, New Mexico, and most definitely Arkansas. They’re basically desolate shitholes. It’s strange where your mind wanders when you’re fixated on getting a firearm. Economic theories come and go along the way. I decide, based purely on my subjective perceptions, that no Walmart in Oklahoma would possibly deny me a weapon. I do a little online research and learn that the Asheville incident was no fluke. Seems all newly built Walmarts lack a firearms counter but the ones built prior to 1999 are virtual arsenals, stocked to the ceiling tiles with weaponry. I seek only shopworn, weather-beaten Walmarts from here on out. Paydirt. I enter a store near Checotha, Oklahoma, which seems really proud to be the hometown of Carrie Underwood. My mind wanders again. Did she win season three or season four of American Idol? Is Ryan Seacrest in denial about being gay? Why does Joel McHale hate Ryan Seacrest so much? Is vanilla Ice still alive? There’s the high school football stadium – did Carrie Underwood go to games drunk? Is Tony Romo a douchebag? I wonder all sorts of things until I spot the Walmart. I’d done my research – store built in 1981. These yokels will sell me a Howitzer if I can haul it out of here. My kids ask if we can eat at Chuck E. Cheese’s afterward. It’s right next to the Walmart.
The store has guns galore. I don’t know shit about guns but once fired a few shots with a brilliantly drunken, jaded professor of mine in college. We’d taken potshots at his abandoned refrigerator with a .38 caliber revolver so you go with what you know. Dwight, the all-business clerk, unlocks a sliding glass case to get to some models for closer inspection. The Dwight vibe is intensely pro-gun. I sense that he wishes he was a few years older so he could have fought in the Korean Conflict. I used to want to be older so I could have been at Woodstock, getting stoned out of my mind. His fantasies may involve storming hills and killing commies. Mine involved watching colors melt while listening to Jimi Hendrix.
I like the looks of the Smith & Wesson 38 special, Model 60, which retails for $623. My eyes glow and I pet the gun like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Dwight seems okay with it all. But he clarifies that around these parts, a 38 special is considered a “woman’s gun.” I wonder if women are given 38 specials as anniversary gifts, stocking stuffers or for their birthdays. I am extremely ready to ask Dwight if Carrie Underwood toted a 38 special but I suppress it. I have this man-of-few-words aura going for me to mask my ignorance. I nod every once in awhile. Then Dwight finally asks what I’d hoped he wouldn’t. He wants to know if I’ve ever owned a firearm before. Nope. He seems stunned, hurt, genuinely confused. How could I have lived for more than four decades without owning a firearm. He clearly wants to help me.
“If I had my way,” he says, “you pay for this gun and take it out of here now like the Constitution says you can.” What does Dwight do for fun, I wonder. Does he like Jack Black movies? I again suppress the urge to analyze the Second Amendment with Dwight and just nod slowly. I fill out a form, a questionnaire actually, which asks about my legal history, mental state, and so on. Am I stalker? Am I under a restraining order? What do I want to do with the firearm? Under the part which asks about "previous firearm safety courses," I write, "Shot at a fridge with my professor." The high and low of all this is that under the Brady Bill, I have to wait three days to get my gun. I tell Dwight see you in three days. I tell my kids no to Chuck E. Cheese’s, explaining vengefully that if I didn’t get my damn gun they don’t get no damn pizza and game tokens. Stupid Brady Bill, my oldest screams. We find a Baymont Inn with a pool and a hot-tub two towns over.
Reflective musings later that evening: A gun bought at Walmart, it just seemed empty somehow. A hollow gesture. Would you buy an engagement ring at Walmart? Fine china? See what I mean? A tub of green belly wash, yes. But something meaningful and life changing? I wouldn’t even buy a flat screen TV there. It’s like eating and dining. You don’t ‘dine’ at McDonald’s. Was I blowing it? I wish I could talk to someone about this, even the Simpson’s guy at the North Carolina Walmart. No, he was too agreeable, too needy of a friend. He wouldn’t play the devil’s advocate. And not Dwight. He’d never perceive the options, the other side of the coin. I doubt Ryan Seacrest or Vanilla Ice would be of much help, even if I knew them. Who? I call Pete in Miami and lay the whole thing out for him.
Next installment: “Would you like bullets with that?.”