Walmart + Pokemon = consumer hell

I start at Michael’s. I think it’s going to be a quick in and out job on this Saturday morning, purchasing some Pokémon cards and plastic sheets for trading cards, the ones that go in a 3-ring binder. Nick wants the sheets for his exploding collection of Pokémon cards. Jesse has decided she’s going to give Pokémon cards a try, so I’m going to buy her a starter deck as a prize for actually going to school 5 days this week and not giving up, despite a couple of hellaciously bad days. (Note to self: don’t forget her meds in the morning ever again. Empirical evidence is in: they are working.)

Nick doesn’t  play any actual Pokémon video games, because we don’t have a real gaming platform. Last year, the kids got a Wii box for Christmas, but apparently it’s 92 years out of date and the only games we can play on it are Super Mario, Wii sports, and a “Dance party” thing that measures how well you dance with your right hand, which is holding the Wii remote. Moving the remainder of your body is optional.

Nick also doesn’t play Pokémon card games, which are complicated affairs involving a lot of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and other forms of number and decision-tree manipulation well beyond his seven years. He just collects the cards, because that’s what his friends do on the playground after school. There is no end to card trading drama. It’s like a John Hughes teen flick, mixing together an unholy blend of tears, rage, and manipulation, the gloating glee of the jerk who takes advantage of the patsy, the tumultuous tantrum of the spoiled child who doesn’t get the card he wants, the depressing disappointment of the lonely child who can never make a good trade. It’s Pretty in Pokémon, only there are no teen girls in makeup and pink dresses or teen boys in carefully gelled hair and tight jeans. Instead, it’s a loose collection of sweet little 4- to 9-year old mostly boys in baggy elastic-waist pants with disheveled moms standing nearby, chatting amongst ourselves and pretending our spawn don’t exist for a brief moment until their cries of despair interrupt us.

“Trading” is a euphemism in this context. The kids don’t really “trade” cards.  They mostly seem to point and say things like “I want that one.” Having declared a proprietary interest, they then seek to extract the card by any means necessary, including offers of shit cards, threats of defriendment, whining and begging, sad-dog-face guilt trips, tantrums, and then, after adult intervention, something closer to a fair deal.

Swap parity and fair dealing are sophisticated ideas, not encapsulated yet in the minds  of children who have not achieved an age of double digits, nor yet in the minds of American politicians.

But I digress.

* * * * *

Pokémon is apparently a consuming hobby, filling the mind and soul with compelling images of critters of many colors and shapes. My kids want to know why most of the pocket monsters have large round bottoms. I have no answers. I hypothesize that it makes manufacturing the stuffed animals easier.

The corporate capacity of Pokémon is limitless. Last night we went to the “Pokémon Symphonic Evolutions” concert. As far as I can tell, it’s a corporate venture that travels city to city with its own score and conductor, parasitically relying on local orchestras to perform the music. Our performance was put on by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at the Riverside, a lovely local venue for shows. The orchestra is brilliant, so the sound was amazing. But it was still Pokémon music, and the whole time there was a huge screen playing video of Pokémon games past and present. It was sort of a musical history of Pokémon gaming.

What a strange scene. There were teens and young adults running hither and thither with their faces under-lit by hand-helds. I think they were hunting rare Pokémon Go specimens, which I understand show up when lots of Go gamers are in one place  together. These young’ns were chased down and harried back to wherever they belonged by wizened and unnerved ushers, walkie-talkies squawking nervously at their waists. It reminded me of handlers in a goat-feeding pen.

We made it to intermission; the kids were pooped because it was late, and Jesse was starting to act hostile, so we bugged out of the second half. I survived the first half by focusing my attention on the musicians. I haven’t been to a live orchestral show in so long, and the Milwaukee orchestra has a lot of talent. I almost forgot how much I love the wash of sound. It’s extraordinary that 50 or 60 people can get together on so many instruments and make one unified piece of music.  There was a huge horn and wind contingency, which I love. I think there were six french horns, and one of them is my friend Darcy, so that was cool. Plus she got us free tickets to the show. Nothing beats free tickets to a Pokémon Symphonic Evolutions concert.

The video screen blocked my view of the heads of everyone in the percussion section, so I was entertained for many minutes by watching their headless hands busy at work on the snares and other apparatus. The rest of the time I just stared at the surface of the little computer screen sitting in front of the conductor. It allowed her to stay on proper pace with the video feed, I eventually realized. It fed her the tempo.  Every few seconds, a huge circle would flash for a split-second on the screen, like a weird subliminal cue. I watched the circle from my vantage in the balconies, and swooned in a vaguely hypnotized state.

But still I  digress.

* * * * *

Nick is collecting Pokémon cards at an astronomical rate, spending his allowance every weekend on a new pack. Also he bullies, charms, and cajoles me almost daily. So far I’ve given in to buying him a special card box and a few small card packs, and renting him several Pokémon movies off Amazon.

The movies all suck, by the way. They all suck. When I bother to sit down and watch any piece of any one of them, I can literally feel my brain cells atrophying. I’m a horrible, horrible parent for letting Nick watch these stupid movies.

But at least I don’t feed him food dyes, so stop judging me. Just stop.

Nick has so many cards, plus a fancy box to put them in, but his friends have notebooks with trading card protector sheets and he wants those now. I passive aggressively find an empty three ring binder in the basement this morning. It’s covered in girly stripes and pink roses. I disregard the 3-ring that’s pure white, sitting on the bookshelf next to the floral arrangement binder. I run upstairs. “Is this a good notebook for your cards, Nick?” I asked.

Option one: “Nooo, that’s like a GIRL’s, I need one that’s different.” To which I have planned my response. “OK, then you can use your allowance next week to buy yourself a different one.”

Option two: “Yeah, that’s great!”

Nick opts for two, and for one tiny moment I regret raising a 21st century son, who doesn’t see color and design in terms of the male/female dichotomy. I continue to ponder this as I slip on my shoes and head out, in search of plastic protector pockets for his blessed Pokémon cards.

Being an optimist, I tell Anthony I’ll be back in 20 to 30 minutes, because Michael’s is only 5 minutes away.

It won’t be the first of my broken dreams.

I hit Michael’s — because doesn’t it carry shit like this? — and wander the aisles, pushing an empty cart in front of me. The first nine employees I pass look purposefully away from me just as my sad and needy eyes settle on each of their faces; they make themselves busy with some life-critical task, in aisles filled with stickers, stencils, popsicle sticks, and 400 variations of colored and textured paper. Ten minutes into my hunt (to me it feels like an eternity), someone finally takes pity and asks me what I’m looking for. I learn that Michael’s doesn’t carry Pokémon cards or card protectors, and I should try Walmart.

I process this terrible news as I wander back toward the exit. I stop for a moment to stare hopelessly at skeins of yarn. The yarn I see is literally three-quarters of an inch in diameter. I’ve never seen anything like it. I finger it for a moment and wonder if Jesse could work with it, with her tiny fingers. Then I spot the enormous needles for it around the corner. They look like nun-chuks with dangerously pointy ends. Not happening in my house. I vacate the premises at a quick pace, trying not to get too creeped out by the white styrofoam zombie heads I pass on the way.

* * * * *

Against my own better judgment, I type “Walmart” into Google maps on my phone. It’s just five minutes away. I decide to take the plunge. Because I love my spawn, and love makes us do crazy things. Love means never having to say you’re sorry, and also love means buying your kids Pokémon shit.

I never, ever shop at Walmart, for a variety of reasons. I won’t tell you why here, but I never go to Walmart. Today I break my tradition, and I follow the squiggly blue line on my phone to that consumer trap.

I head into the most massive warehouse I’ve ever been in, bigger even than a Costco warehouse, at least that’s what I think as I stand there. I sweep my eyes from left to right in an effort to orient myself. It’s hopeless. I’m right at the entrance, right where confused shoppers might enter and need help. But there’s no help to be found. I decide to just move toward the back of the store. Maybe I’ll find someone on the way. I pass Halloween candy and decor, kitchen pans, and socks. People are everywhere, touching things as they make their selections. People, babies, strollers, kids, people everywhere touching things, holding things up, appraising and comparing. There are so many choices of everything a human being could ever buy.

Somewhere near office supplies and televisions, just past the weirdly huge wall display of only Arm & Hammer products, I find a friendly-looking elderly employee, leaning calmly on an empty shopping card, who offers to help.

I take a breath. “I’m looking for Pokémon cards and card protector sheets that go in a 3-ring binder.”

She sweetly replies,  “I’m not sure about the protectors, hun, but I think I know where we can find Pokey-man cards, and maybe the sheets will be there too.”

Something about the ungainly way she pronounces the word “Pokémon” makes me feel a vague anxiety. She grabs her empty shopping cart and slowly executes a 3-point turn so that she can show me the way. She takes me past shoes and video games to an area populated by magazines and children’s books. She stops at a rack displaying math flash cards.

Oh dear.

She pores over the flash card sets, muttering about Pokey-man cards. I try to be gentle. “Um, Pokémon cards come in these sort of flashy foil packs? I don’t think they’ll be here.”

But she is not to be interrupted, and I don’t know how to walk away from her without being rude. So I don’t. She finally decides I’m right. She suggests I try toys; she’ll take me there. I wait patiently while she executes another 3-point turn with her shopping cart, and we chat as we amble along slowly, slowly, ever so slowly.

Employee: “You don’t know where the toy section is?”

Me: “Nope. I’ve never been in this store before.”

Employee: “Which entrance did you come in?”

Me: “The one in front.”

Employee, looking at me like I’m from Mars: “There are two entrances.”

Me: “Oh. Um, I walked in the first opening I saw.”

At about this point in our brief journey, my helper inexplicably seems to hit an invisible boundary wall. She stops and gives me directions to the toy section, and promptly abandons me.

I walk past children’s clothing, furniture, kitchen towels, and an entire aisle devoted to garbage cans. I rip my eyes away from the man inspecting a plastic pail in the same way I imagine a dermatologist looks at a person’s skin when she’s creating a mole map. I eventually find my way to the toy section. I go through every aisle and find nothing Pokémon-related.

I stop and think. Who can I ask who would have a clue? I noticed a video game area near the TVs. Surely someone there will know where I should go.

I head off in what I think is the right direction. I pass bicycles, tennis racquets, sports gear, and fishing poles. As I near the fishing poles and see signs about “sporting goods,” I remember reading something about Walmart selling a lot of guns and ammo and I start to notice a lot of camouflage-colored things. I hurry myself along and try to shake my mind off the topic of mass shootings. I can’t believe I’m devoting all this energy to a hunt for plastic protector sheets and Pokémon cards when our world is falling apart at the seams.

I find the counter at video games, and a tall, alert man greets me. I make my inquiry and he nods, in a way that informs me that he recognizes my ridiculous ignorance but won’t make fun of me directly for it. And he’s totally pulled together and articulate. He tells me exactly what row to go to for the card-protector plastic sheets, and he tells me exactly where to find the Pokémon cards — right up front at the exit, next to the self-checkout lanes. This extremely helpful Walmart employee is lucky to be standing on the other side of a tall counter. I’ve been in this eff’ing Walmart for at least twenty minutes now, and I’m so grateful for his help that, if the counter weren’t there, I would try to hug him.

Which I now know, thanks to many years of therapy with Jesse, would be inappropriate.

I hurry off to find the plastic sheets, past the cleaning supplies, bunting, and fabrics. I press myself past the ladies inspecting crochet and cross-stitch supplies and LO! I actually find the sheets in the stationery section, just as promised! Reasonably priced to boot! I squeak a little in excitement, and a man down the aisle gives me a sidelong look. I grab three packs, which is excessive, but I’m not sure that I’ll ever shop for plastic card sheets again, given how this is going, so I need enough to last a lifetime.

Next I find the self-checkout area, marching past diapers, strollers, adult lingerie, and men’s clothing along the way.  But I don’t see Pokémon cards anywhere. I go into the self-checkout pen; nothing. I look at all the displays in its vicinity; nothing. All I can see is candy.

And then serendipity strikes. Nearby, a man is standing patiently next to his shopping cart, unmoving, just as I am standing next to mine, unmoving. He appears to be waiting for someone. I’m just stumped. A woman comes up behind him with her cart and asks him to move for her, he’s blocking her way. I happen to look over as they jostle, and LO!

It turns out his body was blocking my view of the Pokémon cards.

Break into a rendition of Handel’s Hallelujah right now.

I spend a good five minutes trying to find the 60-card starter deck I want to get for Jesse, even though the cards are all jammed into a tiny 5-foot-by-5-foot zone of just three shelves. I’m rattled, all jangled up by my tour of the entire Walmart facility, and my eyes aren’t working well.  When I finally find the deck, I’m certain it magically materialized all of a sudden, because looked at exactly that spot at least a dozen times.

But I don’t have time to think about it, I have to get out of this place before I go mad with Walmart Dementia. With my precious selections in hand, I quickly use the self-checkout to pay. Incredibly, there are no hiccups. At least none that I notice.

I head out into the drizzle of a gray morning. It’s been well over an hour since I left home. I walk into the parking lot and realize I have no idea where I am. I look back at the store and now I see the two entrances in the monolithic facade. I’ve come out a different entrance than the one I went in, and I have no idea where my car is. I spend five minutes in the enormous, stuffed parking lot, dodging minivans left and right, and eventually I manage to find my car. I’m soggy from the rain. I turn the key, rev the engine, and put the car in reverse.

And then I wait two final minutes for two other cars to back up and then for 18 pedestrians to cross behind my car as they head casually here and there. I swear, they appear out of nowhere. It’s like Walmart is sending them to stop me from escaping.

* * * * *

But I do, I do escape.

Nick spends the rest of the day sorting his Pokémon cards and stuffing them into their plastic protector sheets. He chatters incessantly about his water-types fitting all on one sheet, and what in the world he’s going to do with his trainer cards, and yadda yadda yadda. I’m happy that he’s happy.

I give Jesse her cards, which is a real surprise to her, and explain that it’s just a small reward for the amount of courage she showed by going back to school every day last week, despite having a lot of trouble and doing a lot of humiliating things because of her Tourette’s. A true smile appears on her face, which is a rare treasure indeed, harder to hunt down than those stinking sheets and cards I’ve spent the morning buying.

So I guess it was worth it.



One thought on “Walmart + Pokemon = consumer hell

  1. You are hilarious. 🙂 I am honored to have made it into one of your blogs. And I let my kids eat food dyes and shop at Walmart, so I am a far worse parent than you are. Ha!!

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