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In a nation acclaimed for its freedoms of expression and speech once lived two neighboring kumquat store owners, each serving customers from all races, political bents and religions.

Both businesses flourished even though they offered the same quality and size of kumquats.

Because local residents had such a hankering for juicy kumquats, there were enough sales to keep both stores successful. Every week the local paper ran advertisements from each as they tried outdoing each other for customers. In this country, they called that approach the competitive free enterprise system.

Though it was always nip-and-tuck in the kumquat market, things rocked along smoothly for the first few years, until ...

One owner suddenly decided to needlessly alienate at least half of his customers by voicing personal political views in advertisements and in his behavior toward those who believed differently than he.

He placed an enormous banner above his storefront that read: "Kumquat customers who don't hate the same elected leaders we do obviously consume far too many of our nuts."

Having successfully run his competitive business for years in the face of stiff competition hadn't been enough to satisfy him. He believed everyone needed to know his feelings on politics. Any customer, even long-term loyalists who'd helped keep him afloat but whose thoughts differed from his own, understandably began feeling uncomfortable in his store.

Meanwhile, his competitor two blocks down the street erected an even larger flashing sign that read: "Customers: Feel free to believe as you will. Kumquats 20 percent off."

As weeks passed, the hardened political owner watched sales steadily plummet while his competitor's kumquat sales flourished. And the worse this contrived situation became, the more defensive he became toward more than half of his former customers who, after all, had only been interested in purchasing ripe kumquats minus recriminations.

After three months the activist's store, unable to hold its own financially, held a going out of business sale. Yet even with kumquats marked 12 for a dollar, that last gasp only attracted the most ardent of those who endorsed the owner's harsh views.

The man finally shuttered his business, but reopened weeks later as a store that offered political paraphernalia, which again appealed only to those who supported his opinions. Alas, that effort soon failed due to the woeful lack of customers. His application to teach marketing skills at the Wharton School was rejected.

The last anyone saw of the activist businessman, he was down the street wearing a white hockey mask, trying his best to shop incognito for, you guessed it, kumquats on sale.

Into the beast

I'd put off what awaited as long as possible. Pacing the parking lot asphalt was only delaying the inevitable. The block behemoth before me waited in stony silence, knowing I'd soon be walking through its sliding glass jaws into the belly of the beast.

Finally gathering enough courage, I cut like a nimble halfback through the steady stream of oncoming traffic to reach the entrance alive. I watched as its doors opened invitingly.

Another adventure in Wally World was about to unfold. The scene spread before me could have been filmed in the Star Wars bar. People of all ages, shapes and sizes wearing everything from slacks to torn jeans, flowered moo-moos and dingy coveralls scurried back and forth following their wire cages on wheels. Well, actually, there was more leaning than following.

They were joined by those I like to call the Walmart low-rollers. These are the quasi-shoppers who enjoy driving the electric basket buggies leisurely through relatively narrow aisles to survey the rows of packages, cans and bottles of potential edibles.

I regularly have close encounters with low-rollers. This time I drew a deep breath and courageously exited the vegetable and fish aisle hoping to simply survive, but turned sharply to rear-end another driver who'd chosen to park in that spot. Say, you suppose it's still a good idea to attach numbers to these carts and hold daily races around the store's farthest edges? I digress.

Today's adventure within the beast would be different, I vowed with a straight face. I would maneuver my push cart with determination, ever watchful (even over my shoulder) for the next gotcha!

Despite the careful approach, it took only minutes before I'd accidentally brushed against a clearly beleaguered mother trailing four kids, unintentionally became trapped between several carts blocking either side of the Jack Mackerel aisle, and came face to face in a standoff with an elderly man in a workshirt emblazoned Mort as I tried departing the milk cooler melee.

Then I dutifully waited sixth back in the checkout line and tried, without success, to make the beleaguered cashier smile. Finally back in the sunshine and rejoicing my stay within the beast was mercifully over, I loaded several plastic bags into the trunk, in the process realizing the one containing turnips and rutabagas were missing.

Surveying the 60 yards of mayhem and exhaust fumes separating me from my forgotten groceries, I quickly calculated the contribution to be worth about $6 and figured it wasn't worth the price of re-admission. I'd already enjoyed more than my fair share of adventure for one day.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at [email protected]

Editorial on 03/24/2019

Print Headline: MIKE MASTERSON: Self-alienation

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