At the Seneca Hotel, on Chestnut Street, Chicago, things are not going well. I’m without stoicism: my room is a chilly suite with glass-topped tables and a tomb-like kitchenette, wherein the elements rise up from the stove in sinister curls. When I turn on the electricity, they reek of burnt hair. If I don’t get out of the Seneca and walk, I’m going to do something gratuitously inhumane — which would be doubly bad, given that I’m here to attend the Chicago Humanities Festival.
I’m not getting on with the desk staff either — they’re brusque to the point of being rude. They couldn’t give a shit about my alarm calls or messages, and when I wither at them for helming a great concrete ship like this, with no internet access to be had — they wither right back. Nevertheless, when I ask how far it is to the nearest Wal-Mart, I do manage to spark some interest. “Whydjew wanna know that?” says one, and when I reply that I’m minded to buy some socks, she observes that, “There’s a Walgreens on the next corner.” I concede this — but it’s Wal-Mart I want, and I’m desirous of walking there. “Walking? That’s gonna take you, like, a million years.”
Quite possibly, I concede, then quote the hotel’s namesake: “If virtue precedes us every step will be safe.” Clearly, my interlocutor doesn’t know her Seneca, for she looks bemused. Then she consults MapQuest on her computer and prints me out a sheet: “The nearest is at forty-six hundred up on West North, it’s 5.7 miles away…”
“But that’s driving, right?”
I estimate an eight-mile walk — at any rate, it takes me two-and-a-half hours at a good clip. It’s a sunny Sunday brunchtime and the downtown streets are thronged with big people in leather and silk pointing at big buildings in glass and steel. Then, as I plod out over Goose Island and under the Kennedy Expressway, everything begins to stretch out — including the homeless men who are sleeping beneath its squat piers.
Chicago is the grid city ne plus ultra: the principal avenues and cross streets are at mile intervals, with eight blocks to the mile. The numbering — both of streets and properties — is savagely ordinal, radiating from a fixed point. A Chicagoan will give you directions simply in hundreds, as above.
I meditate on this as I troll through the fringes of trendy Ukrainian Village, then the dinky clapboard streets of West Town. I’m walking to Wal-Mart to buy some socks, a) because I need them, and b) because in some occult way I believe this will bring me face-to-face with the primal profit drive that powers American society. If Chicago, with its triumphal skyscrapers, were to be upended, it would form a towering block graph on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan, and so fuse reality and representation.
Wal-Mart, the biggest company on earth, with its two million employees, and its annual turnover of $315 billion. When Dubya cut tax in 2004, the family of the founder, Sam Walton, made $9,500 an hour by this break alone. Walton catapulted this global empire of tat into the air, using the tedious gusset of a pair of two-barred tricot panties with an elasticated waist, after observing that if he bought said pants at $2 per dozen, and only marked-up a little, he could still make more profit on increased turnover.
Through Humboldt Park, empty save for cops and geese, then past the HQ of Illinois National Guard — a Babylonian burial chamber, complete with sentinel griffins — and on along North Avenue, for block after block, mile after mile. I am a tiny human pen describing a flat line past moribund storefronts, and empty lots, their fences strung with razor-wire. Is it fanciful to think that Wal-Mart has sucked the commercial life out of Austin and Gatewood, where — wouldn’t you know — the population is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic? Probably not: one economist, after remorseless number-crunching, reached the conclusion that over a 10-year period, the net impact of the business was to help keep just 20,000 poor US families afloat.
And then there it is, big, certainly — but not humongous. More like any old Asda that’s been bingeing on welfare cheques. Inside it’s a barn full of stuff for sale — nothing obviously malevolent. The coffee concession is called Uncle Remus’s, and there’s an offer on key lime pie. I buy my socks. I pay. I leave.
At the bus stop I fall into conversation with a guy who bums a cigarette. He’s on his way to work flipping burgers at a Wendy’s way over on the other side of town. “It’s aggravating work,” he explains between puffs. Aggravating and poorly paid — like Wal-Mart. Nevertheless, despite the fact he’s broke until payday, and he only has one tooth in his mouth, he could teach Seneca a thing or two about stoicism.