Field Notes: Bi-Mart, 9:20 on a Workday Morning

Bi-Mart: Eighty-five stores in the Northwest, bright open spaces, imperceptible music, friendly staff in red or blue smocks—and stuck in the past.

But I had to go there. Our K-mart closed, our Fred Meyer wouldn’t have what I was looking for, and I knew that the store was easy to navigate once I got past the in-my-face greeter, the swinging red gate, and my attitude.

The parking lot is simple—open space with no berms or curbs. The layout is unassuming: electronics (not much to speak of) to the right, housewares straight in front with hardware behind it. Food and pharmacy on the left with camping and sports behind all that. Nothing would ever change at Bi-Mart, except the actual merchandise.

Garden section isn’t bad, either.

And the aisles are wide.

But the voice from my memory says, “Bi-Mart. No. You don’t shop there. It’s for retirees. Good for plastic bins and sometimes hardware.” That was the voice of a new friend, twenty-seven years ago, orienting me to Corvallis, telling me the shortcuts for getting from Point A to Point B.

I had just re-located from Berkeley to Corvallis, a town of thirty-five thousand. I had a two-year-old, a seven-month-old, a husband, an historic house undergoing major reconstruction, and a new position as an assistant professor in a field that was a step away from my expertise. I would be the first female professor in the department, and, as it turned out, the only female professor in the department, for the next nineteen years.

I had found daycare. I had not found diaper service, and besides, daycare wouldn’t permit cloth diapers even if we could find a service. I had found friendly people and enclaves of liberals. I had not found people who, like me, had a late start on academics because of adventures they had had before. But I wasn’t looking too hard. Getting from Point A toward Point B was taking all I had.

“Fred Meyer. That’s where you’ll find everything.”

That’s what my friend said. And that’s where I shopped.

~ ~ ~

Consider, with me, the years, as double slips of wax paper into which my memories are pressed. Hold them to the light. I see young children in primary-color clothing. They are rolling on tricycles beyond our picket fence. I see 4-H potlucks in our living room in which people and peculiar packages are spread on our flowered carpet for the doggy gift exchange. In front of me I see the my husband’s enormous backpack, and behind me, the foreheads of my children following along the trail. A teddy bear bobs over my son’s shoulder. A lambie is in my daughter’s hands. I see business trips afar, and airports, and vast grocery stores with foreign labels and nothing our kids will eat. I see my husband’s company parties—raucous, rowdy, and sometimes luxuriant. I see an emptier house after the divorce; the flowered carpet and, in the brightest moments, the children among the remnants that stay.

I see small conference rooms for committee meetings, filled mostly with men, and I see classrooms and computer monitors that grade, over the decades, from small to large to double. I see a walk with a new friend through pasture, wet woodland, and oak savanna. He has a metal thermos of hot chocolate, that from looking at the image, I can still taste. I see dogs. Graduations, my new husband in the bleachers at my side. My parents moving here, then moving through homes—the over-55 house, the independent living, assisted living, the first adult foster home where mom, smiling her brightest, will die. My new ID card glistens, the words Emeritus Faculty printed with the same weight as my name. I see my office whiteboard with the list of manuscripts that I still vow to finish. I see wild delphiniums. I see my son, grown up, explaining how to pet-sit his chinchillas. I see my daughter explaining the keypad on her apartment.  Brothers, both smiling, one on his new tractor, the other because he has just seen otters in a reservoir. I see so much wax paper the view is almost opaque.

My daughter’s old bedroom is what I see now. You can see it, too, with the uni-layer of boxes spread over beds and half the floor. Even you can hear the sigh that escapes me.

We see curled packs of photos nested into one another, bundles of letters, the rubber bands that held them now dotted lines, annealed. On the desk, we see twelve photo boxes; against the window, two plastic file boxes out which odd-shaped memorabilia peeks. But the bins look full.

To sort more photos or letters, you and I conclude, I need more supplies.

~ ~ ~

Bi-Mart doesn’t open particularly early, but by 9:20 on a Wednesday morning, there are already a dozen vehicles in the lot. I look down to deflect the “Hi, welcome,” from a red-uniformed greeter as I push through the swinging gate into the store proper. I withdraw a shopping cart, veer right to electronics, which also has office supplies, and grab two plastic file boxes. That’s why I’m I’m here.

By all rights, I should now push the cart to the checkout and leave.

I can’t draw myself to go.

I start in sundries where everything is familiar: spatulas, Corning ware, cute cutlery trays. But I get no shopping traction. I don’t want to be here: it’s a Wednesday and a workday–even though I’m no longer paid.

I wander past plumbing toward paints. I cut all the way across to Coleman sleeping bags, then turn toward toilet seat extenders before returning to electronics. I look at markers, put them down. I need nothing further. Why I can’t go, I don’t understand.

I follow shoppers, leaving an aisle between us. A woman wears a straw hat. Later, I will make small talk with her by the picture hooks. “I’ve always had good luck with Command,” she will tell me, and hold up a packet that says “3M Command.” She’s short, sixty-ish, and wears loose blue pants that can only be called dungarees. I will pick up two packets from that same display.

A couple with a three-year-old walk faster than most. A woman with a walker and a female assistant, the latter in her sixties, works her way to the cash registers. A chiffon scarf is laced through her upswept hair—reminiscent of the be-ribboned bodice I imagine Juliet wore while grieving Romeo in the ’68 movie I once fixated on. Another woman with a high hairline of gray rushes in a purple dress. Although she’s fast, her gaze shows she lacks a compass. A man wears a sports jacket over his tee-shirt. Another wears a faded vest with the name of his former employer—my former employer. I know him; he retired before I even thought that word. I turn away.

~ ~ ~

Some people lift items and place them into carts. Other people inspect items and put them back. Yet others are stopped to talk, to the person they came with, another shopper, or a clerk or re-stocker who has paused mid-bustle, like a docent at an art show.

I commandeer my cart through the store. It holds all that I can think to put in it: “plastic bins and sometimes hardware.”

The check-out woman uses the same line on me as on the customer before, about how, exactly, to swipe my card. I decide she has worked here so long that management can no longer suggest she loosen up.

My cart is aimed at the exit, but my arms steer it to left, to the counter behind which Amanda is shouts,“Hi” and “Welcome.”

“I have some questions,” I start, but I don’t know what my there are. “Is this place just for retired people?” She bends her neck and laughs. And laughs. And laughs. “No, but yes.”

I ask about plastics and hardware, and she laughs again.

She’s worked here seventeen years. “I bought in,” she explains. “Employee owned.”

Has the store changed? “Not much.”

What is the target clientele? “We do get a lot of the older people. Especially Lucky Number Tuesdays,” she says. I’ve never heard of Lucky Number Tuesdays, and Amanda is surprised. The grand winner this coming week will get an RCA Security Floodlight Camera. Twenty winners will get a Cool Daddy deep fat fryer, a Cuisinart toaster, a lawn trimmer, or a dashboard camera; and one in ten customers who show their card will get a Little Trees Car Freshener, which comes in a packet of three.

Amanda interrupts our discussion to greet.

I ask what Bi-Mart does to attract the seniors. “Conservative everything–not politics,” she corrects herself. She looks at the many rings on her fingers and giggles, saying that no one has said the rings are a problem. “No green hair though.” Then, “We’re not trendy; we carry the basics. Clothes that are easy to put on. Inexpensive. We add a personal touch. I personally know more than half the people who walk in here.”

Which brings me to the red gate and what it’s for. “We’re a membership store. Some stores are stricter than others. We’re not strict, but you need your card to return something.” She shows me the counting device, a beam of light beam that shines at a sensor across the gate. “Fourteen hundred people yesterday,” she says. “ ’Course, it was a Tuesday.”

She’s tickled when I ask if I might blog about Bi-Mart and use what she told me. I tell her I had a bias against the store, but that my bias is changing. And can I take and use her picture? “Of course,” she says, and in a show of theater, lets me photograph her outstretched fingers with all the rings.

“Hi, welcome,” she has to say before I’m sure I’ve snapped the photo. Then she tells a short man where to find plungers. “See,” she says. “That’s what they like about us.”

~ ~ ~

I never thought I’d be retired. Retired, yes. But retired, as in shopping at Bi-Mart for plastics and hardware at 9:20 on a workday, no. I never thought I’d be in the same broad demographic as the be-scarfed woman with the walker, the helpful lady with the dungarees. But my wax paper collage, your wax paper collage, their wax paper collages—they all amount to the same thing: memories of getting from Point A to Point B.

I turn from the welcome station to the aisles where the short man totters toward plungers. Some shoppers talk, some walk, some are bewildered. I am all of those. I am all of them.

Now I know why I’m at Bi-Mart. I’m searching for Point C.

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