Wednesday, September 17

Times are hard

Well, after seven years with my current employer, it finally happened, I had to visit Bentonville Arkansas for a day of big fat Wal-Mart meetings. Pretty much everyone I work with visits Bentonville at least once a month for business. Looks like I'll now be one of those folks. Here are my first impressions of Bentonville, AR:

First of all, as we drove the back roads to our hotel, I couldn't help but notice the absolutely enormous cluster of three crosses lit up and looming over a nearby church. I've never seen anything like it. Being the rude heathen that I am, I blurted out "Praise Jesus, stage right!" Inappropriate? Yes. Could I help myself? No.

Bentonville is remarkably built up considering the entire city revolves around one retailer but when that one retailer is the Wal-Mart it's not so hard to believe. I was traveling in a pack of eight women. We all agreed to grab some dinner in the hotel restaurant at 10:00 pm after we checked-in. The poor waiter and busboy handling our table seemed completely freaked out by so much estrogen at one table. The poor guy pouring our wine did so with shaking hands. I'm not sure why we were so scary but we were. With new eyes I looked around the table and for the first time realized I work with some very pretty woman. I honestly don't think about it but that poor kid seemed to be very aware. Of course, nobody seemed to bat an eye at the 2 dozen men around the bar and lounge watching Monday Night Football but my gang of alpha females was apparently quite terrifying. I guess I'm just used to them.

As we left the restaurant to get some sleep, I noticed a sign at the end of the bar that said, simply "Times are hard, $2 beer helps". Amen.

While at breakfast a co-worker opened the paper to the weather section to check out the US map. "Where are we anyway?" she asked. I laughed and said "I know! I woke up this morning and realized I wasn't even sure where Arkansas was. It's over Louisiana, right?" Thank God I was right. The airport and news station kept referring to themselves as NorthWest Arkansas but I still have no real idea of where I was in terms of state lines. I'll have to look that up.

By the way, my favorite means of learning about a new city is to enjoy their local morning news crew. LA and NYC are very similar while most other markets are very relaxed and borderline goofy. They also tend to be hilarious although not always deliberately. It's always a great window into a place.

After going downstairs for my complementary breakfast (Fresh omelet bar? Sweet!) I returned to my room to change into my Spanx and business clothes. It was then that I had a terrible Paris Hilton variety thought. I was passing a rather large, scenic window when the sun hit my eyes. I thought, 'Sheesh! What's with that sun?!' as if I could actually be annoyed with the sun. What a bitch! It was, however, the brightest sun I've ever seen. It was then that I realized that Bentonville lacks the smoggy haze that diffuses my every day So Cal sun. It's bright people. Very bright. It almost blinded me.

Later, and armed with shades, a co-worker and I decided to visit a local Wal-Mart in preparation for our meeting. It was the best looking Wal-Mart I've ever seen. I can't begin to imagine the pressure on that store's Manager. It's within a few miles of Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters and was absolutely pristine. I was sort of in awe if it when my co-worker tugged on my shirt and said "Oh my God! Did you see that guy?!" I looked down the immaculate isle and saw a couple walking away. "They were both a little dirty but he had no upper teeth except for one big center buck tooth." I was so bummed that I missed that. I just mumbled something about it being the Ozark country (again...Bitch!). The same co-worker, while driving us off to our first meeting, stopped, pointed and said "Oh God... was that seriously a dead armadillo?" It was. I had been trying to ignore it.

All meetings and Wal-Mart store visits and meals were located somewhere off highway 540. I must say it makes getting around very simple. I was absolutely gobsmacked by the lack of traffic. While out and about at lunchtime we were stuck at a red light behind 5 cars when our sales guy said "What do you think of our traffic?" *sigh* I actually thought about what it might be like to move to a Bentonville-like city after I got a load of their highway traffic on the way to dinner. The highway was two lanes on either side and it looked about as busy as LA traffic at 4:00 am on a Sunday morning. Besides the jeep next to us, that was missing a door (don't worry the passenger was safely strapped in with a seat belt), there were only about a dozen or so other cars driving way ahead, behind and around us. I don't know if I'll ever get over that sight. It's a serious "pro" in the pro/con list. A friend and I discussed the pros and cons for living in a rural area and ultimately decided we'd always have to live within an hour of a Trader Joe's and a Laemmle theater to remain happy.

We had a very nice dinner at a great little place called the James at the Mill restaurant. The food was great and a good time was had by all. I even had some wine, which I never bother with.

So now I'm back at home and happy about it. All in all it was a good trip. My meetings went better than I'd dared hope and I'm feeling good about visiting again. Still, I'm torn about working with Wal-Mart. I've been boycotting them since 60 Minutes did a big expose on them about 20 years ago. I've been avoiding working on the Wal-Mart account for years but I can't avoid it anymore. The people are extraordinarily kind and smart I just have a problem with some of their controversial business practices. I realize this makes me a hypocrite and it bothers me but if I'm going to put on my big girl pants and succeed in my job I have to work with these guys. The power of Wal-Mart is a mighty thing indeed. I'm oddly fascinated by it. Sort of way I'd be drawn to Voldemort if ever confronted by him. It's weird.

This morning I met a friend downstairs and we stopped to get coffee for the road. She spotted a basket with political Beenie Babies. She picked up the blue donkey and squeezed it with a Oh how cute!" She then picked up the red elephant and pretended to kick it across the store and stomp it to a pulp. I, of course, cracked up but as we walked away I said :You know that check out girl thinks we're in league with the devil." My friend just shrugged.

On the way to the airport our sales person pointed out an enormous Wal-Mart distribution center that is over a mile long and God only knows how wide. I've never seen anything like it. How's that for sticking it to the stuck up city slicker? It was a rather surprising trip. Arkansas is a very pretty place and one I won't mind visiting again.

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