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I should have known there would be cosmic payback for my last visit to Walmart. The story thus far: I had gone to that bastion of unfettered capitalism on the day before Christmas. I needed to buy a set of snow chains to be able to journey through the snow for a family getaway. It was the only place that carried them and there was but one pair of chains left on an empty shelf in the store. I grabbed them just before another man was able to do so.  This left me to ponder an ethical, moral, maybe spiritual choice. I could have been the Good Samaritan. Instead, I stole Christmas from that poor soul in a move that would have made the Grinch proud.  

And now for the epilog to that episode.  

The tire chains were the wrong size. (Why else would they be the last ones in the Walmart store on Christmas Eve day?) Now I had to return them to Walmart. Oh, and I had lost the receipt.  
There is only one thing worse than shopping at Walmart. And that is returning merchandise to said establishment. I lugged the hundred pounds of iron links like a convict on a chain gang. I made it across the rain-drenched parking lot and into the store only to find, at 7:45 a.m. on an average Tuesday, that the line was already around the block. I  waited patiently for my turn at the returns desk. I amused myself by reading the very gracious statement hanging on a poster in the returns area. It was a Happy Sign and it was warm and welcoming to all Walmart customers. These beloved customers, who were practically family, said Happy Sign, could return anything. No receipt necessary, it exclaimed. And all this because Walmart delighted in filling our hearts with joy.   

I waited patiently with expectations high. Under the glow of fluorescent lights, amid the cacophony of screaming babies, beeping carts, crackling loudspeaker announcements about something called “aisle safety checks,”  I tried to pass the time. After doing email, reading an e-book or two and playing four or five games of chess on my phone, I looked up to see that my turn had arrived. Natasha, my clerk, spoke with a thick Russian (I think) accent.   

“Have receipt?” she inquired, rolling that R just right.  

“No,” I said, contently, since Happy Sign made it clear this was just a formality.   

She scanned the item.  

“Oh, no,” she said, “These cost $69.50"  

As I already knew this information, I did not see how it warranted a woeful tone in her voice.  

“Yes,” I said. “And I would like a full refund.”  

“But that is over $25.”  

Again, with the unnecessary information Natasha. Everybody knows $69.50 is more than $25. I expected next she would enlighten me with other obvious minutiae, such as the fact that the sky is blue.  

“Must have receipt for over $25,” she said.  

Hmm. I scanned Happy Sign again. No receipt necessary, it said. I had read it correctly. No reference to a magical $25 threshold. I relayed this information to Natasha, pointing to Happy Sign for her edification.  

She bent down, disappearing from sight, and I could hear her rustling with papers under the counter. She resurfaced with a binder and began to flip through its dog-eared pages. She found something and pointed to some very fine print, which I could not read from a distance, especially since it was upside down to me.  

“Here,” she said, maintaining a perfect batting average with her pronunciation of a rolled R.  

I asked for the manager. She got on the loudspeaker, summoning someone named Jonah. A thin mustachioed gray-haired gentleman appeared. His name appeared to be Jonah. He spoke briefly with Natasha. And then he turned to me to explain, in an ever-cheery voice, that even though Happy Sign said no receipt was necessary, it was not what the sign meant. Because the manual hidden under the desk said in very fine print that a receipt was in fact needed for anything over $25.  

We debated this paradox for a few minutes. He could see he was getting nowhere with me. He offered to have me speak to his manager.   

“Please,” I said. Now, I thought, maybe we can get somewhere with the Head Honcho Big Manager.  

More minutes passed. Then someone named Julia appeared. This diminutive young woman who could have passed for a junior high school student was, apparently, the Head Honcho Big Manager. But, whatever her age, she was well trained and did not deviate from the script.   

“It’s clearly stated on the web site,” she said.  

“I’m not on the web site,” I explained, “I’m in your store. And this is what your sign says,” I said, pointing to Happy Sign, also known as the promised land of enlightenment and reason.  

She had no interest in gaining new wisdom. I had no interest in seeing how Walmart makes money by deceiving its customer with deceptive practices.   

The conversation — argument really — continued with neither side budging a proverbial inch. She walked away. I stormed out of the establishment, chains in tow.  

After a few minutes in the rain, I cooled off. As I returned, Jonah saw me coming. He scurried quickly to do some kind of paper work. He approached me and offered a gift certificate in lieu of actual cash. The last thing I wanted to do was shop at Walmart but I took the offer.  

“Only thing is,” he said, “we won’t be able to do this again. So just try to remember your receipt for the next time,” he said.  

I nodded and smiled. I didn’t bother to tell him that this constituted my third visit to Walmart. That’s three visits in my entire life. And this would be the last.

A Christmas story 

I’m not what you might call a religious person.

So the fact that I found myself in the High Church of Capitalism, also known as Walmart,  on Christmas Eve day was, to say the least, unusual. But sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. And in this case what a man had to do was provide for his family by securing a set of tire chains for traveling up into the mountains. We would be celebrating Christmas there. A fresh blanket of the white stuff had just fallen and the only way to reach our destination would be with chains. And apparently the only place that carried them was Walmart.

I arrived in the parking lot of the biggest of big box stores at 7:08 a.m. The place was already buzzing, but inside it was relatively calm. A Christmas miracle right there. I asked for directions to the automotive/hardware department and an employee, who was quite cheerful given the day ahead and the prospect of earning below minimum wage, guided me to the back of the store.

I looked out to the horizon, past the acres of plastic toys, synthetic clothes and 200,000 other unnecessary items on the shelves and proceeded on a brisk hike. I arrived at my destination and found the automotive accessories. There was one shelf completely empty. I knew immediately what this signified.  I wasn’t the only one who had this idea. The entire population of Bay Area residents was also planning on being in the snow for Christmas. Every box of tire chains at our local Walmart had been wiped out.

But then a little sparkle of something blue on the bottom shelf caught my eye.  It was the very last package of chains, hiding in the corner and waiting just for me. Another Christmas miracle.

As I laid my hand on the gift from heaven, or maybe from Saint Sam Walton, another customer came around the corner. He stopped, stunned at the sight. In a timid voice he asked: “Is that the last one?”

“I’m afraid so,” I said.

He smiled, trying to conceal his disappointment. I knew what he was thinking: If Walmart, which has everything in the entire world, didn’t have tire chains, there would be none to be found anywhere.

This put me into a quandary. Here was a humble father in need, trying to reach his destination, just like Joseph. What if his Mary was sitting in his car in the Walmart lot, waiting patiently? How would they make it to Bethlehem?

What was I to do?  Would I be the Good Samaritan and help the blessed couple (soon to be three, no doubt) on their way? Or would I show the indifference of the innkeeper and turn them away?

I took the box to the cash register and high-tailed it out of the store. After all, it was his family vs. mine. As anybody who has ever been in a Walmart knows, it's all about survival of the fittest.

Merry Christmas.