According to the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office, Lopez consumed $32.36 worth of food and wine. She also allegedly carried in her purse and backpack two empty syringes, which she told detectives had been used to inject crystal meth. Lopez reportedly said she was homeless.
Drugs were her downfall; food, a temporary relief. This familiar sad tale was newsworthy only because it occurred on a Walmart sales floor, so often the setting for stories of joy, heartbreak, pathos and protest. If all the world’s a stage, Walmart in America is the largest set by far: 775,425,188 square feet if you count Sam’s Club.
As of Nov. 30, the U.S. houses 4,655 Walmart retail units, many of them discount department stores and supermarkets rolled into one. The number of Target stores is just about one-fourth that total. In a country of convenient consumption, Walmart is your proverbial one-stop-shop, but we continue to act surprised when an event unrelated to shopping, yet inextricably tied to everyday American life, happens to occur within its walls.
John Lennon famously crooned, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Sometimes — more often than most people think — life is what happens to you while you’re simultaneously looking for kid’s birthday party decorations and bulk Alfredo sauce.
One of the year’s most tragic inside-Walmart stories happened a couple days before 2015 actually began, in an Idaho store where a young mother was shopping with her three children. Her 2-year-old son sat in the shopping cart, where Veronica Rutledge, the mother, had also placed her purse. Inside the purse was a gun.
Rutledge was looking at electronics when the shot was fired, her toddler inadvertently pulling the trigger on the bullet that pierced his 29-year-old mother’s skull and ended her life.
The store in Hayden, Ida. was evacuated, and Walmart recognized the “very sad incident” in a short statement. It happened five days after Christmas, two before New Year’s. It became a rejoinder to a year tragically rife with accidental shootings by children and an increasingly heated national debate about gun legislation.
“They carried [a gun] every day of their lives, and they shot extensively,” Rutledge’s father-in-law, Terry Rutledge, said of the victim and her husband in an interview with The Washington Post the following day. “They loved it. Odd as it may sound, we are gun people.”
The incident wasn’t the only shooting to take place in or around a Walmart. In April, an Arizona family assaulted a Walmart employee and proceeded to disarm and shoot a police officer who arrived on the scene. Three members of the family were known for being a part of the Christian band Matthew 24 Now.
Elsewhere, stores went into lockdown and customers were terrorized by a gunman who threatened to shoot. The year before, amid roiling tensions over police brutality towards African Americans, a 22-year-old black man named John Crawford III was shot to death by an officer in an Ohio Walmart after picking up a pellet gun from the store’s sporting goods section.
Walmart provided the setting for other political debates, too. This November, a Mississippi man was charged with throwing an explosive device into a Walmart allegedly in protest of the fact that the chain ceased to sell the Confederate flag.
“He said he didn’t like their policies and that they were anti-American,” Tupelo Police Chief Brian Aguirre told The Post. The device didn’t do any damage, but it got its message across: to remove the Confederate flag from Walmart, of all places, was an affront to the country that made it possible for such a retail giant to thrive.
While Walmart became the end of the road for some, it was the very beginning for others. This past year, at least two babies were born inside stores: one in Tennessee, and another in Alabama.
The stories read like the plot of “Where the Heart Is,” a novel and 2000 movie starring Natalie Portman as a pregnant teenager who ends up living and giving birth inside an Oklahoma Walmart. The in-store delivery makes her character, Novalee, somewhat of a celebrity, garnering a $500 cash gift from the Walmart president.
This may have been on the mind of a woman who handed a newborn girl, amniotic fluid and all, to a couple in a Colorado Walmart parking lot in January. The couple proceeded to drop the infant off at a nearby fire station, one of the state’s designated “safe havens” where a parent can relinquish a baby, unharmed, without being subject to prosecution. Walmart stores didn’t make the list.
Life, death. What’s next?
For years, a Walmart store in Fort Smith, Ark., had been Renate Stumpf’s place of work. This past February, it became the spot where she said “yes” — again — to her 75-year-old ex-husband.
Stumpf, also 75, was standing in the pasta aisle, just below a sign that read “LOW PRICE $1.50,” when Louis Demetriades walked up behind her with a large sign that read: “Happy Valentine’s Day! Will you marry me?”
The couple met at an army base in Germany when they were both 18, married, moved to the U.S. and had three children, according to ABC. The union ended 13 years later and was only reignited in December 2014, after each of their respective second spouses passed away.
“The love has never passed,” Stumpf told ABC.
Walmart seems to have a particular romantic cachet among the elderly. Two years ago, Walmart employees Don Evans and Lois Free wed in front of the bike rack in the Idaho store where they met in 2012, after their former spouses both died the year before.
Evans worked in the bike section, and Free in sporting goods. After the ceremony, they wheeled away in electric shopping carts with pop cans dangling from the backs.
“Our circle of friends is a Walmart, Evans told the Coeur d’Alene Press. “They’re like an extended family. Having it here made it nice. She asked management and they said, ‘Of course.’ So here we are.”
A 2013 study of “missed connection” posts on Craigslist by Psychology Today did indeed find that Walmart is what it called “a leading love incubator” in 15 states, a locale where people “encounter irresistible strangers they want to flirt with,” as Fox News Magazine put it.
Not everyone is enthusiastic enough about Walmart to exchange vows inside one of its stores. When President Barack Obama spoke at a San Jose Walmart in September of 2014, praising the store for energy efficiency, he was roundly criticized by labor union members and activists who said that Walmart’s historically low-wage jobs have played a major role in the income gap that the president is supposedly trying to bridge.
But his presence would have fit in nicely with the conspiracy theories surrounding the military’s “Operation Jade Helm” training exercise, which was being closely watched in Texas as preparation for a secret plot to impose martial law on the country. When five Walmarts in four states closed down word circulated that the shuttered big box stores were going to be used to conceal secret underground tunnels in collaboration with the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security for use as staging areas once martial law kicked in or perhaps as secret detention centers for locking up dissidents.
But politics aside, sometimes Walmart does inadvertently provide shelter for the wayward.
A 45-year-old Michigan woman settled for at least 2 days in a 24-hour Walmart after her son kicked her out of their shared home because of her drinking problem. She was “evicted” after employees noticed her on security cameras, ABC 30 reported, but even then she displayed a steadfast resolve to stay right where she was.
When police officers arrived, they found her sitting in a chair using her laptop, with headphones in her ears.
“Save Money,” check. “Live Better?” The jury’s divided on that.
Perhaps she learned about the retail-cum-camping destination from a 14-year-old runaway who made himself at home for 54 hours at a Walmart in Corsicana, Tex., the year before. He had just about everything he needed — a makeshift bed buried behind boxes, some snacks, a pet fish. Ultimately, it was a trail of trash that gave him up, according to reports.
“I’m really — I’m surprised somebody hasn’t already been doing that because they have everything,” shopper Lou Walter told NBC DFW at the time. “You can exist in Wal-Mart.”