Just about as soon as I published my last blog post, the people I pitched the essay to wrote me back. They asked how the Kmart thing is going. Had I done the reporting I had intended to? Good question.
Here’s me getting some thoughts down.
Not long ago, I stumbled upon this comment after reading a generic news story about Kmart’s highly endangered status (the gist: there are 3 stores still operant in the continental U.S.).
The people who populate the Kmart project I’m working on are exactly the sort of people James is ribbing with this comment here: Kmart tear shedders. I might as well call the essay ‘Shedding a Tear for Kmart.’ Alternate title: ‘Of All Places.’
I’m interested in what’s going on—culturally, politically, socially, psychically, personally, emotionally, insert adverb—with the Kmart mourners. How to make sense of this particular flavor of American melancholia? But if this is the concern of the essay as a whole, here I’d like to address a few points (questions, premises) living inside James’ comment. If I want to change James’ mind, I better start with my own.
The first is: what is worth shedding a tear over?
In 2022, a tear is a stake in the ground. Men like myself love to preface a content recommendation with ‘this actually make me cry’ as if this fact were a small miracle. Like a dream, or a lol, a tear is hard to fake. A tear is real. It’s beyond you and therefore totally of you. It’s proof, a reification of your truest allegiances. So be careful what you cry over.
But is James specifically decrying the imagined weeper’s misplaced emotional commitment? That is, were the Kmart mourner also weeping over climate change and the redevelopment of cities, that would be better, in his eyes, right? Would James give the okay to someone who was weeping for the earth, the city, and Kmart all in one fell weep? One must have one’s priorities straight. What is worth missing? Who gets to say?
The second essential question: Why is it silly or wrong or pathetic to shed a tear over Kmart?
On the infrequent occasions you hear Kmart invoked in these post-‘unprecedented times’ times—in a tweet, a TV show, or cultural product—what’s the connotation? What does Kmart mean in 2022? My supposition: there will almost certainly be an ironic, knowing, postmodern-adjacent edge to the reference, followed by an semiotic aftertaste of small-town Middle America decline/depression. Maybe this is obvious.
Exhibit A: The awful Hulu show with Elle Fanning—The Girl From Plainville (2022) —wherein the show’s inciting incident is a young man committing suicide in a Kmart parking lot.
Exhibit B: This bumper sticker someone sent me, the kind sold in little boutiquey places with like LaCroix candles and shirts about having mental illness. The bumper sticker says I GOT TO THIRD BASE IN THE PARKING LOT OF AN ABANDONED KMART. There’s a little arty hand-drawn Kmart logo on it.
Exhibit C: This brief image from a LitHub essay on the aftermath of the once-popular literary genre known as Kmart realism: “…the vaping, Monster-drinking, white rapper who sells you Percocet in an abandoned Kmart parking lot…”
In each of these instances, as far as I can tell, Kmart is signifier of class (particularly, low-/middle-/working class), of an everyday Americanness that is not partially cheery and not particularly stable. For the Kmart realists of the 1980s, Kmart once signified the encroaching specter of corporatized consumer capitalism in small-town America; now, the store represents something past, something no longer, a nostalgia wedged between the lost retrofuture and the Internet-induced blankness of the real future. You did not get to third base in the parking lot of a Pottery Barn. The cyber-bullied high-schooler did not end his life in the parking lot of an abandoned Whole Foods. In this mythology, the vaping, Monster-drinking, PJ wearing, Cookie Monster hat-having, white SoundCloud rapper does not sell you Percocet in the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s. He sells it to you in an abandoned Kmart parking lot. (Of course the stores are abandoned. Everything else seems to be.)
I think what you’re trying to say when you say you got to third base in the parking lot of an abandoned Kmart is that you are not a coastal elite, not silver-spoon fed, not fake. You come from the land of four-lane thoroughfares, gas stations, strip malls, somewhere not far from the bland nowhereness of the edge of a town no one’s probably ever heard of. You are a true blooded, salt of the earth, [insert dead metaphor] American, that place it’s insanely easy and reasonable to hate. You know the taste of fast food. You know the watery rush of the interstate from miles off. It’s in your bones. You know. When you peel back the adhesive on the bumper sticker’s far side and place it on the back of your car for all to see, you are trying to say the thing you would never otherwise say directly, because in more explicit terms it could come across as gauche.
You kind of secretly love where you are from.
Here’s the weird thing. For the hardcore Kmart fan, Kmart is just Kmart. Their love for the store is sincere, humorless. (See: the former bio of subreddit r/Kmart: ‘A discount department store of love.’) I think what Kmart means to the hardcore Kmart fan is something awfully close to what it means for the ironic bumper sticker buyer, just by a different route. It’s a way to weep for where we’re from. Of all places.