When Lewis Carroll wrote Through the Looking Glass, it’s because he went to Walmart in Lancaster, Pennsylvania at midnight with some chick named Alice. Sure, that may not be what your high-school English teacher told you, but after my own adventures of the sort last Friday, I’m pretty convinced that was his inspiration.
Like the iconic lamppost in Narnia where Lucy met Mr. Tumnus, our point of reference in this story is an overpass* on the Lincoln Highway. *Upon further discussion with my qualified cartographer, Google Maps, I discovered there were multiple overpasses, so I’m not quite sure which one is “THE Overpass”, as you will learn about later on.
Our story begins at HippoCamp16, a creative non-fiction writing conference set in the heart of downtown Lancaster. Navigating this metropolis proved to be more difficult than expected, considering it’s basically a real-life Sim City representation (building a city in the middle of a cornfield ensures it will never get attacked by giant robotic spiders, right?).
After finally getting settled in and finding the correct parking lot, I was pretty sure I had planted my roots for the next few days. However, the universe had another plan, and a mysterious force* pulled me toward the vintage television decorating The Angry Computer booth. *AKA Casey Telesk
“I need one of those things that has all the old Atari games on it. Will you take me to Target?” he asked.
“Does Target have them?”
“I don’t know. I’ll call, but my battery only has 2%.” As expected, the phone died before the Target Team Member could either confirm or deny the accuracy of the online inventory.
“They close at 11? In 30 minutes?” I inquired.
“Yeah, but it’s only 13 minutes away.”
I’m never one to pass on a shopping challenge. So, it’s Target or bust!
10:38 pm: We find my trusted Subaru snuggled in for the evening in the parking garage, and without much time to explain why I’m rousing the beast when I promised I wouldn’t have to drive it again until my 8-hour journey home on Sunday, I started the engine.
“Shit. Both our phones are dead. How do we know where to go?”
“I brought my car charger.” I proudly plugged my phone in, metaphorically patting myself on the back for being smart enough to remember it. Hashtag Two Master’s Degrees.
10:40 pm: We finally left the parking garage, having exactly twenty minutes to go 10 minutes away according to my aforementioned cartographer friend, who felt it necessary to repeatedly flash the words “Target will be closing soon!” in orange lettering across my screen.
During the drive, it felt incredibly darker than usual, and when I was instructed to “turn left in 300 ft.” I had to make a quick, sharp turn onto a barely visible side road that looked like nothing more than a field. It was then that I realized my headlights weren’t on. My Sube has daytime driving lights, which are always on unless you physically shut them off, which I don’t remember doing. Oddity #1. (Make a list, there’s more to come.)
10:54 pm: We arrived at Target with six minutes to spare, according to the Team Member at the door. When I worked in retail, I always promised I’d never be *that* customer. The one who comes in right before close on a Friday night with a ton of questions. Yet there we were, quickly traversing the retail landscape in search of an electronic device reminiscent of a 1980’s video game. I suggested we head back to the Electronics department, where we found the poster-boy* for the retail stereotype of middle-aged stock boys. He was definitely in a hurry to get home in time for his MMORPG guild’s midnight dragon raid. *I don’t normally judge people, but it’s OK to objectify people because the Olympics are on. Hashtag Overheard at Hippo.
“Do you have those plug-and-play Atari games?” I asked him.
Blank stare. I really hoped he didn’t freeze up like this when faced with the Dragon of Penultimate Loot, cause he’s looked like a total N00b right then. Thankfully, the Level 100 Ultra-Mage from Management stepped in to help him.
“No. We only have those at the holidays.”
Sensing their annoyance at our endless* amount of questions, I asked where the nearest Walmart was. You know the age old adage: “Where there’s a will, there’s a Walmart.” *translation: one.
“It’s pretty far away.” Stock-boy raider answered.
“What’s far away?” I sought clarification.
“Like 5 miles. But you have to go under the overpass…” his voice trails off to emphasize the hassle that getting to Walmart from our current coordinates would be. Oddity #2.
“There aren’t any 24-hour Radio Shacks nearby?” Casey inquired. The joke flew over stock-boy’s head like a car traveling on the overpass.
10:59 pm: Yes. We were literally only in Target for three minutes. Thanks to my handy Walmart app, I was able to locate the nearest store, presumably under the overpass that would, for some reason, be a burden to drive beneath.
After ensuring that my headlights were on, I put my trust back into my beloved cartographer, who laid out a path* to the retail conglomerate. *On the way there, we passed a famous Lancaster landmark, Dutch Wonderland, a PA Dutch themed amusement park, to which my passenger was not familiar with. I have a picture of me milking a fake cow there when I was about 8.
I’m not sure if it was the overpass, or just the lack of battery power that results from using intensive GPS applications while charging through a cigarette lighter outlet, but right after we drove underneath, my cartographer appeared to have some sort of brain-freeze or absence seizure, and decided not to tell me that Walmart was directly to my left! Oddity #3. We were patiently waiting for the light to turn green to continue straight, when Casey noticed the bright yellow asterisk on the Walmart sign.
“So, Walmart’s right there.”
Again, I channeled my inner Vin Diesel and pulled off a sharp left turn, crossing three lanes of traffic* in an effort that made me question why Subarus aren’t one of the stars of The Fast and the Furious franchise. *Granted it was late and there wasn’t a lot of traffic, but still F&F worthy in my eyes.
And now, my friends, is where we’ve taken that first step through the mirror, rummaged around to the back of the wardrobe, followed the yellow brick road, or pixie-dusted away. No matter which literary fantasy world* you prefer, we were right there in the thick of it. *Wonderland, Narnia, Oz, and Neverland, respectively, in case you don’t fancy rabbits, fauns, munchkins, or tick-tock-crocs.
11:07 pm: We pulled into the wasteland of the Walmart parking lot. Empty shopping carts, left abandoned wherever they were last used, gave off a Rapture-esque vibe, as if their corresponding shoppers had been called upon. Quiet, dark, desolate. We got a spot close to the door, and were one of only a handful of other cars in the lot.
11:08 pm: Back to electronics. Didn’t get distracted by “Rollbacks” strategically placed near the entrance. Focused. We searched endlessly, tirelessly, through the entire department only to come up empty-handed.
“Let’s take a quick walk through toys. There’s got to be something we can use.” I suggest, still not wavering on my shopping challenge.
We rounded the first corner aisle, and like instinct my eyes locked to a black box with familiar yellow character. Suddenly, the light from Heaven above* shone down on this piece of merchandise, as the rest of the store became blurry, out-of-focus. All that existed in this life was contained inside that piece of painted cardboard. We have indulged in Tea with the Mad Hatter, eaten Turkish Delight with the Snow Queen, revealed the man behind the curtain, and parleyed with Captain Hook, and now standing before us was the Holy Grail of retro arcade games: PAC-MAN. *Quite possibly, it was the green fluorescence from the overhead lights.
11:20 pm: PAC-MAN plug-and-play in hand, along with RF converter and other accessories, we headed to the check-out. In typical Walmart fashion, there was approximately three registers open and about ten-thousand customers in line.
“Dude? Did we time-travel? Cause I haven’t seen lines like this since Black Friday and I don’t remember eating Thanksgiving Dinner yesterday.” Even more surprising to me was the notion that all of these people missed out on the Parking Lot Rapture, which apparently took all their cars too. Oddity #4.
As we waited in the self-checkout line, I suggested we get batteries for the game. Thankfully, the Mensa of Merchandising has studied consumer trends for years and has kept the impulse buys well stocked at retail facilities nationwide. I found an 8-pack of AA’s, which was, according to the package, “Ideal for flashlights, cameras, and robots.” I figured PAC-MAN fit somewhere between flashlight and robot, so I grabbed them.
The problem with impulse racks, is that it does, in fact, make people impulsive. That’s where we found the gallon of milk and box of Lucky Charms.
“What kind of world is it where people just discard temperature-controlled items like this?” Casey pondered the plight of our planet as the couple behind us found solace in our apparent silliness. Once we finally made it to the self-checkout, things went smoother than would be expected. I don’t think I’ve ever not put an “unknown item in the bagging area”, but this scan was successful.
“They totally thought we were high.” I motioned to the couple that once waited patiently behind us.
11:40 pm: PAC-MAN in hand, we headed back to the desolation of the parking lot, where I realize I my gas tank is quite low. Thankfully, cartographer is back in business, and informs me that there is a nearby Turkey Hill*. *A gas station, not an actual grassy knoll filled with birds, though I’m now convinced anything in Lancaster is possible.
11:45 pm: Gas tank filled, my stomach rumbled. I think the mashed potato martini* has worn off, and I grabbed a bag of pretzels, my PA go-to since the Midwest doesn’t understand what actual edible food is. We waited for the older woman in front of us to finish checking out – a total of $200 worth of scratch-off lottery tickets, $50 worth credited in winnings from the ones she cashed in. Oddity #5. *Mashed potatoes dressed and consumed from a martini glass, because even carbs are upscale when you tout them around in a social atmosphere.
“Can I get a pack of American Spirit yellow?” Casey asked when the lady leaves.
The cashier, a tired, haggard, middle-aged man, likely annoyed that he’s missing the guild’s midnight raid for work, mumbles: “Need to cut back on those.”
I immediately shifted into defensive mode. I am well aware that the Olympics are still on, and judging is fair game, but really?
“She usually buys about $1000 a month in tickets. She’s needed to cut back.” The cashier explains, unknowingly saving himself from my inner Rosie Perez.
11:47 pm: We walked back to the car, anxious to get to the booth and transform it into the interactive beast we dreamed of. “I totally thought he was telling you to cut back on the cigarettes.”
“Ha! Me too.” Casey confirmed I wasn’t as tightly-wound as I had originally thought.
I opened the bag of pretzels and dove in. I was sharing a room, and didn’t want to be forever regarded as the roommate who crunched pretzels post-midnight. The silence broken by the loud chewing. Wasn’t going to happen. I had to eat them in the car, and so I did.
12:02 am: We returned to the hotel safely, however one can’t say we were unchanged. We stopped by the front desk to be granted permission to work on the booth, located on the third floor of the hotel, at such a late (early?) hour.
A befuddled manager looked at us like we had two heads, and I almost checked my reflection in the shiny lobby table to ensure that the underpass didn’t actually transform me into a creature deserving of a midnight guild raid.
“Your booth is in the common area right? That’s public. You’re fine.” He says.
12:05 am: Back at the booth, we brainstormed. And rearranged. And added. And subtracted. But something was still off. As a non-native English speaking young man changed the trash bags outside the conference rooms, we continued to pour over the contents of the booth.
“You wouldn’t happen to have another table would you?” Casey asked the young man, who was dressed all in black. “You work here right?”
Secretly, I had hoped he said “no,” because the story of a random guy who wanders around fancy hotels stealing trash bags is so much cooler.
The young man disappeared, only to return with his supervisor, an older white man who was incredibly friendly. Like super friendly. Like ridiculously helpful.
Now it may seem like the night had begun to settle down. However, we were merely approaching the Queen of Heart’s garden. That crazy Cheshire Cat had at least one or two more tricks up his disappearing sleeve.
12:30 am: After an additional table had been gotten, and the young maintenance crew awaited orders from their boss, we were just about to really sink our teeth into the meat of the work we had to do.
“You don’t happen to have any pieces of cardboard, or like a dumpster I can rummage through, do you?” Casey asks the man-in-charge.
“Legally, they can’t tell you yes.” I quip.
The hyper-friendly bossman chuckles. “We have some leftover signage from other conferences. Why don’t you come with me to pick some out? It’ll be easier that way.”
He dismissed the rest of the staff for the evening, and the three of us headed to some super-secret signage room. We passed an employee cafeteria, locker-rooms, an AV storage closet, some of the dismissed employees, and a historic house that apparently exists in the hotel*. There, we hit the backer board jackpot: A six foot by three-foot signage leftover from a marketing conference in May. Hashtag blessed. Oddity #6. *Exactly what is going on down here?!
Bossman left us to find our own way out, like two NYC movers carrying a random piece of glass across Park Ave. As we approached the elevator, we realized it’d take some finagling to get the backer board into the elevator.
12:45 am: We returned from our excursion into the publicly unknown parts of the hotel and the real transformation began.
2:30 am: I stopped being the nice friend who cares about other’s opinions. My management background came out, and I jumped in. No longer seeking permission for my actions, I created signs, set up merchandise, and displayed book covers appropriately. “Dammit Justin, stand up!” I had said repeatedly, as the makeshift frame for the cover of Justin Kassab’s latest novel, Strays, refused to stabilize.
3:00 am: PAC-MAN success. Television adjusted, and game functioning correctly. Bedtime is looking more and more like something I might achieve this evening.
3:30 am: Two words: Trash Boards. Two pieces of a dark espresso bed frame proved to be our ticket out of the porthole. We had one final mission: To secure the #CosmonautPhotoBooth to the backer board using spray adhesive. Then we could go to bed. Luxurious bed. The comfy down duvet, and an assortment of fresh, cool pillows were only one secure cosmonaut away.
3:38 am: Stationed in an alley beside the hotel, we spread the cosmonaut poster- which had been taped to the top of the backer board inside- out on the side walk and liberally sprayed the back with adhesive. However, being that it was still approximately 80 degrees with 1 million percent humidity, the conditions weren’t ideal for spraying. Also, from the outside perspective, it appeared we were graffiti artists, tagging the side of the Marriot with a cool name like “Ice” or “Rogue” or “Pete,” which is what one can only assume the cops thought as they drove by, peering into the alley. Our time was limited.
3:40 am: We’ve waited long enough for the adhesive to get tacky, and thanks to the almighty Trash Boards, we were able to smooth the poster onto the backer with as much finesse as two tired misfits sweating in a side alley in Lancaster, PA can do.
3:50 am: The end was in sight. Not a thing out of place in the booth…Damnit Justin! After re-stabilizing Strays, we called it.
Many hours later, many different configurations, and many different experiences. The porthole was closing. It was now or never if we expected to return to HippoCamp 16.
4:00 am: I settled into bed. I really wanted to eat some more pretzels, but if I was opposed to eating pretzels in the dark at midnight, I certainly wasn’t going to be the roommate who chomped at 4 in the morning. Breakfast was in three hours. Hashtag Friendship.
Check out The Angry Computer for awesome designs including Werner Herzog Greeting Cards!