Untied we stand

The people of Arizona, I’ve discovered on my current travel here, may be slightly more patriotic than those in California. I base this observation on the large number of American flags I’ve seen flapping off car antennas, fastened to license plates, taped on rear windows and hanging from store fronts and store signs. I’m on this adventure to the Grand Canyon State with my 7-year-old son. I’ve taken him out of school for a week, figuring a guy won’t fall too far behind second-grade studies in just a week. Plus, this is a learning adventure in itself: We’re counting flags.

As I write this from my sister’s home in Mesa, my son is in the living room watching James Bond in The World is Not Enough. (Let’s just consider this “recess.") We bought the videocassette version of the movie in a Wal-Mart in Lake Havasu City, home of the London Bridge. We stopped into the Wal-Mart to buy the newest Aaron Carter CD. My son was tired of listening to Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. ("His voice sounds like a big fat guy, Dad.") Lake Havasu City is a weird tourist/retirement town built on the fact the London Bridge was relocated here 35 years ago for no apparent useful reason.

Before seeing the bridge, we decide to go to Wal-Mart and look for Aaron Carter’s latest offering. No luck. Either it’s sold out or Wal-Mart considers the language on the 13-year-old singing sensation’s CD too offensive and refuses to carry it. We buy the James Bond movie instead, along with a Harry Potter greeting card, film and a map of Arizona. We get in the line of a checkout clerk named Barbara, who has an impressive collection of patriotic medals and buttons (along with her nametag) hanging from her Wal-Mart-issued vest. The total comes to $21.81. I hand her a $100 bill. She looks at it like she’s never seen one before, then opens her drawer. “I can’t change this,” she announces. “I need to get a CSM.” She calls to another checker. “Can you change this?” she asks, holding the offending bill aloft. No, can’t be done. We stand there in silence. I’m dumfounded that the largest corporation in history can’t give me $78.19 in change.

Two elderly women get in line behind me. Barbara says nothing and looks hard into endless aisles of merchandise. A few minutes pass. I look at my son. He looks at me. I look at Barbara. “Are we going to do anything?” I ask. “We need a CSM,” she repeats. I’m thinking that must mean “cash shortage manager.” I ask one of the women behind me if she has change for a $100. She looks into her wallet and counts out five 20s. Then she stops. “But I’ll be in the same position you’re in if I give you my 20s,” she points out. Finally, after about 10 more minutes, Barbara gets on the phone to request a CSM. Apparently calling for a CSM is not an encouraged option here at Wal-Mart.

At last a woman with more buttons and medals on her vest than even Barbara has arrives with a stack of bills. Her name is Hope. She is the CSM. She looks a bit disturbed. And Barbara is so unnerved at this point that she can’t count back my change in that way where you start with the purchase price and end up saying, with a sense of mathematical accomplishment, "And that makes one hundred." She tries a couple times but she can’t get it started right. Exasperated, she just hands me a wad of bills and some coins and says, "Here." And we end up motoring away from the Wal-Mart parking lot and out of Lake Havasu City without even seeing the London Bridge.