In the most American of places, it's too quiet. Not eerily so, but disconcertingly so. Empty, to be frank, except for a few scattered stalwarts. A woman pushes her cart, clutching coupons in her hand. A couple discuss the price of bicycles as they search of the perfect transportation. Pepsi Max gets stocked.
Otherwise, it's church-like just 15 minutes before the greatest democratic power on Earth is about to change hands, and the overly abundant and perfectly aligned rows of consumer goods wait to be bought at Wal-Mart on the north side of Lexington.
Sidney Laine has just gotten off work and is hungry, so he is picking out chops and trying to make it home for some special thing he's missing on TV.
Ten minutes to noon, when Barack Obama is to be sworn in as the president of the United States. No sign of bustle, even from Laine.
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Is it the economy? The weather? The big day?
Three Wal-Mart associates, putting away children's clothing together, huddle and whisper. Up close, they can barely contain their excitement: Management has put a TV in the associates' lounge.
"Ain't that nice?" asks Debbie York.
The TVs back in the electronics section don't get cable or network television feeds, so management at the store, on New Circle Road, did this special thing because they know this is important.
York, Sue Ashford and Gloria Emprador have scheduled their lunch break so they might be able to watch the "actual moment," Ashford says of the swearing-in. They all are "celebrating their spirits" today. Not one of them has thought to call in sick. "That doesn't pay my bills," Ashford says. And, yes, they know the economic engine of America needs to run.
Still, today, somebody has thought enough of them — the American worker — to come up with a way for them not to have to be the ones to sacrifice. They will get to see what matters. They are laughing, they are so happy.
Five minutes until noon, customer Doris Johnson shops the drinks aisle. She says she doesn't watch much television because she takes care of her grandbaby, who is 13 months old. She figures no one is in the store because of the snow flurries. She is surprised to learn that today is the presidential inauguration. She cannot name the new president, although she is wearing a shirt with an American flag on it and says that she likes America, of course, but has been really, really busy.
Through Wal-Mart's big front door, Dorothy Hill rushes in, grabs a cart and heads toward the restroom. Upon seeing about a dozen people gathered at the Woodforest Bank branch in the front of the store, she stops. The bank has a TV turned on. John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, is speaking, and Obama begins to take his 37-word oath of office.
She stands silent. Her hand is to her mouth. "I was just in time. Just in time," she says.
Truth is, Hill, a student at National College, just meant to pick up juice, but here this is, waiting.
"I was just in time," she repeats, as if she is Cinderella.
Watching close by, rapt, is Emprador, the Wal-Mart associate, who is from Venezuela, and a latex-gloved Eunice Johnson, who applauds everyone from cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the poet to the new president. She dances when it is over.
One couple at the bank waits to talk to the teller, patient but uninterested in the speech the president is giving.
Behind the crowd at the bank, some folks walk by, glance, keep walking. Commerce continues, if slowed. The economy, you know. Maybe the weather.