My wife Michelle and I are hustling with a shopping cart through the endless aisles of a Walmart store. It is a standard Walmart, meaning it is the same size, in square feet, as Wyoming, but it contains more things.
This is our second Walmart in two days. Or maybe it’s the same one we were in yesterday. Maybe there is only one Walmart in the entire nation, surrounded by parking lots in different states. There is no way to tell.
Walmart has everything you could possibly need, except for the one thing you are looking for, which is often impossible to find because of all the other things. At the moment Michelle and I are looking for an office chair for our daughter, Sophie, who needs it for college. We got her a desk the day before, in the other Walmart (unless it was in fact the same Walmart). The desk came in a flat heavy box containing (this is a conservative estimate) 183,000 parts, some no larger than a single desk molecule. There was also a 136-page instruction booklet filled with instructions like:
“27. Attach the vertical partition capacitor panel support brace (B-14) to the starboard ventricle algorithm stimulus module (C-83) (or possibly D-157) using nine 5/17” hexagonal filigree grommet reduction bolts, taking care not to destabilize the perambulation valve. NOTE: Make sure you are facing southwest.”
So Sophie has a desk, but no chair. There were no chairs at yesterday’s Walmart, which is why Michelle and I are hustling through today’s Walmart. We have heard that there are chairs here, and we are genuinely excited about this. As we race toward the furniture section, we keep an eye out for rival chair-seeking college parents. Our plan, if we see any, is that Michelle will block their path and, if necessary, tackle them (Michelle does Boot Camp) while I grab the chair and scoot it over to the checkout area, thus procuring office furniture for my offspring as hunter-gather males have done for millions of years.
But when we arrive at the furniture section, we discover that there are no office chairs. A sympathetic Walmart associate (Walmart workers are called “associates,” as in “we need an associate to clean up a Yoo-hoo spill in aisle J”) tells us the chairs are all sold out.
We are in despair. Smarter, swifter, college parents have beaten us to the chairs. For all we know they are watching us right now from somewhere in this vast forest of Walmart things. They are triumphantly snacking on a jumbo Walmart barrel of cheese puffs as they laugh at us and our sad, empty cart, knowing that their college student will be studying in a comfortably seated position while ours will have no option but to crouch, the result being that their student will make Dean’s List and become a highly paid corporate executive while ours, exhausted from constant crouching, will flunk out and wind up living in an appliance carton and ALL BECAUSE WE WERE TOO SLOW ON THE OFFICE CHAIR.
This sorry situation, like every other bad thing that has happened in this craptacular year, is a result of the pandemic. It has turned the higher-education system into a frantic scavenger hunt. Until very recently, we did not think we would need to buy Sophie a desk or chair. Nor did we think we needed to find her an apartment. We assumed that she would be moving into an on-campus college dormitory room that already had a desk and a chair. All across America, many thousands of families were assuming the same thing, because — call us crazy — that is what the colleges told us was going to happen.
Then at the last minute WHAM many colleges announced that, for health reasons, they will not permit students on campus. They’re still going to have classes, and it goes without saying that they’re still going to charge tuition. They just don’t want actual, physical, students around, as this would create an unhealthy campus environment.
As a result, many thousands of college students will be taking all their classes online. Theoretically they could do this from home, but that is an unacceptable option because home is also, tragically, where their parents have chosen to live. And so many thousands of students are moving into apartments that are NEAR their college campuses, instead of moving into the empty dormitories that are actually ON their college campuses. This may seem insane to you, but there’s a very good reason for it. At least I hope there is, because it seems insane to me, too.
Anyway, this unexpectedly large mass of students suddenly living off-campus has created a shortage of apartments and furniture in college towns, which is why Michelle and I were on a desperate office-chair hunt. The good news was, we finally found chairs at Office Depot, which also has associates. The bad news was, they required assembly. (The chairs, not the associates.)
Aside from scavenging for and assembling furniture, our biggest job was moving Sophie’s possessions into the apartment. This took a while because her possessions filled many, many boxes. I don’t know what was in them all, but based on sheer quantity I would not rule out the Ark of the Covenant.
When I was in college, my possessions consisted of a box of books, a box of record albums and a suitcase filled mainly with unlaundered T-shirts. I could have moved everything out of my dorm room in five minutes if an emergency arose, such as my dorm came under cannon fire (I was in college during the Civil War). Of course those were different times. We didn’t have online classes. We attended all of our classes in person, unless of course the class met before 3 p.m., in which case we slept through it and later borrowed somebody’s notes. Yes it was a demanding regimen, but it made my generation what it is today. Old.
Anyway, we finally got Sophie settled in, and after all the frantic craziness of the summer we’re hoping for a calm fall semester. But we are not letting our guard down. We know that at any moment WHAM the colleges could announce that, for health reasons, all students living in off-campus apartments must immediately relocate to pontoon boats. If that happens — and before you say it can’t, remember, this is 2020 — you know where Michelle and I will be. We will be racing through Walmart, looking for the boating section. Do not get in our way.