Student tries to spend spring break at Wal-Mart
story written by Mark Hansen: Des Moines Register columnist
WINDSOR HEIGHTS, Iowa - Skyler Bartels kept looking over his shoulder. It's a habit he picked up living at the Windsor Heights Wal-Mart for three days.
Really living there. Eating, sleeping, checking out the DVDs, never leaving. The plan was to spend his entire spring break there. Under the radar.
Some kids go to Cancun. Skyler Bartels, a Drake University sophomore from Harvard, Neb., went to the garden and patio department.
The great experiment had been over for a few days, but Bartels was still in great-experiment mode. As we sat at a booth in the Subway sandwich shop toward the front of the store, he glanced at the friendly white-haired Wal-Mart greeters.
Were they onto him? Why were they staring? Bartels was still suffering from greeter phobia.
He was never out to get Wal-Mart, he explained. This wasn't supposed to be an expose.
Bartels didn't burst through the door stewing about low wages, poor working conditions or the way the big chain chews up Mom and Pop.
This was part sociology experiment, part school project. Bartels is a writing major. Maybe he'd put it all down on paper and pick up an independent study credit, or even sell it to somebody someday.
Maybe he'd move on to another Wal-Mart and produce a documentary, like the guy who ate nothing but McDonald's for a month.
Bartels got the idea from a commercial. Was it true what those happy, shiny people were telling him: "Always low prices. Always"?
Could the biggest, most successful discount store in the world really meet his every need? Twenty-four hours a day? That's what the TV spots were telling him.
"That was the goal," he said. "To buy everything I needed at Wal-Mart."
His father told him to go for it and offered to bankroll the project.
On Sunday, his girlfriend dropped him off at the front door and drove away. The game was on.
He didn't tell Wal-Mart what he was doing, and it's probably a good thing.
"We weren't aware of this," said corporate spokeswoman Sharon Weber, "but it's not something we condone. We're a retailer, not a hotel."
A Drake law professor gave Bartels some advice: The store is private property. If they ask you to leave, go quickly and quietly.
Bartels walked into the big box wearing jeans and a white T-shirt. He had his cell phone in case of emergency, his heart medicine, his bank card, two forms of identification, and nothing else.
He spent the first afternoon watching "Chicken Little," the animated Disney film. He watched it all. Deleted scenes, interviews, outtakes. Everything.
"They had it on a continuous loop the whole time I was there," he said. "I'd pass through the department and say, 'Oh, it's about halfway through' or, 'I like this part. I think I'll watch it again.' "
Bartels decided not to buy anything he couldn't carry around the store. He ended up with a jacket (for storage space), a note pad, some pencils, an electronic voice recorder, a three-pack of underwear, a comb, a toothbrush and some toothpaste.
He lived off energy drinks, doughnuts, yogurt and Subway sandwiches.
He figures he slept four hours out of the 41 in captivity. He'd catch a few minutes whenever he could - in a Subway booth or a restroom stall, which isn't recommended, especially with the night stockers bursting in every five minutes.
"I got to the point," he said, "where I was adept at falling asleep on the toilet seat, which sounds kind of weird."
The best place for dozing was lawn and garden, where the lights weren't so bright. Nobody worked there between 2 and 4 a.m. Bartels found a lawn chair, kicked back and wondered how life could be better.
Life would be perfect, he discovered, without the worker who showed up before dawn to stock plants. Bartels hopped up and pretended to be looking for home patio furniture.
That 1 to 4 a.m. shift was the daily low point. Subway was closed. Bartels was often the only Wal-Mart shopper, which made it harder to blend into the cosmetics and sporting goods.
"It's just me and the stockers then," he said, "and every once in a while somebody who needs a Swiffer at 2 in the morning."
He was sitting on the floor reading a magazine at 3 a.m. when a man, shivering from the cold, walked in, bought an atlas and left. "You'd see a lot of people reading," Bartels said. "Cosmopolitan was a huge favorite. But nobody ever checked the magazine section. I never saw anybody stocking books or magazines."
He found it strange the way the same two guys kept showing up in the middle of the night to buy movies.
"They looked like ' Devil's Rejects ' kind of guys. But they ended up buying stuff like 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.' "
Bartels was playing a boxing video game at 1 a.m. when a man appeared out of nowhere, giving him pointers, teaching him how to throw a left jab and a right "steamliner."
"Yeah, I still don't know what that is."
He met some interesting people during normal hours, too. There was the military recruiter who told him he had what it takes.
I looked at Bartels. Long hair, scruffy college-kid beard, slender build. Pleasant, laid-back demeanor. I had to know. What does it take?
"He said I had good posture and didn't look sad."
Bartels ran into a nun, Sister Mary Sue, who was fun and energetic and looked the opposite of sad.
He saw some strange sights. He followed two birds who swooped into the produce section and swiped some grapes. He named them Laurel and Hardy.
"One sat on the grapes, and the other pulled them off," Bartels said, insisting he wasn't hallucinating.
By Tuesday morning, not even halfway through the great experiment, the store was on to him.
"I noticed the greeters pointing at me," he said. "Somebody got on the intercom and announced a meeting of the department managers. One of the shift managers came up to me and asked, very politely, if I needed anything. I could have told him where everything was."
His debit account was frozen. He was exhausted and paranoid. Game over. His med-student brother picked him up and took him away.
Bartels now regrets the early exit.
"I should have stuck it out, at least to see what the meeting was about. It never got tedious at all, which was surprising. But isn't that how it works in real life? Don't we do pretty much the same thing every day?"
Like real life, you can't get everything at Wal-Mart (new slogan: Not a Hotel). Bartels couldn't get a shower or a bed. He couldn't find one of those miniature bottles of shampoo.
Most of the creature comforts were covered, though. When he wanted to get his hair washed, he made an appointment at the Wal-Mart hair salon.
Real life or not, for a few days this was home. And Bartels figured he might as well treat it like home. When he had nothing better to do, he roamed the aisles, putting away items that were out of place.
"It was a good way to keep busy," he said. "It took a whole lot of time, and if somebody came up and yelled at me, at least I was being productive and beneficial to the store."
Bartels got to feeling so productive and beneficial, he even filled out a job application.
"I wasn't sure how to answer some of the questions," he said. " 'Where can we reach you?' That was a tough one. The electronics department?"