Will Self: PsychoGeography - The face of pure profit

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At the Seneca Hotel, on Chestnut Street, Chicago, things are not going well. I'm without stoicism: my room is a chilly suite with glass-topped tables and a tomb-like kitchenette, wherein the elements rise up from the stove in sinister curls. When I turn on the electricity they reek of burnt hair. If I don't get out of the Seneca and walk, I'm going to do something gratuitously inhumane which would be doubly bad, given that I'm here to attend the Chicago Humanities Festival.

I'm not getting on with the desk staff either; they're brusque to the point of being rude. They couldn't give a shit about my alarm calls or messages, and when I wither at them for helming a great concrete ship like this, with no internet access to be had they wither right back. Nevertheless, when I ask how far it is to the nearest Wal-Mart, I do manage to spark some interest. "Whydjew wanna know that?" says one, and when I reply that I'm minded to buy some socks, she observes that, "There's a Walgreens on the next corner." I concede this but it's Wal-Mart I want, and I'm desirous of walking there. "Walking? That's gonna take you, like, a million years."

Quite possibly, I concede, then quote the Hotel's namesake: "If virtue precedes us every step will be safe." Clearly, my interlocutor doesn't know her Seneca, for she looks bemused. Then she consults MapQuest on her computer and prints me out a sheet: "The nearest is at forty-six hundred up on West North, it's 5.7 miles away..."

"But that's driving, right?"

"I guess."

À pied it's quite a bit further. I estimate an eight-mile walk at any rate, it takes me two-and-a-half hours at a good clip. It's a sunny Sunday brunchtime and the downtown streets are thronged with big people in leather and silk pointing at big buildings in glass and steel. Then, as I plod out over Goose Island and under the Kennedy Expressway, everything begins to stretch out including the homeless men who are sleeping beneath its squat piers.

Chicago is the grid city ne plus ultra: the principle avenues and cross streets are at mile intervals, with eight blocks to the mile. The numbering both of streets and properties is savagely ordinal, radiating from a fixed point. A Chicagoan will give you directions simply in hundreds, as above.

I meditate on this as I troll through the fringes of trendy Ukrainian Village, then the dinky clapboard streets of West Town. I'm walking to Wal-Mart to buy some socks, a) because I need them, and b) because in some occult way I believe this will bring me face-to-face with the primal profit drive that powers American society. If Chicago, with its triumphal skyscrapers, were to be upended, it would form a towering block graph on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan, and so fuse reality and representation.

Wal-Mart, the biggest company on earth, with its two million employees, and its annual turnover of $315 billion. When Dubya cut tax in 2004, the family of the founder, Sam Walton, made $9,500 an hour by this break alone. Walton catapulted this global empire of tat into the air, using the tedious gusset of a pair of two-barred tricot panties with an elasticated waist, after observing that if he bought said pants at $2 per dozen, and only marked-up a little, he could still make more profit on increased turnover.

Through Humboldt Park, empty save for cops and geese, then past the HQ of Illinois National Guard a Babylonian burial chamber, complete with sentinel griffins and on along North Avenue, for block after block, mile after mile. I am a tiny human pen describing a flat line past moribund storefronts, and empty lots, their fences strung with razor-wire. Is it fanciful to think that Wal-Mart has sucked the commercial life out of Austin and Gatewood, where wouldn't you know the population is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic? Probably not: one economist, after remorseless number-crunching, reached the conclusion that over a 10-year period, the net impact of the business was to help keep just 20,000 poor US families afloat.

And then there it is, Big, certainly but not humongous. More like any old Asda that's been bingeing on welfare cheques. Inside it's a barn full of stuff for sale nothing obviously malevolent. The coffee concession is called Uncle Remus's, and there's an offer on key lime pie. I buy my socks. I pay. I leave.

At the bus stop I fall into conversation with a guy who bums a cigarette. He's on his way to work flipping burgers at a Wendy's way over on the other side of town. "It's aggravating work," he explains between puffs. Aggravating and poorly paid like Wal-Mart. Nevertheless, despite the fact he's broke until payday, and he only has one tooth in his mouth, he could teach Seneca a thing or two about stoicism.

'PsychoGeography', a collection of columns by Will Self and Ralph Steadman, is published by Bloomsbury, 17.99. To order your copy at a special price (including free postage), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897