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The Crude Life: People of Walmart

By Jason Spiess

I had a number of memorable experiences while living and working in Dickinson in pursuit of painting my blank canvas of opportunity.

As I begin to lay down the metaphorical first layer of paint — I hear they use crude oil around these parts — there is one episode of my life that I would like to share with you.

It involves a little bit of a confession, a lot of human nature and Walmart.

First, the confession: Before recently, I hadn’t made a purchase at Walmart since 2004. There. I said it.

Most people, when they hear this, are in disbelief. Walmart is as constant to some people as the air they breathe. But when I made the decision to avoid patronizing Walmart, it was a personal boycott … and I wore it as a badge of honor.

For many years as a small business owner, I had taken pride in going above and beyond to support local businesses, even if it meant driving a few extra miles and paying a few more bucks. Well, Dickinson doesn’t have many options in the world of commerce. To be honest, Dickinson doesn’t have many options, period.

After moving to the Bakken, there were a few weeks of elbow grease and many purchases of parts and supplies needed to get things up and running. And wouldn’t you know it, I was staying right next to a Walmart. I thought to myself, “I wonder how long until Walmart gets into my industry and wipes me out?”

So, I continued my boycott.

That was one of the hardest things I had done in my life. After a couple weeks of ignoring the “enemy” 500 feet to the south, my stubborn belief system began to crumble. When time is money, and the Bakken Oil Patch moves 100 mph all the time, the one and pretty much only place of business that stays open past 7 p.m. was eventually able to cast a loud siren song. I finally gave in and shoved off to the land of cheap prices and interesting people.

I took a big gulp, swallowed my pride and grabbed a cart. Walking through the aisles, I felt like I was cheating on small businesses everywhere. And I own a small business. Nothing like thinking about Karma in Aisle 4 at Walmart. And it wasn’t even the ethnic food aisle!

Just because I boycotted Walmart didn’t mean I didn’t recognize all the good opportunity the behemoth represented. Ask the owners of Iowa-based Cookie’s BBQ Sauce how much they like Walmart. My guess is that their small business is very grateful to Walmart, since people can buy Cookie’s BBQ sauce in Dickinson and probably all over the United States.

It didn’t take very long walking through the yellow, smiley-faced aisles for me to recognize that Walmart is The Marketplace. Outside of financial planning, they will pretty much sell anything or will entertain selling it and then let the marketplace decide. Now that is a concept I can get behind and to which I relate.

So, there I stood, in Walmart, contemplating whether to give them my money. And not wanting to do it, mostly on the principle that they have a reputation to kill small business. But then I thought, “Is that always true?” Walmart was going to help my small business. So I decided to focus on that truism and also say a nightly prayer that they stay out of my industry. At least for now.

I bought my items and used the self-checkout, which blew me away. Another brilliant move by Walmart — robot cashiers! No wonder they have become The Marketplace.

After feeding bills to my robot cashier, like a token machine in the Space Aliens arcade, I got my change and receipt and wheeled the cart to my truck. I thought to myself as I walked out, “Were there that many people who asked Walmart to role play as a cashier or did they just figure something out?” Maybe it’s a bucket list thing.

After returning to my place of business and home, ah … um, otherwise known as my RV, with my goods, I noticed about half of the plastic bags were torn or had rips in them. Many of the goods were scattered. So I made a few extra trips, due to a few items being on the floor and got everything put away. Where was my bank bag?

I put it in the same bag as the bottled water. That was one of the bags with a rip in it. My heart dropped.

Operation Look Everywhere had begun. Under and between the seats in my pickup. In the engine block. I even looked under the kitchen sink in the RV. Yeah, it was pretty pathetic.

Back to Walmart. Retraced my steps. Nothing. Went to customer service. Nothing there either. All my money and receipts were gone.

I was racking my brain for a good two hours, trying to figure out what just happened and what I was going to do. It is tough to figure out how to operate a business without cash flow, trust me on that one. Plus, I had my first real paying gig in three days and I needed that cash to buy the supplies.

So I conceded the lost bank bag to another lesson in life. Tough lesson. Chalk that one up to money and records gone. A little sign from above to slow down. Heck, I even used the justification that some people blow more than that on a hand of blackjack in Vegas. Any excuse to deflect my reality.

My money and receipts from the first week of business and start-up receipts of the business were gone. It was OK. Life would go on and the sun would come up tomorrow. It was becoming crystal clear that my half-joking mantra of “just roll with the flow” was actually becoming my mission statement. So I just rolled with it. If you don’t adjust quickly in the Oil Patch, you get left behind.

Five hours later my phone rang. It was a customer service rep from Walmart. They had a bank bag. I described the contents very accurately. A stack of receipts a couple inches tall and substantial wad of cash. After doing everything short of reciting approval codes from receipts and serial numbers from the currency, they believed it belonged to me.

I raced over. I pulled out my ID and they handed me my bank bag. I zipped it open and there was every last bill and all of my receipts. Not a penny missing.

“A customer found it in the parking lot,” the Walmart employee said.

What? Come again? This is the dirty rough Oil Patch. Not only should that money be gone, but those punks should have found me and beat me up, too.

I asked, “How did you get my number or even know to call me?”

“There was a receipt in the bag with a phone number on it, so we tried it.”

What? Come again? Not only are the “people of Walmart” not supposed to take the time or effort to find the owner of lost property, hasn’t the media led us to believe that these Walmart employees will probably steal my money, too? Amazing. Walmart employees are people, just like you and me, who care about their community and their neighbors.

There were more than 200 receipts in my bank bag and over $350 in cash. It wasn’t Fort Knox, but to an upstart debt-free small business, or a Walmart employee, it is a good amount of money. That employee took the time to look through those receipts for a clue to find the rightful owner, all while looking at the wad of cash.

I wonder if the customer who returned it even opened the bag?

Since coming to the Oil Patch in spring 2012, I have witnessed unbelievable acts of kindness, humanity and the entrepreneurial spirit. This has caused me to ask myself some tough questions.

Here’s one: If I encountered a bag of cash in a parking lot, in the Oil Patch, would I be one who tarnishes the reputation of many who are doing the right thing and living by The Golden Rule? Is my character worth a few hundred dollars in a lost bank bag?

For many, the Oil Patch is pumping out crude oil and making them rich. For others, like me, this oil boom is pumping up my faith in humanity. That alone is all the richness I need to paint my canvas of opportunity in the Bakken oil fields.