The Freedom Shirts

We don’t like Walmarts in the part of the country where I live. We’re all good liberals. Walmart is a small-town-destroying monster, gobbling up family businesses, impoverishing its workers. There are no more little downtowns because of Walmarts, just big-box stores surrounded by chain food stores.

Something like that.

But I still go there when I cross the country by car. Walmarts are a great place to stretch your legs, to pick up a drink and a few snacks, and to just wander around in. They are great places to people watch, if you like to people watch less affluent people, like to actually get near to them.

I figured out years ago that people at Walmarts, and most of the non-coastal parts of the country generally, don’t like me. They don’t like me personally and they don’t like my kind. Oh, they are polite and respond to my questions. But they don’t smile and they say what they need to say but no more. Their expressions offer subtle suggestions of suspicion and resentfulness, if you are paying attention.

But I solved the problem. They like me now, we chat, we laugh at small jokes, we are all together as much as strangers at a store or at a restaurant or at a gas station can be. They smile at me now and they smile because I dress like one of them.

Gone are the Hawaiian shirts, gone are any clothes with the word “Patagonia” on them, gone are the hiking pants with the zip-off shin-parts. Gone is all that goofy stuff I wear at home.

When I’m traveling I wear an older pair of blue jeans and either a flannel over a solid, dark-colored t-shirt or I wear blue jeans with a Wrangler work shirt. I let my beard grow out for a few weeks prior to any trip. I don’t cut my hair.

I never say I’m from California, the conversational kiss of death, because there is a belief that people in California are both rich and condescending to Americans and their way of life.

Sometimes, when I’m at Walmart I browse their shirt section, seeing if there is anything I can add to my collection of travel clothes. Their silkscreened t-shirts are can be especially fun.

T-shirts with sayings on them pre-date time itself but only the college-educated wear t-shirts with ironic sayings. For the people at Walmart the shirts tend to be more about signaling allegiance to a set of ideals, either through music or more directly. There are the usual brand names and the usual classic rock music groups—AC/DC seems to be perpetually popular—but what I find really exciting are the Freedom Shirts.

My kids hate these and though I buy them from time to time I don’t wear them. I could never pull it off.

In 2017, the summer after Trump’s surprising win—surprising even to Trump, I think—I traveled across the country and looked for and photographed any sign of Trump. Literally. I photographed signs in yards, in windows, headlines in newspapers, bumper stickers. You might think that the middle of the country would be wallpapered in Trump signs but I really had to look, to improvise in order to keep my photo project going.

It was on that trip that I made these two images for my Trump Country project:

I can’t tell you how many times one of my kids has said something to me while I was doing something else and I responded, turning my head toward them in a theatrical way, with a self-righteous “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of my freedom!” It’s still good for a laugh if you do the voice just right.

The same sort of shirts are there every year, but not this year. This year the Freedom Shirts were missing, replaced with even more product logos and game and movie characters. I made these images at a Walmart this past summer, the last summer before Trump, also surprisingly, departs the White House:

It’s easy to laugh at the two Freedom Shirts, easy to picture the bubbas shaped like Buddhas who might wear them. But most of the country wouldn’t laugh so much as they wouldn’t quite get the joke.

Once I stopped at a NAPA store to buy a windshield wiper, a new Walmart up the street near the on Ramos. It was at the end of a cute downtown in some small place way out yonder, I forget the name of the town and exactly what state it was in. This was years ago but I was already wearing my travel camouflage and the manager struck up a conversation with me. I expressed condolences about the Walmart, asked how it was going to impact his business, asked about how the town was reacting.

He said that everyone was excited about the Walmart. They could buy things there that they couldn’t get anywhere else within hours of driving. The prices were so low it was like everyone in town got a raise. His employees were happy—now they could apply to an employer that offered benefits and vacations—one had already left for Walmart.

He said he was was thinking of applying himself.

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