With more and more chains and big box stores dominating the highway that cut through Maryville, the Parkway Drive-In Theater was one of the last places left in town where locals could really talk. But they didn’t want to talk to me.
This was just about the last thing I anticipated when I came across their 15,000-signature petition to try and stop Wal-Mart from moving in next door. Without getting into the technical details, Wal-Mart has a long and well-established history of buying property next to small town drive-in theaters, which tend to be located on highways, essentially consist of an empty lot (all you need is a screen), and survive on thin budgets. They then drive the property value so high up that the owners have no choice but to sell them the land.
The local hang-out spots on Main Street Maryville had been dwindling for years because of all this big box action, and the manager of the drive-in and his employees weren’t standing for this shit. So Jennifer, the ticket counter employee, started the petition. It attracted 15,000 signatures, lots of local coverage, and…that’s all I knew when I packed my bag in Nashville on a Saturday morning and drove four hours east.
“Yeah, we’re not doing that anymore. Thanks for your interest though!” Jennifer said through the ticket counter speaker.
“Don’t forget to turn your headlights off before the show starts.”
Wal-Mart was still happening, she wouldn’t tell me why they suddenly stopped fighting it, and, no, I couldn’t have the manager’s number. Weeks ago, she had started the petition. Now she was doing this.
I transitioned to Plan B: covertly asking Robert behind the snack counter for the answers Jennifer wouldn’t give me. This was clearly a hot button issue, so before going in for the real question I thought I’d warm him up by asking whether the hot dog or cheeseburger was better. Just a little journalistic technique I know how to do.
“Personally, I’d go with the sausage. That’s the one I always get.”
“Awesome! Okay thanks so much I can’t wait to eat this. Do you know anything about that Wal-Mart coming in?”
He snapped his head up from the hotdog rotator machine.
“Is your name Alexa?”
“Yeah! Wait—how did you…”
“A little birdie warned me about you,” he said with a smile.
It hadn’t been twenty minutes since I bought a ticket. And for some reason, Jennifer was instituting an information lockdown against me.
The reason? It consists of a single phrase: Cease-and-desist. A few days before I arrived, Wal-Mart filed a cease-and-desist against the manager of the Parkway for speaking out against them…which is basically a legal warning letter saying ‘if you continue to do this we will sue the shit out of you.’ In legal terms, Wal-Mart was claiming that the drive-in was spreading “slander” about them: a.k.a., harmful information that’s false. So in order for Wal-Mart to have a case against the drive-in in court, they would have to prove that the workers at the Parkway were knowingly spreading straight-up false information about them. Which the workers, if this isn’t already abundantly clear, one hundred percent weren’t doing. They were speaking out about the facts and had every legal right to do so. But the point is, it stunned the manager and all of his employees like Jennifer into complete silence anyways. Even though they were unquestionably on the right side of the law, they got spooked when they realized that they could very well be sued for more money than they could ever amass in their combined lifetimes if they proceeded to do anything but shut up and bend over.
This is one way companies like Wal-Mart assault the freedom of speech of communities who stand in their way without ever actually violating a single law. It’s a soft obliteration of the fundamental rights that make Americans free, but to Wal-Mart it’s a wrench in their tool belt.
If you’re like me, though, you don’t even need the corporate lawyers to come for you. Two hours before I visited the drive-in, eating alone at the bar of a Maryville restaurant called the Gold Mine, I Wal-Marted myself.
A local woman a few seats over asked what I was doing in town.
I froze in a quarter-second of consideration. The audio transcript playing in my mind went something like ‘hippie….disconnected from reality for people like me…doesn’t know a damn thing about our town and here she is coming to tell us how to live.’
“I’m actually meeting a friend at Dollywood tomorrow. To celebrate our birthdays! Our birthdays are really close together, so…”
“Oh, well isn’t that just the cutest thing! You girls are going to have so much fun! Tell me, are you staying in one of those cabins?”
The woman proceeded to give me an enthusiastic handful of tips about the theme park I wasn’t going to and I graciously thanked her for getting me so excited about the theme park I wasn’t going to. The cute, hokey, decidedly Southern, and—most important of all—non-contentious theme park I wasn’t going to.
Hours before I learned that Wal-Mart was shutting up anyone at the drive-in, I shut myself up.
I suppose I shut myself up because some part of me has noticed that there are lots of fitness and weight loss coaches on the Today Show but never any activists. Or how the charities bands raise money for are always the ones doing things like addressing hunger or curing cancer, things you couldn’t really argue with no matter what your politics are. Or how, just the other day when I told the dentist I was an activist for communities fighting pipelines, she got quiet and didn’t respond. We had a great conversation about online shopping though. I guess I’ve internalized this type of social feedback so thoroughly that, almost automatically, I pre-determined that barstool lady was more likely to be enthusiastic about my trip to Dollywood—something merely for leisure, for my consumption…something that benefitted no one but me—than about the thing I was doing because I presumably cared about her town.
The majority of Americans may very well prefer to talk about theme park road trips over the injustice of Wal-Mart development practices and may be skeptical of political dissenters like me. The problem is this: even if that is the case, deep down, I’m desperate to be liked by the majority of people. And living in that space, I’ve never considered that maybe I am the majority–me, and people like me, so scared of rejection that we default to a social code assuming it’s what the barstool lady wants. And I’ve never considered that maybe the majority is the barstool lady, one of the fifteen thousand local petition commenters fretting about the Wal-Mart behind her home computer screen. I’ll never know, because I was too scared to speak up about the very thing that prompted me to drive across Tennessee twice in a weekend.
The way Wal-Mart used blunt force to shut the people of Maryville up disturbs me but maybe what disturbs me more is how I shut myself up when I wasn’t forced to at all.