Pumpkins, Levi's, lunch and a Sunday serenade

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"Judy!" booms the middle-aged man in the blue smock, thrusting a microphone at me. "Do you want to sing a song?"

This is no karaoke bar. It's Wal-Mart-specifically No. 2637 in Monroe, N.Y., which a sign behind the customer-service desk informs is the "Supercenter of the region." The relentlessly cheerful associate, Phil, is collecting for the Children's Miracle Network. On this Sunday afternoon in early September, he charms, warbles and cajoles for cash, using a mike to be heard over the incessant pinging of the checkout scanners.

Phil's post is near the in-store Portrait Studio, Regal Nail Salon and Radio Grill cafe, past the Smart-Style Family Hair Salon, Vision Center, Tire & Lube Center, Pharmacy, One-Hour Photo, Walden Federal Bank and massive 14-aisle food market. This vast landscape makes my assignment tough: take my family to shop as much of Wal-Mart as we can.

It doesn't look as if anyone's camping; there's only one motor home in the parking lot today, which is jammed with license plates from the predictable New York and New Jersey, but also Massachusetts and Virginia. A red Peterbilt with Illinois plates idles in the sun, surrounded by what my husband, Steve, calls "middle-America-mobiles" of F-150s and Chevy Trailblazers. One sports a West Point bumper sticker, another crows "Navy vet and proud of it." An SUV, parked not far from a Porsche, has "God bless America" scrawled on its windows.

Indeed, the presence of both God and America can be detected in Wal-Mart. There is a row of spiritual tomes in the book department and the first thing you see when entering the store is a display of rather cheesy-looking yellow plastic bows.

Apparently, it's a holiday. There are dozens of signs, announcements over a garbled-sounding loudspeaker, prominent greeting-card displays and a huge rack of cakes inscribed with "Happy Grandparent's Day."

Not a bit distracted by the cakes, my son, Chris, starts his pitch to head directly for the video-games section. Having been through this before, we set a rule: Games last, as long as you behave in the rest of the store.

regal it ain't

Patience proves nearly impossible as he waits for me to get a manicure and pedicure. It's exceedingly strange to perch in a pedicure chair, complete with electronic back massage, only feet away from Register 8 in full view of shoppers. Though the salon is called Regal, it ain't, with unappealing forest-green decor and `80s-era wallpaper. But the manicure and pedicure are unassailable; frankly, it's a much better and less hurried job than I get at my regular salon. But the shock was in the sticker: $42 with tip, $10 higher than I normally spend (I did get charged an extra $1 for paying by credit card). So much for Wal-Mart's vaunted lowest prices.

(For the record, that was the only high price I encountered. The same plastic laundry basket I'd bought at Target a week earlier was marked $2 lower at Wal-Mart.)

On to the Radio Grill, a too-brightly-lit, too-cheerful, quasi 1950s "diner" adorned with silhouettes of roller-skating carhops and Elvis-like singers. Table tents push not menu specials but Wal-Mart credit cards, money orders and express bill payment.

Above the counter is a sign: "Whole pizza, $9.98 plus tax, ask our friendly associates for your specialty pizza."' Chris asks for a slice of pepperoni. "Good," snaps the surly associate in a hair net and T-shirt adorned with puppies. `"Cause that's all we've got."

It's all-American rib-sticking, artery-clogging fare, and two cheeseburger/fry platters, two slices of pizza, an order of mozzarella sticks and soft drinks (served in paper cups bearing both the Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart logos) sets us back $13.63.

Glancing around the cafe, I witness Wal-Mart shopper ingenuity at its finest. A senior, grimacing after tasting what she ordered, digs in her Wal-Mart grocery cart. She comes out with bread and cheese and makes herself a sandwich. At another table, a couple dines on roast chicken purchased at the adjacent grocery department.

no clear picture

After fending off yet another entreaty to visit the video-game department, we hit the aisles. The photo studio, on a Sunday afternoon 11 weeks before Christmas, was booked solid, thwarting our plan to have Chris' portrait taken.

It's almost as difficult to paint a clear portrait of Wal-Mart. It's a place where $370 Weathersby rifles, locked behind glass, are for sale only feet away from roller blades. The sporting-goods section carries tennis balls with the familiar smiley face of its falling-prices icon. Live lobsters ($9.93 a pound) swim in a tank near an end-aisle display of Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee boxed deep-dish meals. The bakery counter displays an elaborate three-tier wedding cake. At the register are both Copenhagen chewing tobacco and a deep fry "Corn Dog and Twinkie Kit" flagged breathlessly "as seen on TV."

While Wal-Mart's often seen as the bad guy putting locals out of business, No. 2,637 portrays itself as a community pillar. Chances are sold to win a 52-inch HDTV, with the proceeds going toward blindness prevention (we didn't win). In addition to the Children's Miracle Network, signs support the local Monroe Senior Center. In the restroom are hung photos of local attractions: Museum Village and the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame.

hunt for levi's

In the ladies' section, I have to hunt to find the Levi's signature jeans. It takes two tries to get the right size, and into the cart they go, along with towels, pet supplies, makeup, a blouse, enormous potted mums and a pair of giant pumpkins priced at an impossibly low $3 apiece.

Passing a Wal-Mart TV monitor reminding us to buy Swiffer and Prilosec, Chris proffers his video-game choice to a 20-something video-department clerk in his "How may I help you?" smock. The associate turns to my husband. "Sir, I want to make sure you know this is rated T for teen and may be a little rough for him," he says, gesturing at 9-year-old Chris. As it turns out we didn't know, and in this instance, Wal-Mart's reputation as national nanny doesn't bother me a bit. Chris relinquishes the game for E-rated "Madden NFL 2004."

We make our way to the registers. "This place is ridiculous," growls a fellow shopper, pushing his cart past a dozen snaking lines.

Indeed. We wait, and wait, and wait. We're No. 10 on one of maybe 18 open registers and each line is jammed. "Look," Steve observes. "Every basket is full." It's true. No one has just a few items. Each cart is spilling over.

It's after 6 p.m. as we head out with $250 less in our wallet. The photo studio is still operating, snapping a family portrait. The nail place is hopping. And Phil is still singing. I can't quite make out the lyrics, but it could be "Mack the Knife."

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