After midnight 

Atlanta achieves status of a 24-hour city ... if you count Wal-Mart

That craggy travel-book writer, Arthur Frommer, who criticized Atlanta for lacking a 24-hour downtown back when we were preparing to host the Olympics in 1996, obviously never set foot in Super Wal-Mart at midnight. This place is hopping. I'm here because I have a body clock that operates like a condemned wooden roller coaster due to my job as a foreign-language interpreter, which sometimes requires I cross time zones as if they were chalk lines in a really big game of hopscotch. And my friend Lary is here with me simply because he can't pass up an opportunity to shop in his new pajamas.

We both figure it's been four years since Frommer bluntly blasted our city for being "no Barcelona," so we decided it's time to check in on Atlanta's efforts to meet Frommer's criteria for a great tourist city, because in his own words Frommer said that though Atlanta has admirable museums and tourist sites, "so does Cincinnati. I don't know of any great tourist city that doesn't have a 24-hour downtown."

Hence the red-eye run to Super Wal-Mart. Lary and I have decided that a good test of Atlanta's 24-hour-city status is to conduct a normal day's worth of errands after midnight. Wal-Mart is a good place to start but loses points right off the bat for being in Fayetteville as opposed to near downtown. But though downtown Atlanta has come a long way since Frommer called it "a spooky place after 5," downtown has yet to open a 24-hour store where I can buy bath mats and beef jerky in the same place. Besides that, Fayetteville is only about 20 minutes south of the city in after-midnight traffic, and I was looking forward to this because I figured it was an opportunity to breeze through the place with the aisles to myself. Looking back I have to laugh.

"What's with all these cars?" I say as we pull into the parking lot.

"Maybe they're all abandoned vehicles," offers Lary.

Inside, Wal-Mart is bustling as if it were 12 noon instead of 12 midnight. Whole families are migrating through the aisles with shopping carts. Cash registers print out receipts with the constant clatter of a casino. "It's like this every night," says Dexter Hall, who is shopping with his girlfriend Treneka Colin. Hall is an airport employee whose shift ends at 9 p.m., and the place is packed with people like him. It turns out Wal-Mart is the epicenter of an entire nocturnal society in this city, a reverse world that most of us who sleep at night and get up for work in the morning never see. And I'm not talking about the bar crawlers and post wedding-reception revelers who occasionally stay up until 4 a.m. to soak their heads in the odd trough of booze now and again.

These people are accomplishing tasks, they're shopping with all the seriousness of a politician's wife picking out menu items for a fund-raiser. Frommer would have foamed at the mouth ... kinda. "This time of night is the only time I can get anything done," Hall said. See? It's midnight, and people are getting things done.

Evidently this time of night is also when Wal-Mart schedules its restocking, because big boxes spilling out merchandise block almost every aisle. And the fitting rooms are locked in the men's section, so a guy is trying on boxer shorts over his cargo pants right out in the open. A lot of people must have had the same idea, because empty T-shirt packages and their former contents are strewn about willy-nilly. All together it's something I've never seen before at Wal-Mart during regular hours so I want to know if this type of customer behavior is indicative to post-midnight patrons.

"Oh, yes," says Debra, a Wal-Mart employee who prefers to work the graveyard shift because, among other things, she hates traffic and likes to "beat the school buses." One night she came across a group of Spanish-speaking customers disrupting shaving gel selections in the sundry aisle. It turns out they were inhaling all the aerosol from the cans. Her co-worker, Drew, complained that one night a troublesome group of girls had opened all the Kotex boxes in the same section. "They don't know what size they wear?" she asks incredulously. "They grown people! They ain't no kids!"

"Look," she continues, pointing to a shelf, "there's some boxes open now!"

Debra and Drew both remember the night a family of five came through the doors and proceeded to feed themselves directly from the dry-goods section. "They done had dinner, dessert and everything," says Drew, who recalls she allowed the manager to handle the matter. "I didn't say anything. You never know if somebody got a gun."

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