Sleeping Overnight on a Sea of Pavement

With temperatures dipping into the 30s, the Bornsteins are huddled together in an eight-foot Starcraft popup camper on the far edge of a Walmart parking lot. They're veterans when it comes to the  unwritten rules of staying overnight on the sea of pavement that the largest US retailer offers up to travelers like them.

After decades of marriage, Richard and Wendy Bornstein haven't yet perfected the art of seamlessly finishing each other's sentences. But they're almost to that point. Eventually a conversation with the two Toronto natives begins to feel like a conversation with one highly affable and caffeinated Toronto native.

Richard, 59, says their overnight stays shouldn't be classified as "camping."

"It's just meant that you just park," he insists. "Basically you park. You're not camping. You don't have a fire out here. You're not roasting marshmallows."

Wendy, 58, an oboe player, explains why the "semi-retired" couple typically chooses to stay overnight in Walmart parking lots rather than RV parks when they're on vacation.

"When we go on a trip, we really—I mean our friends call it a Bornstein trip," she says. "Like none of them do what we do. Because we have our cottage at home. We can sit and veg all summer...So when we go on a going-away trip, we really motor. We put thousands and thousands of kilometers on our car."

"If you're staying a couple of days," continues Richard, "you should stay in a campground. You know?"

Wendy says: "We haven't done that once in two weeks on our trip."

Except for one night in a motel—the two wanted to shower—they've stayed in Walmart parking lots  during the road trip that's brought them to Santa Fe.

When asked how many Walmarts the couple has visited, Richard asks, "All of our lives?"

"Or just on this trip?" the two ask in almost perfect unison.

This month marks the two-year anniversary of the grand opening of the Walmart  Supercenter at the southwestern edge of  Santa Fe. It took an all-night session in August of 2005 for the City Council to approve of the store—just a few miles from an existing Walmart that has been on Cerrillos Road since the summer of 1985, according to a spokeswoman. Citizen opponents told City Hall that Walmart would shutter local business and take away from Santa Fe's unique architectural style. Supporters said it would create jobs and offer low prices that would benefit low-income residents. Councilors debated about the traffic plan and looked at it as a land use issue. At around 4:30 am, they voted 5-4 to allow the store.

But nobody said anything about the Supercenter's parking lot offering sanctuary for travelers, wanderers, transients and homeless. Walmarts across the nation allow RVers and others to use its parking facilities overnight at no cost, and Santa Fe's super Walmart is proving to be a popular spot.

Herschel Mair is a freelance photographer and adjunct facility member at Santa Fe Community College. He compares some of the people who park overnight in Walmart's lot with Bedouins—Arabic nomads of the desert. Mair should know. He recently lived in his camper for a year and would sometimes stay overnight at Walmart. "The reason people stay at Walmart is because it's an institution that invites them," he says. "These people are welcome there."

"There aren't any alternatives," he adds. "Walmart is the place."

To Alma and Lou Grace—a retired couple from upstate New York who spent the night there recently in their Sprinter Mercedes Benz RV—the people who take advantage of the retailer's overnight parking policy are the "Walmartians."

Their landing pad, however, exists in a legal gray area.

Matt O'Reilly, Santa Fe Land Use Director, says the city's land use code mandates that parking lots are for use of employees and customers of a business.

"If someone goes shopping and goes back to their vehicle, unless the store itself has some policy about loitering in their parking lot, there's no city ordinance that would prevent someone from doing that," he says. "And that's particularly interesting in this case because [Walmart is] open 24 hours a day."

Just how Walmart ended up with the overnight parking policy is matter of speculation among Walmartians. It has not come without drama. Over the years, nationwide, the policy has upset RV parks, which have pushed some local governments to pass regulations effectively  banning the practice.

In 2006, a Walmart PR firm hired a couple to go "Walmarting" across the nation—staying overnight in company parking lots in an RV and blogging about their experiences. The episode turned into an online controversey because the blog didn't disclose the couple was paid by Walmart.

A Walmart spokeswoman hasn't clarified the origin of the policy. The Bornsteins insist Walmart founder Sam Walton was a camper himself. Others believe that Walmart does it because campers spend money at the store. "While we do not offer electrical service or accommodations typically necessary for RV customers, Walmart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers," says the company's website. "Consequently, we do permit RV parking on our store parking lots as we are able."

Walmartians from all economic strata say they do shop at Walmart—some of them exclusively.

Joseph Stankiewicz, 64, props up a lawn chair in front of his 38-foot diesel pusher RV on a recent night and fights the wind as he lights a cigar. He says that before taking off to Albuquerque in the morning, he and his girlfriend will stock up inside the store.

"For a lot of people that are on budgets, and a lot of the people that I meet even traveling here, alright, they shop almost exclusively at Walmart."

Stankiewicz had reservations about shopping at the big box chain because of its economic impact on small shops, however, he concedes that leaving mom-and-pops for the buying power of Walmart is a sign of the times.

"Well, they have this policy, if you bring in an ad, that shows, you know, Joe Schmo's market down the street has got avocados for three for 98 cents, and theirs are a buck 28, they'll honor it. Hard to beat, right? Especially if you're trying to economize."

Simon Brackley, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, has been a Santa Fe resident for some 25 years. He says Santa Fe is becoming a regional retail center.

"Whether it's Walmart or Best Buy or Buffalo Wild Wings, it draws money from outside the community into Santa Fe and all of that is a benefit. Also of course, Walmart on the south end of town, the new store, is now an anchor."

Walmartians in need of supplies can go inside to find a veritable one-stop-shop, complete with a grocery store, a liquor section, clothing, a pharmacy, a vision center and even hot rotisserie chicken. Because of Walmart's sheer size, its prices and return policies, Walmartians might go on vacation without shopping anywhere else.

The overnight parking policy doesn't apply to all Walmarts. Corporate spokeswoman Kayla Whaling says the company permits overnight parking if local regulations, along with individual store managers, allow it. Here, the older Walmart doesn't permit overnight parking.

Potter, a 27-year old Missourian,  was kicked out of that location by a man in a white Ford truck. The store parking lot has signs that warn against overnight parking. But Potter and his crew were asked to leave just before sunset. An assistant manager of the Walmart tells SFR people took advantage of the overnight parking. They left trash, he says, and some RVs would stay there for weeks.

Potter, formerly a construction worker, tours the country in a 1989 Ford school bus converted into somewhat of a mobile home on the inside and decorated on the outside with colorful symbols, like a bear with a turtle shell. On a recent afternoon, the bus — which Potter calls his "pirate ship" — had nine people on it. A dog slept on a couch.

Potter's young crew included veterans of the Occupy Wall Street movement and participants of the annual Rainbow Family of Living Light gathering.

"We go gather in a national forest in different parts of the country, and build a small civilization and pray for peace," Potter says of the gathering. "And like the whole community there is based on a barter-trade system."

Potter recently married Pixie in a ceremony on top of the school bus in Colorado, where they'd been to a concert by the band Further—formed by Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. Pixie—who had just earned some cash panhandling on the intersection of Cerrillos Road and Camino Consuelo—shows off  pictures of the ceremony. Her male friend was the bridesmaid and  Potter's female friend was the best man.  After the wedding they stopped in Taos for a hot springs tour before traveling on to Santa Fe. The next day, they planned on pointing the large diesel bus east toward Texas.

"There's two in the state on the no-camping list," says a young man on the bus who didn't want to be identified by name. "It's like the commercial: prices and participation may vary. At this McDonald's we're going to make spaghetti!"

Riders of the bus say they spend money at Walmart. They've parked overnight at many of its stores across the nation. But they oppose any number of the retail giant's corporate and labor practices, particularly its ability to undercut locally owned shops in small towns and how it treats its employees. Asked if they felt like parking overnight there endorsed those practices, Potter responds: "We're kind of like bottom feeders, if you look at it in fucking anybody else's bigger way."

"We park at a Walmart," he says. "We beg money off of people that are coming out of the Walmart. We usually spend money in the Walmart. You know what I mean?"

"I mean it's easy, it's accessible, just like any other bullshit, like McDonald's, fucking Wendy's," Pixie adds. "Like, yeah it's bullshit. But it's there. It's everywhere."

A young woman who didn't want to be identified by name adds: "It's got a dollar menu and all I've got is a dollar."

The distinction between parking overnight at Walmart and living there indefinitely is an important one for travelers like the Bornsteins. They and many RVers—typically retired couples—gladly take advantage of the free turf. But the overnight parking policy comes with the responsibility of maintaining the survival of that policy.  Store managers can choose to suspend it, as in the case of the regular Walmart here.

As a general rule, the Bornstein segment of the Walmart parking community adheres to a sort of unwritten code to not overstay their welcome. Others—typically poorer parkers or nomads traveling across the country—who stay in its lots for extended periods tend to avoid drawing attention to themselves and adhere to many of the same social codes of the RVers: no cooking outside, staying quiet at night and keeping the area around their vehicle clean. Some extended parkers even maintain a rapport with store personnel.

But even the most respectful extended parkers catch the hairy eyeball from those just staying for a night or two. During their stay outside Santa Fe's Walmart Supercenter, the Bornsteins wonder about a red truck parked near them.

"There's a guy in a red truck that was there last night," Wendy says. "He was just sleeping in his truck."

The man, John, had been there for weeks.

"That's not normal though," Wendy says.

"It's not supposed to be—" Richard says.

"It's supposed to be just as a passing through," Wendy says.

Richard continues: "It's not supposed to be your home."

"No," agrees Wendy.

John says he's been living in the truck in question for a year and a half—but he's relatively new to this particular Walmart parking lot. During his recent stint of homelessness, he's been to plenty of Walmarts, he says, but it was Santa Fe's Walmart Supercenter where he recently spent his 41st birthday.

That's not by choice. John, who came here from Colorado, says the head gasket of his truck blew. He says mechanics estimated the cost to repair his '94 Toyota was $1,500—a hefty amount considering his only income source is veterans' benefits. That's far less, he says, than the $62,000 salary he earned as an installation manager at a security company before he got laid off.

John says he'd been attempting to head southeast to Little Rock, Ark., for the veterans' hospital there. He deployed to Bosnia when he was in the Army during the Clinton administration, and health problems have beset his body. He says he's endured a broken back that left him with degenerative discs. He also has had two knees replaced and a major shoulder surgery, he says. All that, according to John, led to a painkiller addiction that he finally kicked ten months ago.

He worries about the onset of winter.

Walmart's parking lots offer lights, cameras and sometimes security patrols by employees.

"It's miserable," he says of staying at Walmart. "Sucks. I'd rather have a roof over my head."

But Walmart beats a homeless shelter, John maintains.

"You kidding me?" he says of shelters. "At the shelters, they say there's no drugs and there's no drinking." But those policies don't prevent the activities, he says.

"They go get loaded all day and they go down there all jacked up at night," he says. "And what's the difference? It's like I don't want to be around that. I'd rather sleep outside."

John wasn't the only Army veteran on the lot that evening. Jeremy Garner, 31, has been on Walmart's turf in a white Chevy Express van for about the same amount of time.

Garner's not in the same dire straits as John. But he's in a similar contingent of Walmart parkers who use the facilities longer than a night.

Garner started drifting after he returned from a 12-month tour in Iraq years ago, he says. But he stresses that his drifting isn't a result of any military trauma. Being from a military family, Garner says he's grown accustomed to not settling down somewhere more permanent.

Yet Garner does apply Army terminology to his current situation. He calls the Walmart parking lot his base camp. The inside of his van is outfitted with insulation to keep it warmer. He wears layers of clothing at night. Candles provide a source of heat. During the day he wanders to the public library to read—a copy of  The Da Vinci Notebooks sits in the van. He goes to the carwash to catch a shower with his briefs on. A musician, he might buy a guitar pick at a local music shop.

Most of his shopping happens at Walmart, though.

"I don't need to tell you about Walmart," he says. "No, I can't afford to go to Albertsons. And I can't park there overnight. So that's why I'm here. And they're usually pretty cool about it."

A man who initially called himself Robert, then later said his name was George, had noticed Garner's van parked there. Robert had been asked to take his van out of the Sam's Club off Rodeo Road after staying there for a month, and he's now an extended parker in the Walmart Supercenter lot.

Robert wanted to stay at Sam's Club, where he claims to have had an encounter during which a Pakistani woman requested to stay in his van late one night.

"She prayed and she said she wanted to find a person who would be nice to her," he says. "And I was nice to her. I mean I didn't intrude myself sexually on her. For both myself and her. I mean to me it's too important. I'm too old—I mean I'm sexually quite active. But I didn't want to just do it with somebody unless it meant something. Yeah, I would have stayed there in hopes that she would have come back sometime."

He revealed few details about his life, other than to say that he has a daughter in Albuquerque, a son in Israel and a condo in Florida. He's staying in Walmart's parking lot to save money and because he can't commit to Santa Fe, he says.

Garner says Walmart's policy of allowing overnight parking also serves as a helpful tool for law enforcement.

Instead of chasing people away, he says, "I think it'd be more beneficial for the cops to observe people in the Walmart parking lots—and kind of have a rapport with other cities around the area."

"It makes it easy for everybody unless you're the bad guy," he adds.

He used the analogy of tent cities, which would be secure and controlled places for authorities to check for runaway kids or wanted criminals.

Santa Fe Police Department spokeswoman Celina Westervelt says the department doesn't have data to support that Walmart's overnight parking policy on its private land is helpful or harmful to law enforcement.

Most of the police visits to Walmart are responses to reports of shoplifting, she says, but police sometimes patrol the parking lot and run license plate checks. Westervelt says she's not aware of any major incidents of cops getting involved with Walmartians—except one handled by the county early this year.

On Feb. 13, Mary Garcia reported the disappearance of her brother-in-law, Ron Stark, a 48 year-old former Marine. She told the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Department that Stark suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and was suicidal.

Five days later, Deputy Paul Garcia was dispatched to the Walmart Supercenter parking lot, where  a Walmart employee told the officer a vehicle had been parked in the lot for about a month and all its windows were blocked with papers. Inside, officers discovered Stark's dead body. Next to him was an empty bottle of Clonazepam, a prescribed anti-anxiety medication, and a nearly-empty bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey.

For most Walmartians, Walmart parking doesn't present life-or-death situations. Everyone interviewed for this article says they feel safe in Walmart's parking lots, which offer lights, cameras and sometimes security patrols by Walmart employees.

The parking lots don't offer amenities like showers, hookups and places to discard of RV tanks of gray water, used for sinks, or blackwater from onboard toilets. They don't offer swimming pools or fires like RV parks do. RVers avoid doing much outside their vehicles as to not upset the Walmart employees.

The Grace's enjoy Walmart's parking lot for allowing them to avoid rest stops filled with tractor trailers. Lou explains they're constantly pumping their air brakes at night.

"Well if you're ever sleeping next to one of them, I mean, they'll start up 20 times during the night and then you'll hear Pttttshhhhhhhh! And then the truck will shut down and then an hour later after you're asleep again—you'll hear it again."

Semi-trucks often park at Walmart too. They can cause problems for the RVers.

The Bornsteins commented on the semi-trucks just as one was idling nearby at about 10 pm.

"Sometimes trucks stay here," Richard says.

"And they do what he's not supposed to do," Wendy says, "which is sit there with it idling—"

"Sometimes they keep their engines on all night," says Richard.

"Yeah they're not really supposed to," Wendy says. "And obviously like we're not supposed to use generators and all that kind of stuff because it's loud. We don't have one anyway."

"But some of these big rigs," she says, now referring to the fancy RVs that park there. "This is what you call—what is it, dry docking? When you don't use any of your—"

"You don't attach to anything," Richard says.

"You don't attach to anything. And they have all built-in stuff on those rigs that they can—" Wendy adds.

Richard: "They have water tanks. Water heaters. They have a furnace."

"They can use a bathroom," Wendy continues.

"Bathrooms," says Richard. "You know—not like this."

"They can do all their cooking and everything," Wendy says.

Richard motions toward the heater—which they'd purchased at Walmart. "You know what?" he says. "With this and the lamp, what else do you need?"

Wendy continues his thought: "We're fine."

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