Camping at the North Fresno Walmart Parking Lot
by Skip Rorshach Freedman
You can smell the desperation in this place, like the heat that wafts off one of those old-time steam radiators. Tweekers, rednecks and illegal aliens make for an interesting melting pot in this central valley hellhole called Fresno. Even in mid-April, the afternoon sizzles at around 90 degrees – even with partly cloudy skies. There are at least a dozen people that call this parking lot and its environs home on a regular basis. There are probably at least another dozen that I never even saw. Maybe more.
Sunrise finds the lot moderately crowded with empty employee cars, except for five vans and one RV. People that were sleeping in the bushes are stirring and slowly milling around into groups on the grassy perimeter. The tweekers huddle together nervously in their own clic. Their eyes darting around like lizards, they contemplate what they’re going to do to survive another day in this dusty blast furnace. Some will start scrounging the local dumpsters, others will try to hustle people down on Shaw Avenue. This heavily-traveled artery cuts through extreme north Fresno from the 99 freeway all the way east to Clovis, where the locally-famous rodeo will get underway in a week and a half. An old-timer comes out from behind the building pushing his overfilled shopping cart/storage unit. He’s nicely grizzled and has obviously been doing this for awhile. He looks around 50, but is probably younger. This seems to be over twice the average age around here, most residents seem to be early- to mid-20’s. Several illegals have already headed over to the Home Depot down the street to find some manual labor for the day. The van people sleep in until around 8 or so, then slowly head over to one of the three nearby fast-food joints for a cup of coffee. The RV folks leave before 9. You see vacant stares as the tweekers walk by you; these are young lives completely devoid of hope before they even hit 30. You wonder if these people will even be alive in five years. The white security van starts making rounds up and down the parking lot aisles. They’re actually pretty cool here, for cops (which doesn’t happen very often). As long as you move your vehicle every couple of days or so they won’t hassle you. No idea what the record duration for staying here is. It might be surprising.
Once the sun is fully up and blazing, the groups begin to dissolve into the surrounding area for the day’s hunter-gathering. People move their vans into the shade to try to minimize baking, and a few kids mill around under trees to keep cool. The only folks coming here in the afternoon are customers: overweight suburban housewives, retirees, Armenians in scarves, and people just passing through the area.
It starts getting dark around 8, and a few guys straggle back to the lot with things like hoses, pieces of wood, and other objects they’ve scrounged from dumpsters or behind buildings. Groups reassemble and discuss the day’s catch or swap amusing anecdotes about people they met. The spring night winds kick up about an hour later, and the van people roll down their windows and crack their side doors to bleed out the day’s heat accumulation. Inside it’s usually around 100 degrees, even when they’ve been in the shade all day, so it takes a little while to make them habitable for the night. The customers all left by 10, but there seem to be employees there all night – probably restocking shelves and sweeping up the place. Just after 11 a lonely train whistle wails about a mile to the west, alongside Golden State Boulevard, signaling the end of another day of survival. Maybe tomorrow will be better.