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Who shops at a Wal-Mart after midnight? You, that's who.

Nocturnal Shoppers

It's the same on any scorching, sunny, summer day: In the Wal-Mart parking lot on Brook Road near Parham, heat rays rise off the asphalt between the tight grid of parked vehicles.

After dark, however, the temperature drops and the cars dwindle. What's left behind is a paved beach littered with deserted metallic shopping carts. Nearby, but less glistening in the harsh sodium vapor lights, is evidence of what occurred earlier. A pair of threadbare car mats are heaped in a clump: Buy a new set and just toss the old ones out the window. A few yards away is a heap of soiled disposable baby diapers. Nice.

Attention Wal-Mart managers: How about more trash receptacles?

Inside the sprawling store, however, surely greater pleasures await those who shop in the wee hours, in the cool of night.

Oddly, the checkout line is longer after midnight. On a recent warm evening, all but one of the registers are closed: They have been rolled away while the maintenance crew washes and polishes the white, linoleum-tiled floors.

Most merchandise aisles are devoid of shoppers. One can really see what Wal-Mart offers, arguably as good a snapshot of what we Americans buy as any block of TV commercials, or what pundits tell us about our consumer habits.

On the magazine rack in the book department, Britney Spears' soft-covered "2000 Tour Book," is aimed at cranking her fans up for her upcoming concerts. Nearby, in the jewelry department (which is a considerable distance from the grocery department) dozens of loaves of French bread are specially priced and set on high, rolling racks. At the end of one home-furnishings aisle an exhaustive display of colored lamp oil is displayed — only $2.97 a gallon, and available in blues and purples.

Who shops Wal-Mart at midnight? A young mother in an oversized T shirt pushes two barefooted girls, aged 2 and 3, in a shopping cart. She pauses in the vestibule to read the missing children bulletin board. Her husband, who looks wearier than his years (or is it the hour?), steps outside for a smoke.

Spotted pushing a loaded cart toward her car is the owner of a popular Fan District retro-antiques shop.

A black, stretch limousine pulls up and parks at the far end of the lot near an 18-wheeler (even truckers have to shop). The promoter of a number of local nightspots steps out, having driven himself to purchase some shelving.

A tanned, young couple roll their cart out of the store. Fan residents Su Thongpan and Shawn Stanley are in a chatty mood.

"We stopped in to just buy a birthday card and look," says Thongpan incredulously. Two huge, plastic, lidded tubs fill their cart. Stanley pops one open to reveal plastic bottles of water and boxes of cereal. He grabs a bag of Doritos and breaks it open. The colorful plastic crates are for his growing collection of, well, collectibles.

Next to exit the store are three, 20ish, cheerful roommates who live near Douglas Freeman High School. Sean O'Neill, Chris Smith, and Hunter Ritchie have laden their cart with Drano, frozen pizza and instant Ramen Noodles. "This will feed us for a month," says O'Neill with a wide smile. (Let's hope that doesn't include the Drano.) They push their cart across the parking lot, its metal wheels occasionally reflecting the powerful, overhead lights that illuminate the warm

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