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The witching hour

How the other half lives at night in Wal-Mart

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A few minutes before midnight on October 31, Tonya Ray eyes coffeemakers at one of Missoula's Wal-Mart Super Centers. There are eight kinds of coffeemakers on the shelf, priced from $17 to $80. Some are programmable, some are filterless and one can make frappes. So far, Ray only has a box of sanitizing wipes in her oversized shopping cart. When she touches the pot handle of the Mr. Coffee 12-Cup Maker, it's clear she has no intention of buying it.

In 2004, Ray was in a car accident that left her with a broken leg, hip and back. She was a homecare nurse at the time, working on the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming, and in the midst of a divorce. In the following months she endured eight surgeries, she says, promising a lifetime of chronic pain. As soon as she was able, she moved back to her hometown of Missoula and filed for disability. Now she receives her checks electronically on the first of the month.

As Ray continues down the aisle, her limp is wince inducing: one quick step followed by a long off-kilter step that seems to push her hip above her waistline. She's in her mid-40s, with long brown hair and gentle blue eyes. When she speaks, her voice is barely more than a whisper.

Despite her awkward gait, Ray walks determinedly; other than the coffeemakers, she doesn't stop to peruse. She carries a shopping list written half in black ballpoint, half in brown marker: toilet paper, fabric softener, baby wipes.

In the dairy section, Ray smiles at a man with tattooed arms who is stocking cartons of eggnog. They seem to know or at least recognize one another. "Just avoiding the crowd on the first," Ray says, her voice suddenly loud. She's referring to what she calls "regular" shopping hours, when the sun is up, eight or so hours from now.

Food stamps (EBT cards), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) are among the government assistance funds that are electronically distributed to recipients at midnight on the first of every month. In recent statements, executives from Wal-Mart, Dean Foods and Kroger have cited an intensifying correlation between retail sales and the distribution cycles of such funds. "We're seeing a lot of midnight shopping in our stores," Wal-Mart Executive Vice President Rosalind Brewer told a group of investors earlier this year. "We've had some of our busiest hours at midnight."

Richard Yamarone, a Wall Street economist and author of Trader's Guide to Key Economic Indicators, is troubled by the trend: "There's a significant portion of Americans living by the day and entirely on government assistance," Yamarone said in an email. "You have roughly 45 million food-stamp recipients and there are only 308 million of us. You can't engender growth with such a large portion on welfare."

It's now 12:30 a.m. Vehicles are filing into the Wal-Mart parking lot, by North Russell Street and Mullan Road. Not everyone is here because of government assistance—there's a bartender just off work and a young couple who say they're night owls—but still, the parking lot bustles.

Doran Deal and Amanda Cummings arrive just after 12:30, their infant daughter Emily in tow. Deal, 27, has lived in Montana his entire life, he says. He works for a Billings-based company installing fiber optics. Cummings, 22, says she's lived in Montana for 10 years and is working toward a degree in business administration. At midnight, they receive their food stamps and TANF funds. "We gotta get out of [Missoula]," Deal says. "There's no way to make it." He says he and Cummings plan to move to Washington state, where he hopes he'll find steadier work. Cummings says she plans to continue working toward her degree online.

For Ray, this has become her monthly routine. It's been frustrating. She hasn't been able to find work in years. She lives entirely on welfare. "It's been really hard to make it work," she says, staring idly at a display of discounted peanuts.

It's 1 a.m. and Wal-Mart is busy now. There are stockers in nearly every aisle. Customers flow into the store pushing empty carts. Bodies move everywhere. The fluorescently lit space murmurs with squeaking rubber soles and rattling shopping cart wheels.

Ray heads for the checkout. All around her, shoppers have carts heaped with merchandise. Not hers. She pushes for the front of the store, moving more quickly than before, her limp accentuated. She passes aisles of frozen food, a hundred signs that advertise "Rolled Back" prices, and beelines for the register with the shortest line.

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