Did I really need to buy a gas cap for my Toyota on a late Friday afternoon?

Probably not.

I suppose it is a good idea to have a cap on your gas tank. After all, the car does come with one. Somehow mine got lost and I had been driving around without one for weeks. It was starting to bother me. And I have a problem with procrastination anyway.

And so I pulled into my trusty summer locale Wal-Mart in upstate New York. After all, Wal-Mart has everything.

It was dangerously close to 6:00 p.m. on a Friday and the parking lot was brimming with bargain hunters. I resisted my usual temptation to drive around until I find a prime parking spot just 15 seconds or less from the entrance and just grabbed the first available open space -- a full 60 seconds away.

Sprinting my way to the front doors I hardly noticed the steadily sinking August sun. Shabbat would be here soon (7:26 to be exact) and no hurrying of mine would prevent its imminent arrival. I snatched an empty wagon and burst into Shopping Heaven.

I don't visit Wal-Mart very often, but its sheer immensity can actually take your breath away, which is probably why I instinctively grabbed that wagon even though I was only going in for a tiny gas cap. And off I went to find the Automotive department.

The first distraction was the Produce section. Grapes (of several colors) were on sale for 79 cents a pound! What a bargain! I snapped up a bunch. Right next to them were hard peaches. I gave one a feel. They were really hard. And my wife loves really hard peaches. "I'll be a hero," I thought as I corked a bunch of them in a plastic bag and laid them in the bottom of the wagon.

Next I scooted down a main Wal-Mart boulevard and passed aisles of cereals, paper goods, chips, and frozen stuff on my right. They all looked kind of tempting, especially since some of the shelves had bright yellow ‘come-on' signs, declaring to the world how cheap they were. But time was short, and I made my way past them.

But then, out of nowhere, I was met face to face with a huge geometric mound of Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi boxes -- 24 cans in each -- for (are you ready?) $5.99! Even my dulled division skills could quickly reckon that I'd be paying less than 25 cents each for my beloved soda! "This is my lucky day," I muttered as I stashed two crates in my cart (probably smashing the grapes) and drove away.

I then asked a clerk where the Automotive section was and he gave me an Easterly wave. I probably should have checked Mapquest before I left, but I ventured along in that general direction.

"Wait! Look at those shirts!" The summer season was winding down and those benevolent Waltons were practically giving away these gorgeous knit shirts (in 8 or 9 colors) for $9.99! The sign said that they were originally $29.99! Truthfully, I didn't really need more shirts, but at that price I wasn't going to pass them up. It took me a few minutes to figure out the right size (I ended up with XX large... they run small) and to choose the colors, but I grabbed two of them and went merrily on my way.

Strange how you meet certain people in certain places, isn't it? Well, I hadn't seen Barry in years, but there he was running down Aisle 11 with two bottles of horseradish and a big jar of dill gherkins in his hands. "Shabbat essentials," he called them. We were both in a rush, but I couldn't resist catching up on family news for just a minute. "He looks good," I thought as he cut me short and sprinted to the checkout line.

The clock was picking up momentum as I dragged my way past Broadloom, Digital cameras, Athletic socks, Fishing equipment, Toddler toys, Toiletries, Reading glasses, Luggage, Fax machines, Fake flowers, Sandals, Electric blankets, Sun umbrellas, and Industrial extension cords. "I'll come back next week to check out some of that stuff," I declared. There just was no time.

I thought I smelled tires (a good sign), but made a brief pit stop to check out the rechargeable batteries that were also on sale. Using rechargeable batteries is such a sensible idea. There were a few different types of battery kits on the shelf and it definitely took me longer than it should have. But I finally made my choice (the cheapest one, of course), and swung a hard left turn into AUTOMOTIVE... finally.

I checked my cell phone (I never wear a watch). It was nearly 7 o'clock! Where did the time go? I frantically combed the shelves for my indispensable goal -- the holy gas cap.

Rummaging my way past the anti-freeze, wiper fluid, tire inflators and Odor-eaters, I eyed my prize at last. There were only two gas caps left on the shelf. "Must be a popular item," I mused. But which one, if any, would fit my Toyota? The packaging gave no indication.

Panting around the bend I began a desperate search for assistance.

"I don't work in automotive."

"Maybe they're all the same."

"You're gonna have to wait your turn, I'm helpin' this lady with a pressure gauge."

"You gotta go outside, pull your vehicle into the shop around back, and ask one of the mechanics there to try it for you. If it doesn't fit, maybe they'll find you one that does. I'm not really sure."

Not sure? Wait my turn? DON'T THESE PEOPLE KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS?!?

By now, my entire body was sweating profusely. I flipped the stupid gas cap into the wagon, flew up aisle 24, nearly killing innocent children and seniors with my cart, and sought out the shortest check out line. There were at least 16 counters open... AND EVERY SINGLE OF THEM WAS PACKED!

I poked my nose into the carts in front of me. Why, in heaven's name, do people need to buy outdoor carpeting? How many cartons of Enfamil can one baby consume? Does that lady really need a dozen boxes of raisins? And where did these cashiers get their training? The Cayman Islands?

My cell phone said 7:12. Shabbat would arrive in 14 minutes and I was clearly losing my mind.

I must have switched lanes literally eight times in three minutes. Anyone on line with ice cream would soon need a straw to consume it. This was ridiculous. WHY CAN'T THESE PEOPLE GO SHOPPING IN THE MORNING, WHEN I'M NOT HERE?

My cell phone said 7:12. Shabbat would arrive in 14 minutes and I was clearly losing my mind. I took a deep breath and looked down at my wagon. There lay the batteries... and the soda... and the now-not-so-hard peaches. I checked out the cashier situation; nothing was moving. I eyed my blinking cell phone clock. And I looked one last time at my very lonely gas cap... and then I said good-bye.

I wasn't going to make it. Right then and there, I abandoned all of my would-be purchases and tore out of the store empty-handed.

I jumped into my gas cap-less Toyota (a full 60 seconds away) started the engine and felt a tear roll down my left cheek. It wasn't a tear of sadness. It was a tear of shame.

Less than five minutes later I entered my summer bungalow. Brushing past my freshly bathed grandchildren I headed straight for my bedroom without saying a word. I couldn't. The clock read 7:22.


It took a few days of serious contemplation, but I learned a lot from my hour in Wal-Mart.

We come into this world with everything available to us. This planet is truly the ultimate Super Store. In many respects our potential is unlimited; our possibilities endless. But we are only here for a certain amount of time, so we must plan accordingly.

We each have a goal, a mission, a purpose, perhaps a certain wrongdoing that we need to correct or a hole that we need to "cap," and we are given a wagon to wheel around. But the distractions are everywhere. The fruit looks so fresh and inexpensive, but maybe it is forbidden. The peaches can make me "a hero." Surely there is time for that. So we stop... and pick.

We see signs that beckon us to stop and browse and choose, but we withstand the temptation and feel proud and maybe also a bit complacent. So that seconds later when our "favorite soda" is really cheap, we cannot resist and we take an enormous amount -- maybe more than we need?

We continue on our road, seeking our destination, and we ask for help or direction. But we don't always ask the right people. Maybe we should have done our homework before, so we would know where to look.

Old friends will cross our path. We want to catch up, but they are running and are sometimes more focused on reaching their goal than we are. So they have no time for us. Isn't that sad?

We check the clock. Our time is truly running out. But we cannot shift gears. We continue to pursue our original quest, no matter how mundane or unnecessary it really is. We fail to see that sometimes it's just not working. We delude ourselves and believe that somehow there is time for everything. Our priorities are clouded or are completely out of sync.

And then, at long last, when we finally arrive at the finish line, we don't even know if the solution will fit anymore. Frantically, we ask anyone for immediate advice, but they are busy or don't even work in that department.

Despairingly, we just collect all the "junk" we've accumulated and run like crazy (while inconveniencing others) to try to acquire it and take it with us. But the lines are long...very, very long. Even then, after all we've been through, we are blinded. Instead of taking responsibility for our actions and decisions, we ask ridiculous questions that shift the blame to anyone and everyone but us.

In the end, we must leave the wagon behind. All our work was for nothing. Poor planning, skewed priorities, too many distractions, and not enough time.

Yes. Wal-Mart does have everything. Just make sure you get what you really need.