Hot Wheels

Farm implement, barbecue grill, delivery truck: Meet the real American sport utility vehicle

City grocery trip, 1949: "Here's a list and three dollars. Here's the note for my cigarettes. Get yourself a Hershey bar and come straight home. You listening to me?" The grocery is two blocks away.

City grocery trip, 1999: Two mothers and four kids take the 16A to University and Snelling. They load six bags of groceries and three 24-packs of pop into two shopping carts, push the carts two miles home, and leave them tipped over on the corner where a neighborhood grocery used to be.

Bounty hunters: Qasim and Janeha Edwards recover stray carts for Cub Foods
Bounty hunters: Qasim and Janeha Edwards recover stray carts for Cub Foods

The city neighborhoods surrounding strip malls of clustered megastores are festooned with shopping carts. Target and Cub, red. Rainbow, dark green. Kmart, gray. PetsMart, pale green. Office Max, yellow. Family Dollar, blue. Some are new and clean, others rusted and mangled. Everybody's got an opinion about the litter, but nobody's got a workable solution.

One day I am riding with Qasim and Janeha Edwards in their '83 Dodge pickup, picking up carts around the Midway area in St. Paul. Qasim works nights for Cub, and most days he and his wife recover strays for Cub and Kmart. We pass a cart tipped over in a yard on Iglehart Avenue. Janeha pulls over, and when Qasim retrieves the cart, a woman storms out of the house.

"Where you going with my cart?"

"This isn't your cart. It belongs to Cub."

"I'm using that cart. You keep your hands off it."

"Suit yourself, I'll just come back with police."

"How much you give me for it?"

Most city dwellers are used to absurd practicalities. The question here is: How are thousands of poor people supposed to get life's daily necessities home from distant megastores? Costly cabs? A bus that gets you part of the way home? Or a shopping cart you take right to your front door like your own budget-model sport utility vehicle?

Not that taking a shopping cart home is the special province of poor city folks. The owner of a business that sells new and used carts throughout the Upper Midwest will tell you that shopping carts, which cost stores between $135 and $250 apiece, seem to be universally viewed as community property and are freely appropriated for all sorts of novel uses. Because accusing nice people of swiping carts might cost him business, he won't let me use his name.

"Shopping carts get no respect whatsoever," the businessman says. "Recently I noticed this nicely dressed woman load groceries in a BMW in Eden Prairie. Then she gives the cart a big shove. It sideswipes a car and rams a pole near the cart rack. I said, 'Do you know what you just did?' She smoothed her fur coat, gave me the finger and hissed, 'Why don't you mind your own fucking business?'

"Last summer the manager of a big condo complex in Wayzata called me for repairs on some carts. It turned out that residents were using the carts to ferry groceries and other stuff from the basement parking garage to their upstairs units. When I pointed out that all 14 carts came from a nearby grocery store, he was sort of offended that I might bring up such a thing.

"A year or so ago, some college students in Mankato got this idea for instant cookouts. They'd load up one shopping cart with a couple bags of charcoal and another with a keg of beer and head for the woods. They'd tip over the charcoal cart and light the bags and open the keg. The side of the tipped-over cart made a kind of grill. Afterwards they'd just walk away and leave behind two ruined carts.

"Got a farm? Raise hogs? Barn full of dairy cows? Got to get feed up and down those rows every damn day? Want a durable farm utility vehicle to help out? Guess where they're available. They get worn out? Well, toss them out back and go to town and get some more. They're free, aren't they?"

According to the beleaguered cart mogul, stores do not wish to clamp down on the disappearing carts for fear of insulting their customers and driving them to the competition. Thus, out in the suburbs and beyond, cart losses tend to become just another unseen cost of doing business.

The thing about city neighborhoods is that hundreds of abandoned carts are so readily apparent. And bad things can happen. Like the time last summer when Qasim Edwards was picking up carts at an apartment complex and he spied a bunch of kids surrounding one boy standing in a cart with a rope around his neck attached to a tree limb. Other times he says he's seen kids taking helter-skelter rides down driveways into the street.

Many store managers will tell you it's a problem for the police to handle. After all, they say, if 600 officers can be mustered to corral 37 Highway 55 squatters, why can't a few hundred chase down shopping-cart abusers every day? The problem is that the police don't have specific jurisdiction. No law says that if a store lets you take a cart outside, you can't take it home.

"For God's sake, don't suggest City Council draw up an ordinance to have us go rounding up shopping carts," says a St. Paul police captain who also insists on remaining nameless. "Right now we consider them to be abandoned property. Unless somebody's pushing one down the middle of the street, it's a situation that's between them and the store."

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