In Cleveland, a staffer in Office Max's investor-relations department says the local manager did exactly right in having me call corporate, but she's never fielded an inquiry on carts. What exactly do I want to know? I am tempted to ask for a reaction on three Somali kids who just rode an abandoned Office Max cart into the path of a speeding semi along University. Instead I say the company's carts are showing up in the surrounding neighborhood, and do they have a solution? She says somebody will call back. She also says she used to live in an apartment "where the lobby was always full of grocery carts." As yet nobody's called back.
Back on our trek across Midway Center, we turn right past He To's donut shop and Taco John's and reach Cub Foods, 855 paces from our starting point. Cub management stands unruffled amid the cart chaos. In the midst of a perpetual feeding frenzy, they maintain a French disposition; accepting the turmoil, even relishing it. Slugging it out with Rainbow for the loyalty of the hungry masses is more important than hoarding every last cart. Says assistant manager Scott Lichtenberg: "We look at the carts as just a way to help our customers get their food home. We're not going to chase them down or make a big issue of it. For us it's a cost of doing business here, and it's a problem we can handle."
The way Cub handles it is to pay Qasim Edwards a wage and mileage to round up its carts. When a neighborhood resident calls in, the address goes on a bulletin board. Edwards picks up the list and retrieves the carts along with any others he and Janeha spot along the way. Kmart also pays the couple on a per-cart basis to pick up their big grays, which are among the favorites for trans-neighborhood caravans.
Our next stop is PetsMart, where manager David Johnson shakes his head ruefully at the mention of carts. "We have less than a hundred carts here, and in the beginning we didn't fully understand local custom. One day that summer we looked around and all of our carts were gone. Every last one of them. We hired a guy to go pick them up at a buck a cart. He did it for a while and then never came back." I give him Qasim's number and move on into the parking lot between Mervyn's (no carts, just baby strollers) and Borders, which just settled into part of a former Montgomery Ward (the closest location they could find to the independent-bookselling bastion of Grand Avenue).
Finally, nearly a mile from where we began, we cross Hamline Avenue and reach the hulking mass of the Midway Target. Store manager John Radtke sounds like a beleaguered company commander who has tried three times to assault an enemy position, and not even Nick Nolte can get him to do it again. He has tried the "no carts out of the store" policy and the result nearly closed down the business. He might try it again, he says, but not unless some allies join the campaign.
"We have employees periodically make a sweep of the area for carts," Radtke says, "but it's no secret we can't keep up with the problem. We have between 300 and 500 carts in this store and do an inventory every three months. With the volume we do here and our clientele right now, I couldn't tell you how many we have on hand at any given time. Right now we don't have an adequate solution."
Target has a fine, large, light cart that is easily the homebound transit of choice. You can see its bright red basket sticking out from dozens of surrounding snow banks. It is far and away the favorite at Skyline Towers, a mere 450 paces eastward from Target.
Skyline Towers rises 24 stories along I-94. The 1,500 souls who occupy its 506 units speak 23 languages or distinct dialects. The building management tells you Skyline is the nation's largest low-income project under one roof.
On the day of our trek, 86 shopping carts, some from every store in Midway Center, are massed in a grove of birch and lilac or turned over along the driveway at the rear of Skyline. Of that number, 47 are Target carts. A recent sweep of the upper floors recovered 69 Targets. During a fire in one of the upper units two months ago, firefighters battled dozens of carts cluttering the stairwells and hallways; after that, the St. Paul fire department informed management that Skyline was potentially liable for a $250 fine for every cart found in the building.
Skyline is the Dien Bien Phu of the cart wars. At a meeting of the Tenant Action Council in late January, Skyline management announced its latest policy: Beginning March 1 (because it takes that long to work though the language maze), no carts will be allowed inside. Anybody caught with a cart will be given a citation. Anybody with three citations will be deemed in violation of the lease and eligible for eviction.
Maybe Skyline's new policy is the end of the winding trail of red Technibuilt 344s loaded with Diet Coke and Pampers wobbling their way down University Avenue. For now, Qasim and Janeha continue to find plenty of prey on their daily rounds--here a heap of Cub's chrome-dipped wire baskets, there a cluster of Kmart grays. When he has loaded 13 carts (14 is his usual, but this load includes a cart with a bulky baby seat) into the bed of his pickup, Qasim straps them in with a bungee cord and heads back to Cub. "If I knew this business was here to stay, I'd get one of those big trailers that could carry 30 or 40 carts," he says. "Then I wouldn't have to make so many trips."