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.

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.

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

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."

Enter Guest Services Team Leader Tom Pellitier, who team-leads at the Target store on West Broadway in Minneapolis. Because of Pellitier's initiative, as of September 14 last year, the Broadway Target no longer permits shopping carts to be taken out of the store. Not even to cars in the parking lot, unless you're disabled or have some other good reason, in which case you will be escorted by an attendant. All other "guests" are to drive up to the store entrance and have an attendant help them load their purchases.

Pellitier says 85 percent of the Broadway Target's guests are low-income and most do not have cars. Still, "after a two- or three-week learning curve"--during which he says taxi traffic has picked up--"there have been few complaints." With those kinds of results, it figured that other urban Target stores would soon take a closer look at the Pellitier approach.

On November 16 Bob Davis, Pellitier's counterpart at the Target on East Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue, instituted his own "no carts outside" policy. After two weeks the rule was suspended because it was quickly becoming apparent that more attendants would be needed to handle the melee of cars waiting to get loaded. The upcoming holidays boded chaos anyway, and customers were mad as hell. Davis, who sends an employee out to collect carts in the neighborhood a couple of times a week, says he will likely try the policy again after things settle down a bit.

 

By now you have come up with a solution to the cart problem, right? Like: If you can push a cart full of stuff home, why can't you push it back empty next time you go to the store? Why, if you can just get another cart? (See "absurd practicalities," above.)

Fine, then why can't stores reward and/or punish everybody into returning the carts? Some malls and airports have systems under which you deposit coins each time you take a cart, and get it back when you return. According to the cart manufacturer, when tested in grocery stores the idea infuriated shoppers. Not poor folks, but affluent customers who resisted digging out quarters for something they expected for free, and were insulted by the notion that they would actually walk off with a cart.

What about technology? Some Minnesota stores have tested an electronic tracking system: A sensor, placed on each cart's back wheel, caused the wheel to lock when the cart went 20 feet beyond the store's property line. The cart seller says the system didn't get much of a reaction. First, it was expensive. Second, lots of cart wheels wobble or get stuck even without a lock. Third, Minnesota salt and slush quickly destroyed the sensors.

But you have yet another great solution. Okay, then, why don't you test it at cart chaos ground zero; the Midway shopping area, a 10-block stretch along University between Snelling and Syndicate in St. Paul. Within this expanse lie a Cub and a Rainbow, a Target, a Kmart, a Mervyn's, a PetsMart, an Office Max, a Paper Warehouse, half a dozen smaller stores like Walgreen's, Family Dollar, and Big Top Liquor, all of which have carts, plus a dozen smaller stores that don't. Several managers claim that more than 1,000 carts move an estimated $10 million worth of merchandise across Midway's asphalt prairies every week.

For a closer look, let's you and I take a stroll. We begin at a bus stop near University and Snelling. Nearby, a cart rack holds eleven green Rainbows. Strewn across the parking lot nearby are more Rainbows, five Cubs, two PetsMarts, an Office Max, a Big Top Liquor and seven Targets. A hundred paces away, Rainbow attendants Mike and Jerry jam a few dozen carts together and snake them through the slush.

"What do you do about carts from other stores?"

"We just leave them. At night after most of the cars leave, it makes them easier to spot in case some other store comes by to pick them up."

"Who picks them up?"

"Some guy from Cub does theirs. Mostly it's people who get off the bus and pick up a cart on their way to shop somewhere. Don't make any difference to them whose it is."

Rainbow has a posted policy warning that there is a $10 fine for anybody caught off the premises with a Rainbow shopping cart. Has anybody ever had to pay up?

"I don't know of anybody," Jerry says. "We've got enough to do just to collect in the parking lot, never mind chasing people down the streets." Still the notice must have some effect. There are not many Rainbow carts in the surrounding neighborhood.

We take a few hundred steps east past McDonald's (three Targets, two Rainbows, a Walgreen's, and a Big Top). Midway Center is a busy urban bazaar, and because all stores open to the outdoors, the cart traffic is constant. Motorists negotiate narrow lanes between shoppers, cars, and carts with the aplomb of Hong Kong cab drivers.

We pass Walgreen's and a scattering of their small, dark-gray carts. The grays don't show up elsewhere in great numbers; too small for cross-country hauls. The only other megastore in this section of the mall is Office Max, where an assistant manager offers up the training-manual line: "I'm not authorized to talk to you about that subject, but I'll give you a number at our corporate headquarters in Cleveland." Office Max carts, while not plentiful at the bus stops, are bright yellow and stand out like nudes.

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."

In the Cub parking lot, Mark, the attendant on duty, rounds up a long snake of carts, adds a dozen from Qasim's latest load, and winds the whole bunch into the store's side door. Meanwhile, a steady stream of loaded carts pours from the portals of Midway's megastores. Some head for cars in the parking lot, others for the bus stops. Some wobble through the slush out into the neighborhood. It's no Lincoln Navigator, but the shopping cart may be the most popular utility vehicle in the country.

So what was that solution you had again?

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