Most folks don’t spend too much time pondering the problems of stray shopping carts. Until an abandoned one rolls across a crowded parking lot and dings your car, or worse, hits your leg. Or the very space you parked in is blocked with a cart.
Left in the wrong place, a cart can really mess up a supermarket trip – or in some cases, create a cart-littered neighborhood near the store.
It seems so simple. That’s surely how the first person to come up with the modern, metallic four-wheeled device, back in the 1930s, saw it. You go to the store to buy things, fill the convenient basket full of goodies around the aisles and then wheel it out to your vehicle. It’s so handy.
However, sometimes the wheels come off the plan. You’re in a rush. The baby is crying. It’s starting to rain. The cart corral is too far away. So, you just leave it in the parking area – at best, a job for someone else, at worst, an accident waiting to happen.
Bringing the carrier back inside, or even to the nearest cart receptacle, can be a surprisingly divisive issue, according to a 2017 Scientific American article, which identified five categories of cart users: returners, never returners, convenience returners, pressure returners (someone is watching you) and child-driven returners (your kid loves riding back to the store). The story cited an earlier study published in Science, which showed subjects were almost twice as likely to litter areas where the carts remained unmanaged.
Many big chains, such as H-E-B, have entire departments dedicated to parking-lot maintenance, aka cart wranglers. But, just because you see those employees interlocking long trains of nested carts back to the depot doesn’t mean you can’t take a little positive action, if you’re able.
A couple of years ago, my late friend San Antonio artist Gene Elder started thinking a lot about how some individuals handle – or mishandle – shopping carts.
“When I would go to the store and see how carts stack up in the parking lot, and some people just leave them in the next parking space, I had to examine my own behavior too, and how lazy I had to be not to just push a cart back to the entrance,” he told me.
“This seems like an example of how careless and inconsiderate we can be that we can enjoy all the convenience of modern shopping, but can’t take time to push our carts back, or even get them out of the way,” he continued. “And, if an older person, or a mother with kids, or just about anyone is having trouble doing it, how hard is it for you to take (a) cart back to the store?”
Elder had always thought outside the box (or the cart), and relentlessly shared his ideas and opinions with a massive contact list. Even after going into hospice care for an illness, he continued to advocate for movements he personally created, from Political Art Month to the “Return a Cart for Jesus,” a campaign he called “a hybrid of recycling and performance art.”
“It seems so logical and helpful,” Elder said to me. “How hard is it to ask, ‘Can I take that cart back for you?’ I never see anybody offering to push someone else’s cart back to the store for them on their way in, but some people are really appreciative when you do. Maybe it will catch on.”
I often think of Elder when I’m trundling a cart back to the store. I’m lucky enough to be able to buy things, and to push my own grocery cart. To me, the latter is one tiny gesture toward civility. What do you think?