Storytelling: A Man, a Shopping Cart, and Why We Can't Have Nice Things

If you click the embedded sound file, you will hear me telling a story about something I saw recently and how it felt emblematic of the routine failures of responsibility and kindness that underwrite the erosion of democratic social infrastructure, in the vacuum of which authoritarianism thrives. A small thing, which represented something far more significant to me.

If you are unable to listen to audio, a complete transcript is below.


On a recent Saturday evening, Iain and I went for a late-night swim. It was an unseasonably warm winter night; we needed coats, but just barely. There was no rain, and the ground was dry, free of any snow or ice. These details are not intended just to paint a picture; they are important to this story.

After the gym, we went to a 24-hour grocery store, to pick up a few items for the next day. What we picked up is incidental. Those details do not matter.

What you need to know, however, about this particular grocery store is that it is an upscale chain whose patrons are (mostly) well-heeled, and that its cart returns in the parking lot are pretty fancy, at least by the standards I'm used to. They're covered with little roofs, to reduce the wear from sitting in rain and snow and blazing sunshine. And there are two kinds of carts, each with its own clearly marked lane in the covered cart return: Large shopping carts — the traditional kind — and upright carts. Smaller; two baskets on wheels, basically.

When we left the store with its sophisticated cart returns, into a midnight hour chilly and dry, in our line of sight across the virtually empty parking lot was a man. Here are the things I know about him: He was white, appeared to be in his mid-50s, was wearing an NFL franchise branded winter coat, drives a new-model white minivan with white stick figures of his family decaled on the rear window, and he had just finished shopping.

I know that last detail because we just caught him slamming down the van hatch and turning toward his empty cart. A large one. He was parked directly across the driving lane from a cart return. Maybe 15 yards, if that.

Now, at this point, you may be thinking: I bet this is a story about a person who didn't put his cart in the correct place in the cart return. That's a pretty good guess. Clearly, I am the sort of person who is annoyed by the seemingly endless number of wealthy, entitled drips who refuse to abide by the request to return carts into one of two lanes — lanes marked with both LARGE CAPITAL LETTERS and pictures of each cart shape, for anyone who may be illiterate or non-English speaking.

That I might have been irritated to distraction by a man lazily ignoring the store's simple and reasonable request, and instead just dumping his cart into the huge, chaotic jumble, seems very likely. But I assure you and regret to inform you: It was worse.

We were parked in the same row as the man — it was one of only two rows anyone was parked in, the closest spots to the front door, since it was quite late on this cool and arid weekend night — so we were walking toward him when we saw him grab the cart roughly, pull it toward him, then HEAVE it toward the cart return, lifting one of his legs up and behind him like a figure skater as he delivered the grand shove.

The cart careened in the general direction of the cart return — and also in the general direction of the car parked immediately beside it. I watched with horror as it nearly missed the bumper of the parked car and instead smashed, hard, directly into the outer rails of the cart return.

Never mind not putting his cart in the right lane; he didn't even get it in the cart return.

The man turned, satisfied, to get into his van. He caught me looking at him, open-mouthed and frozen in my tracks by the shock of what I'd just seen. He gave me a dirty look before hopping into his vehicle and pulling away — forward, naturally, and diagonally across empty spaces, breaking every rule of safely traversing a parking lot.

Perhaps I have mentioned that it was not a particularly cold night, nor a wet one. It was downright pleasant for midwinter. I don't know if the man was able-bodied, but I know he was able-bodied enough to walk the cart to the return, which would have been a less athletic feat than hurling it. Had he been in a desperate hurry, I doubt he'd have taken time to pause and smugly appreciate his fine flinging skills, nor to pause once more to give me a good glaring-at.

I am a person who presumes that people have decent or at least understandable reasons for doing the things that they do. I considered many possibilities, and I dismissed them all.

What I witnessed was just full-tilt shameless fuckery.

Iain and I loaded our items into the back of our car, then I walked our cart to the cart return. And then I got the man's cart and walked it to the cart return, too.

As I returned it to the correct lane, I pictured him hurling it and recalled his shitty face twisted into a self-satisfied grimace. And something in my brain just…broke.

I have been watching privileged people recklessly launch their fucking shopping carts and entirely missing the cart return my whole life. And I have been putting their fucking shopping carts where they belong my whole life, because I know if I don't do it, it will just be someone else's mess to clean up, so I might as well pitch in to the magnificent, sprawling campaign of cleaning up privileged people's fucking shopping carts, because they can't be bothered to stop making a goddamned mess with their fucking shopping carts.

I got in the car and began bitterly venting my spleen about this man and his fucking shopping cart, which Iain generously obliged. All the way home, I went on about this man throwing his fucking shopping cart just because he couldn't be arsed to walk it to the cart return, like his time is too bloody precious to participate in the social habits that maintain order.

His cavalier disregard for other people's property; his gross indolence; his sneering delight at his own hostility for the most basic decency.

This is why we can't have nice things. Like a functional democracy or social justice or world peace.

And many things far smaller than that.

Because there are too many people who can walk their fucking shopping carts to the cart return and put them in the correct lane, but won't.

Who think that those of us who do are suckers. Rubes. Sticklers. Nerds.


And so we are. We are losing many things that I fear we will never get back. I shiver to contemplate the things we still have yet to lose, and the pain that it will cause.

He was just a man with a fucking shopping cart, behaving like an ass in a way that isn't even unfamiliar. But he was emblematic of something intolerable to me; of the throngs who are convinced beyond dissuasion that making an effort to do the right thing is not just unnecessary, but beneath them.

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