Recently, one of the agenda items taken up by your esteemed City Council was the "issue" of shopping carts abandoned in neighborhoods around town.
Their trek from grocery store to front door complete, the forlorn vehicles are left on corners, on sidewalks, and in ditches all around the poorer parts of Savannah.
Occasionally the carts seem to cluster together on their own, as if driven by some instinct of metallic DNA, the way flocks of birds gather to migrate, guided only by an ancient internal compass.
(What's the correct collective noun for a group of abandoned shopping carts? An "aisle?" A "produce section?" An "express lane?" I'm taking suggestions.)
The consensus of City Council — and this Council is nothing if not all about consensus, one of Mayor Edna Jackson's favorite words — was that grocery stores should be responsible for repatriating the lonely carts left in the neighborhoods.
Not the customers who originally took them from the stores, which is technically theft. Not even technical — actual theft.
Already a situation ripe for satire, Council's decision took on added ironic, dark humor because of its timing, hot on the heels of a single night in which there were three separate shootings across town within 45 minutes, killing two and injuring three.
The deaths came during a fracas that was garish even by local gunfight standards. The shooting at East 38th and Cedar that took the lives of an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old happened in the middle of the street at about 9:45 p.m., with plenty of witnesses.
Twenty minutes earlier, a 25-year-old was shot on East Oglethorpe. At 10 p.m., a 23-year-old was shot on MLK.
One truism of politics is that elected officials have to handle whatever's in front of them. The timing's rarely up to them.
If it's shopping carts one minute and violent crime the next, they just have to deal with the strange juxtaposition and let the carts, uh, the chips, fall where they may.
And in this case, on the shopping cart issue... I actually think City Council got it almost right.
America has a weird relationship with its citizens who are in poverty. And make no mistake, grocery stores, shopping carts and crime are all linked directly by socio-economics.
Like most of you, I'm two or three paychecks away from financial catastrophe. That's the new normal. That's what being middle class in the America of 2013 is like.
So I'm amused by the attitudes some people display towards the poor. The most common trope, going back to the '70s and '80s, is the Food Stamp Filet Mignon Syndrome.
It goes like this:
"Know what I saw at the grocery store the other day? I saw a so-and-so buy Filet Mignons with food stamps! What's this country coming to?"
There's a variant that has to do with clothes:
"I saw a so-and-so at the grocery store the other day, wearing a beautiful new dress and a big hat. And she paid for everything with food stamps! What's this country coming to?"
Let me be blunt: If those two or three paychecks of mine ever do go awry, and I'm plunged into poverty and despair and dependence on government assistance, you're damn straight I'm gonna have me a nice big steak for dinner every now and then.
And if the worst does happen, I won't be walking around sporting cut-up living room drapes. I'll look as good as I possibly can.
When I hear people take this line of attack — that the poor must mark themselves specifically as poor people so the rest of us will know who they are — I usually respond:
Do you actually want to see people feeding their families dog food? Do you actually want to see families dressed in rags instead of decent clothes?
What would you say about them then? What would that do for you? Would that really make you feel better about yourself?
In the same vein, there's no need to overthink the whole shopping cart deal. People take shopping carts from stores because they have to eat. And they have to get their food home somehow.
You can't load groceries into your car if you don't have a car. And if you just bought food for a family of four for a week, with or without food stamps, you probably won't be schlepping all those bags onto a CAT bus (though I'm sure some try).
So what's left but to take the stupid cart home with you? And of course you leave it outside. What else are you going to do? Walk it four miles back to the store? Bring it inside the house? Make a planter out of it?
Nobody likes to see shopping carts rusting on the corner. But it's just a symptom of a much worse blight, the blight of poverty.
City Council was on the right track in acknowledging this. Their only mistake was in letting grocery chains continue to take the cheapest, ugliest option: letting customers take carts out of the store and then occasionally sending a truck around to gather them up, because they're forced to.
If we must be in the business of telling grocery stores how to handle their property, we should take the next logical step and tell them they must keep their property off City streets entirely. They must install the technology, already commonplace, to physically prohibit carts from leaving the parking lot.
The grocers should then be required to provide, at very low cost, portable, foldable carts which customers of any socio-economic bracket can bring each time they come. If the customers don't take advantage, well... sorry, still can't take the cart home.
Crisis averted. Dignity reclaimed. The grocers take responsibility for their property, the City takes responsibility for public streets, and the less fortunate have an option other than leaving carts in the ditch.
You're welcome, City Council.
I only wish the bigger issue of poverty was that easy to deal with.
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