When I went to Cindy J’s house and discovered they used store-bought garbage bags in their kitchen garbage can, I knew her family was made of money. See, back then, while I was a bagger at Dominick’s, we would ask every customer, “paper or plastic?” and hardly anyone said plastic. The paper bag that came with your purchase was like a free gift — it fit perfectly in the standard kitchen garbage can.

Cashiers would fight over having me at their bagging deck, I was the fastest and most efficient bagger Dominick’s on Ogden had ever seen. My legendary skills were honed by playing Tetris which was sweeping through as the most popular video game at the time. Pat, with her carpel tunnel syndrome, was the slowest and most miserable cashier. Nancy was paranoid and suspicious about everything. And Beverly, who owned a side escort business, regularly made demeaning references through gestures about me to other employees and the team of regular cashiers I served. 

Mike the manager, was really the only pleasant person to work with, and was called to the front to work the register only when we were very busy. He was a machine; there was no small talk, he just pumped groceries through the scanner, and together we checked out grocery shoppers one at a time. 

I really preferred the brief-but-freeing task of collecting carts from the parking lot, at least until we got our first cart corrals. When the corrals came, so came the outfit I was required to don to ensure my safety. While it never occurred to me that I was unsafe while I collected carts between cars, in driving aisles, or when I had to push long chains of carts with careful maneuvering skills in traffic on hot sunny days, it was a welcome break from the toxic personalities inside. 

The outfit included a neon orange vest and matching neon hat of humility, marked with the words, “Courtesy Patrol.” That hat was so ridiculous that Mr. Morrow, whom I babysat for regularly, begged me to steal one for him. He brought it up every week. I later regretted that I didn’t steal one for him, I never could explain to him the complexities involved in saving him from wearing the hat, but I was grateful he at least recognized the absurdness of it.

As life has a way of coming full circle, I have rediscovered my glory days of cart return. Perhaps due to a Walmart customer’s poor mobility or an over-purchasing situation at the superstore, carts can be found loitering at our local bus stops, tipped over at the river, disposed of at the cemetery, parked at the el station, and sometimes even being repurposed as a receptacle for trash. My trained eye enables me to see these carts, every day, sometimes for months, alone, abandoned, unable to get back to the safety of their home corrals without assistance. I know someone out there collects them sometimes because the independently occurring sloppy cart corral that forms at a corner eventually does disappear. Just in the last week, I decided to let go of my pride, metaphorically don the old Courtesy Patrol hat, and join that mysterious person or people who has been returning the carts to their home base over the years. 

So to whoever has been removing the carts in the past, my deepest appreciation goes out to you.