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Before The Horse

Inspiration sometimes comes from the strangest places.

Someone casually shared the image above, and I snagged it and posted it on Facebook.

It started quite a nice little discussion about our individual cart ethics, and joking about whether we could get grant money to study people and their shopping cart habits.

Soon after, JD posted this video showing the messy condition of the cart return area at a wholesale club.  He asked ‘Seriously. Who leaves carts like this?  This is messed up.  I don’t get it.’ on the video.  And when he posted it, my first thought was ‘I wonder if I can get a federal grant to study the shopping cart habits of people!’

But seriously, it’s an interesting question, which leads to other questions.  What kind of people leave carts full of trash?  Why would they do that if trash receptacles were close at hand?  What other behaviors might they engage in similar to leaving carts in a state of disarray?  Not busing their tables at fast food restaurants?  Failing to pick up after their dogs?  Littering?  Also, was this a New Jersey phenomenon?  Or does this happen all over?  Is there some cultural or political component to this?

I set out to do a little research yesterday at various local stores, just to take a sampling of what their cart return areas looked like.

First we went to Fiesta.  cart fiesta 1cart fiesta 2

Fiesta had cart attendants handling the carts almost as quickly as they were used.  There wasn’t an opportunity for them to get too messy, so it was difficult to tell whether or not people were tossing trash in them or leaving them for cars to run into.  Good job, Fiesta!

Next, we tried the HEB closest to our house.  Nope, those cart attendants were too good – hardly any carts were in the return corrals.  There wasn’t anything to take pictures of except empty racks.

On to the Randalls across the street, but with similarly bad luck.  I mean, bad luck as far as catching messy carts.  Few people are ever in that parking lot at Randalls, so maybe nobody ever uses the carts.  At any rate, nothing to see there.

Then it was on to Walmart.  cart walmart 2 cart walmart

I had lower expectations of Walmart, but even there it wasn’t too bad.  A few people left their carts in the lane right in front of the store, and the cart return had a little trash in the carts, but overall, not bad, and they had an attendant working hard in the lot as we drove through.  Nice effort, Walmart.

Next we hit the Kroger across the street from the Walmart.  cart kroger 1

People had abandoned their carts in the parking area designated for new moms, left carts in the zones near the handicapped parking spots, and generally rolled them out of their way just enough to drive away.  And there was no sign of a cart attendant trying to rectify this.  Points off, Kroger, even if I like visiting your bargain bin area.

Across the street was another HEB, so we drove through there.  But with two attendants on duty and nicely stacked rows of carts sitting by the door, there was nothing unusual to see there, either.  Muy Bueno, HEB.

On from there to Target.  cart target

The worst it got at Target was at the edge of the lot, where four carts sat abandoned near four grassy islands, as if they were guarding each aisle as wheeled sentries.  The cart returns were full in a few places, but not trashy or messy.  B+ Target.

Around the corner we hit another Randalls, but again, there was nothing to see there.  Do people even shop at Randalls?  I am beginning to suspect that they do not.

Finally we drove down to the ALDI near the house.  cart aldi

Aldi is a special case.  In order to use a cart at an Aldi, you have to insert a quarter into the cart chain as a deposit, which you receive back when you return the cart to the rack next to the store.  Since there’s a financial incentive, and since as a society we still believe quarters have value, we were not surprised to find every single cart not in use in its proper place by the front doors.  Not a single cart was abandoned in the lot, and it meant not one lot attendant was needed either.  There was also no trash at all, either in the carts or in the parking lot.

Now you’ve seen the shape of the markets in my neighborhood.  What do YOURS look like?  Are you surrounded by jerks?  Are people in your area cart-conscious and considerate?  Send us YOUR pictures of the best and the worst cart corrals near you!


Okay, all the fun aside, what this all means is open to interpretation.
But though it was a frivolous thing to do – who takes pictures of carts in parking lots? – I think there are some more serious and meaningful takeaways.

I think the big crises in the country aren’t where the problems start.  I think they start in little things like thinking of the next person.  When we do things to pick up after ourselves at places like stores, parks, restaurants, we don’t get a tangible benefit from it at all, but others do.

And when we let those things slide, I think we lessen ourselves.  We say to others that come after us that they’re not worth our slightest effort to show them the respect of a nice cart rack, a clean spot of grass, a cleared table.

But my theory is that the people who return carts in good order are the same people who clean up after themselves, and who DO leave a place better than they found it.  They’re unsung heroes of everyday life, caring in small ways for people they will never meet, and who can never thank them.

Now, maybe you think we shouldn’t be amazed or impressed at this – these are ways people should behave all the time.  But in the current environment in which everything is THE END OF THE WORLD and the crises are coming at us from all sides, I wonder if some of the solutions to our biggest problems begin with the smallest of actions.

Religious people might talk about restoring certain values to prominence, or getting right with God.  And I’d agree with that, wholeheartedly.  But it doesn’t take a belief in God to practice the Golden Rule, to value other people, to show them respect, to think about not just the world you leave behind you when you depart it, but the rack of clothing or the drink counter or the bark park you leave behind on your way to the next place you go in your day.

And I might be going out on a limb here, but paying attention to these little details might actually make it easier for us to navigate the bigger ones with each other.  I’m trying to leave every place better than I found it.  Wouldn’t it be a sweet thing if we all were doing that together.