The Humble Shopping Cart

When I went in to donate blood this week, the woman helping me check in started talking with me about her arthritis, after I told her about mine.  She said that she could barely make it through the grocery store the other day, because it was so bad.  She relies on the shopping cart to lean on, but she’s too stubborn to use the scooter.  “I’ve thought about using the kind of walker with the seat on it,” she said, “but then how do you shop?” Meaning how do you push the grocery cart?  When I suggested grocery delivery, it was clear she has also considered that, but didn’t like that you had to buy a hundred dollars worth of groceries to get the free delivery from Hy-Vee.  

Grocery shopping is hard for me too.  The lights are bright and I have to navigate around other shoppers and make a lot of decisions.  Groceries are heavy, and the cart helps a lot.  I suspect a lot of us with balance or walking issues don’t notice how much we lean on them, using the cart as stealth piece of assistive technology.

When this person told me she’s too stubborn to use a scooter; it’s something I’ve heard before and recognize: that’s ableism limiting your choices.  There is a lot of stigma against using a scooter.  Using a shopping cart is normal; it makes you invisible.  Using a scooter, wheelchair, or cane makes you hyper-visible.  

In The History of the Shopping Cart  by Gwen Sharp, I learned that it wasn’t always so: carts were designed and implemented in part to get people to buy more items, and reduce the number of clerks in stores.  An unintentional side effect is that they make walking easier for some of us.

Shopping carts where I live are ubiquitous, and easy to liberate from parking lots.  Because of their ubiquity, shopping carts are also used by some homeless people as a way to haul and store their things.  The carts are durable, weather-proof, and capacious.    

My local grocery is located in a poorer section of town; a lot of people walk or take the bus.  A fair number of people walk the cart back to their houses, at least when the weather is cooperative.  I overheard the young people working at the store talking one day about rounding up lost carts.  A couple of employees were to drive around the neighborhood with a pick-up truck and look for stray carts, load them up and take them back to the store.  I envisioned the carts like little pack mules, coming home to the barn.  

The newer Target in town, located in a neighborhood with a lot more services and a Whole Foods, has shopping carts with anti-theft devices installed.  Those mules never get to have adventures.