By Andrew Jenner
I can’t have been the only child who dreamed of commandeering one of those motorized shopping carts that sit tantalizingly unattended at grocery stores entrances. And I’m surely not the only adult who still, somewhere in his heart of childish hearts, would kill for the opportunity to go joy-riding down the frozen foods aisle, spinning donuts on the shiny waxed floor, veering madly around corners Mario Kart-style. Wouldn’t it be fun?
By age 28, though, I’d pretty much accepted that this wasn’t going to happen, that firsthand knowledge of self-propelled shopping carts will only come once I’m sufficiently withered and broken down to actually need one, that I will probably never be able to muster the necessary chutzpah and disregard for basic decency required to pull off such a stunt.
And then, a fortunate thing happened: my mother developed severe and terrible plantar fasciitis, and in September, underwent an invasive and painful foot surgery requiring many weeks of recovery – and entitling her to full operational privileges of any and all motorized shopping carts throughout the land.
As the weeks went by, Mom grew in experience and wisdom. She learned which carts are fast and which are slow, which stores are cramped and fraught with navigational hazard, and which ones are crowded with entire regiments of variously disabled customers, whirring to and fro, jockeying for position, turning the place into bumper cart arcades.
One fall day, with her bandaged foot propped up on the coffee table, Mom began to tell tales of her shopping cart experiences. I disclosed my long fascination with these carts, and together, we hatched a plan. I would become her shopping cart apprentice, she would be my mentor, together, we would share our findings with the world.
At our first stop, Cosco, Mom flings her walker aside, leaps aboard the motorized cart and unplugs the vehicle from its charging station in one smooth, elegant motion. She is an old pro. Several other older ladies smile kindly in her direction, casting long, sympathetic looks at her obviously injured extremity (out in public, she has to wear a Darth Vader-style black cyborg boot). I witnessed this sort of thing over and over during my fieldwork – unusual goodness toward, and genuine concern for, Mom coming from strangers. This is the Friendly City. (My own self-image was significantly lifted by all of this, too, thanks to all the approving nods from strangers; I was the Good Son, the Helpful Son, the Patient Companion to an Infirm Mother.)
The Cosco carts are the fastest ones, says Mom, buzzing down the main boulevard. I keep abreast with a brisk stroll. They are also the most obnoxiously safe, each being equipped with an orange safety flag atop a six-foot pole attached behind the seat, and a forklift-grade beeping alarm when operated in reverse. Back at the front, Mom neglects to re-plug her cart back into the wall. When pressed she admits that she doesn’t usually do so. It’s like flossing: recommended but not worth the hassle.
Target’s carts are the lemons of the Harrisonburg cart world. The Pintos. The Gremlins. The Ladas. They creep along at an agonizingly slow pace. If not accompanying Mom, the only time I would otherwise walk so slowly is if I was being led to the gallows. Nevertheless, it was in Target that Mom had her first cart accident, in the jewelry and watch section, when, while attempting a multi-point turn, she became wedged perpendicular to the aisle, neither able to reverse nor go forward. My Dad had to muscle an entire shelf of watches out of the way to free her. While retelling the story, she manages to nearly become stuck again in similar fashion, leaving nasty scrap marks along an entire row of merchandise. The whole incident is upsetting and nerve-wracking. We leave as quickly as possible, i.e., very slowly. Mom’s backing-up skills appear to put the public welfare in serious jeopardy.
We make a few more stops. Red Front is tiny, cramped and cluttered. We visit at rush hour on a busy shopping day. Very bad call. After coming within an inch of upsetting a stacked display of Diet Pepsi (the fact that Mom was completely oblivious to the closeness of the call was the scariest bit), we proceed down the canned foods aisle. Standard push-powered carts are everywhere. The sounds of cranky children and the bell-ringing Salvation Army panhandler out front elevate stress levels. Husbands and wives are fighting. Rounding the corner, Mom takes a collision vector toward an oncoming cart. She jerks left (her driving style tends toward the herky-jerky), charting another crash course for a second cart. When the second cart, pushed by a dour-looking woman, fails to yield, Mom, in desperation, swings back right, clips a stack of canned peas and sends about a two dozen clattering to the floor.
Flustered, she evacuates the scene as I do a frantic scrambling thing to get cans back on shelves. Mom later blames the incident on the dour-looking lady; I concur, admiring Mom’s pluck.
The Food Lion experience proceeds with out incident, difficulty or excitement – unremarkable, not notably good, not notably bad – comparable, in that regard, to the Food Lion shopping experience itself.
And on to Martin’s, where the Mart-Cart, the Cadillac of electric shopping carts, awaits. This one is a real winner, with Cosco-like speed, a subtle and polite backup alarm, good suspension, good handling, an excellent safety rating, etc. etc. I’m ready to declare it Cart of the Year when Mom points out its small basket capacity. It would be hard to get a week’s worth of groceries in here, she says. There is always a catch.
We find ourselves in the Martin’s produce and deli section, a fun little obstacle-ridden terrain. I convinced Mom to field test the cart’s handling; she obliges (hasn’t she been a sport about this whole thing?) with a figure-eight around some expensive-looking wine displays and the gourmet cheese area.
Earlier, I’d asked Mom if it was just plain fun to drive the carts. She didn’t take the bait, and responded with a dissatisfactory statement about how the carts simply make it possible for her to shop. But there in Martin’s, as she describes an elegant arc counter-clockwise around the cabernet franc, I glimpse for a second an expression on her face that betrays her: pure, sparkling glee at the joy of motorsport inside a grocery store.
Someday, that will be me.