Bag Lady

Published in Plenty, December, January 2008.

We all have them, neighbors who compost while we only recycle, friends who begin to ride their bikes to work just as we finally buy that Prius. Let’s call them green saints and stipulate from the outset that any scorn or irritation we feel is merely a transparent attempt to deny guilt. We should compost, we should ride our bikes, we should unplug our unused appliances and use the cold-water cycle on our washing machines. How do we live with not being green enough?

All of this has been on my mind lately because of my bag problem. To explain, I have to go back to the early 90s. One day I got in line at the local food co-op behind a young woman who was buying only a handful of green beans. I say handful because that’s how she was carrying them, and she set them on the conveyor belt like that, loose. The checker raked them onto the scale and weighed them. “Would you like a bag?” he asked her, but she was already scooping them up and dropping them into her shoulder bag, four or five beans at a time. “No thanks,” she said. Then she switched to a sarcastic voice and said, “Actually, yes, can I have a bag for each bean?” and they exchanged a collusive smile. Standing behind her, I felt chastened (I was definitely going to need a bag; I hadn’t brought one and there was no way I could put half a gallon of milk, four apples, and an acorn squash in my purse)—but also distinctly annoyed. Such smugness!

Two or three years later, a woman I knew had the following story to tell. She was second in line at the grocery store one day, waiting while the checker rang up and bagged the purchases of the man in front of her. I don’t know what possessed her, but she tapped this man on the shoulder and said something along the lines of “Excuse me, but when I go shopping I bring my own bags—it cuts down on waste.” Whereupon he looked at her and said, “Lady, you’re wonderful.”

Lady, you’re wonderful. Where had he been when I needed him, at the Eugene food co-op? I didn’t know which was more impressive, his quick, acerbic comeback or how good-natured it was of her to tell the story on herself. What I did know was that the 21st century grocery store had morphed into a battleground.

For me, the battle seems to be with myself. Here’s what happens: I save my bags after each trip to the grocery store, smoothing them out once I’ve put my groceries away and carrying them to the car… and that’s exactly where they are the next time I’m at a checkstand ready to pay. “Paper or plastic?” the checker says, and I wilt inside: I forgot them! Again! Should I run get them from the car and inconvenience the people in line behind me? Or concede defeat and hope for better luck next time?

Given my charged bag history, I suppose it’s no wonder that I keep forgetting. Each trip to the grocery store requires me to navigate between the Scylla of green-saintliness and the Charybdis of bad-citizenship. It’s a good thing I’ve got a big freezer—at least I only have to go shopping once or twice a week.

Recently things have changed. A local market had a one-day giveaway of woven cloth grocery bags printed with the store’s name. I happily accepted one, and when I got home I emptied it of that day’s groceries and took it back to the car, where I put all the folded paper bags into it, a bag of bags. And for reasons unknown to me, I remember my bag of bags as regularly as I used to forget the loose ones. This feels good, and I believe it’s that good feeling that led me a few days ago to buy another reusable bag (“I used to be a plastic bottle” it proclaims) so that now I have two non-paper bags in my car and am considering a third. Was this all I ever needed? A way to turn my bag problem into an opportunity to accessorize?

No matter. I am, at last, doing the right thing, at least at the grocery store. And so far I’ve managed not to lecture the other shoppers or even make smug comments to the checkers.

Elsewhere, however… well, do you always take the cardboard tube exposed by the last square of toilet paper and walk it to the recycling bin? Or do you sometimes toss it in the bathroom trashcan? You do, you sometimes toss it in the bathroom trashcan? Then come on over here and sit by me.