It’s 6:30 in the morning at a Lucky in El Cajon. Styrofoam container of coffee in hand, I’m waiting in the predawn light for Eddy Ventura, the man I’ve been assigned to ride with for the day — one who will school me in the art of shopping-cart recovery. While I’m waiting for my ride, I replay a scene in my mind from the previous week. Downtown on business, I found myself at a standstill in heavy traffic, heading westbound on Broadway. Leaning on the horn, I discovered that a police car and a flatbed truck were the cause of the holdup. At first I thought the officer had stopped the operator of the flatbed for transporting what seemed, from a distance, to be improperly secured lobster traps.
When I got close enough to the scene, I noticed that the flatbed was teeming with shopping carts. At the corner of Fifth and Broadway, a gentleman in a frayed brown overcoat was gripping an overflowing shopping cart. As the cop and the driver of the flatbed approached the man, heated words were exchanged, a light altercation ensued, and the man fell to his knees. As the flatbed driver dumped the contents of the cart onto the concrete, the operator of the cart lifted his hands to cover his face. As quickly as traffic would allow, I took my next right, shot two streets up, rounded the block, and drove back down to Broadway. By the time I returned, there was no sign of the police car, the flatbed truck, the homeless man, or his belongings.
Though I only caught a glimpse of the scene, the image lingered for days. I wasn’t haunted just because a man’s foundation was ripped from his grasp— that happens so often in the city, we find ourselves callous to human suffering. It was more that some dormant nook in my conscious was being prodded, abducted, and driven away on the back of that flatbed.
I can’t recall when I first saw someone I identified as homeless wheeling his assets around in a rickety steel basket. Shopping carts are a sort of mental barrier between you and someone else’s misfortune. Whether the cart makes the individual appear to possess something, or because the cart marginalizes their plight to that of a petty criminal, it lessens the empathy we might otherwise feel. When did society begin to heap the burden of responsibility for its homeless on Vons?
Sipping my cup of deli-counter joe, I notice a shopping cart with a broken child-restraint strap. The plastic flap in the child-seat of the cart reads: “California Shopping Cart Theft Law — unauthorized removal from premises or unauthorized possession of this shopping cart is a violation of state law (B & P code 22435). Any removal must be by written permission of store management.” Another sticker states, “Call 800-252-4613 for recovery.” Across the lot, a woman is wheeling a cart of groceries off the premises. Once she has made her break, I go back inside the store and report her to an employee stocking Kraft macaroni and cheese, who thanks me for the report but says there’s nothing she can do. Without looking up from her sticker gun she says, “The guy who brings back the carts will take care of it.”
Moments later, a shiny white truck pulls up to the curb and 1 climb inside. My driver, wearing a Milwaukee Brewers cap, introduces himself as Eddy Ventura, “as in Ace Ventura,” he smiles. As Eddy and I drive away from Lucky, he apologizes for being late, telling me that he’d arrived at his first stop in San-tee and forgot he was supposed to pick me up.
Eddy is the first one to ask questions. “Why me?”
“Why you?” I reply, thinking of an answer I don’t have. “You’re who Mary assigned to show me the route.”
When I first decided to do this story, I contacted the California Shopping Cart Retrieval Company (CSCRC) out of Alhambra, which services most of the major chain stores in Southern California. The company put me in touch with Mary Aldridge at North County Cart Recovery of Escondido, who contracts work from the Alhambra company. Mary then subs recovery routes out to drivers like Eddy. North County Cart Recovery started 13 years ago in Escondido and currently services all of San Diego and Riverside Counties, from Riverside to the border, Palm Springs to the Coast.
I ask Eddy if he’s ever worked the downtown route where drivers are accompanied by a police escort.
“I worked over there for two weeks. I no like to work over there.”
“Too many problems with the homeless. You know, one time the bottom [of a cart] broke and the homeless, he look at me and say, ‘It’s my shopping cart,’ ” Then Eddy says louder, “ ‘Hey, it’s my shopping cart!’ ‘Okay, it’s your shopping cart.’ ” Eddy says, as if to say, whatever, I don’t need this hassle.
“In that case you just let them have it?”
“Yeeees,” he says, drawing out the word for emphasis. “Now, in El Cajon, is the same problem every time — too many homeless, but now they get a ticket for $75.”
“Who gives that out? Do you?”
“No, the police.”
“You just call the police?” “Uh-huh.”
When I spoke to Mary Aldridge, she explained. “We have a police escort once a week for downtown San Diego. We do a sweep, and the police officer goes with the driver to take [the carts] away from the homeless or anyone [in possession of a cart] that would be giving the driver difficulty. It’s considered stolen property, because it does belong to the stores. They are able to take it away from them and give them a trash bag to put their things in. They can push a stroller or a wagon, but they’re not allowed to have the shopping carts.... It is handy for them to be able to keep all their possessions in. They get quite attached to them. [The police] give tickets down in San Diego and some of the [other] cities. It’s a warrant — so many warrants and they could go to jail.”
Eddy and I arrive in Santee, where the streets appear clean and quiet. I don’t see any wayward shopping carts. “Do you get any homeless in Santee that have carts?”
“No, in Santee, no homeless,” says Eddy. “Only in El Cajon. I remember when I start the job, about 5,6 [carts in Santee]. Now about 20. You know, every day, more and more and more.”
“You’re seeing more carts each day? Who do you think is taking the carts in Santee if it’s not the homeless?”
“Uh...” Eddy searches for the word, “the old woman, senior citizen... to buy milk, only one, they put it in the shopping cart, only one.”
I ask Mary Aldridge about the nonhomeless cart use. “It’s also families without cars, young families where the husband goes
off to work with the car and so [the wife’s] with the children and has to go to the store. They always just push them one way. They never bring them back. So they go to the store again, and they bring another one back [home]. We have to get them out of the apartments. A lot of the elderly people use them, because they feel secure holding on to them.” Apparently, the elderly use the carts as they would a walker, for support. “They have their one little bag of groceries and a great big shopping cart. Lucky has a.program where they will sell their little portable fold-up baskets at cost to the elderly. They have a smaller one and a great big deluxe model.”
Back in the truck, Eddy continues. “You know, in Santee and Lakeside I work every Wednesday, only one time a week with these stores. It’s more easy for me [than El Cajon].” “Why is that?”
“You know, for Lucky 227 [in Santee], 1 find only seven, eight shopping cart around the store. In El Cajon, every day for Lucky 557 [where Eddy picked me up] I find about a hundred carts. Five stops in three or four hours. I don’t like this store.”
“How many days a week do you do this?”
“In El Cajon, every day [except Sundays]. Wednesday only I do Santee.”
“Mary tells me that one of the drivers once found a complete car engine in a shopping cart someone was wheeling around. What other kinds of things do people keep in their hot shopping carts?”
“Oh yeah, in the carts, sometimes the people, you know, clean their house. They move and they put [their belongings] in, like, two or three shopping carts. Yesterday a man and woman, they change the house with three shopping carts.” Eddy laughs. “When they see me they say, ‘Oooh, we’re sorry. We need the shopping carts to move.’ They were using them to move two blocks to another apartment. They say, ‘Oh, I find this stolen, I return it later, please don’t take it.’ I say, ‘That’s okay, don’t worry.’ You know, when you see these people, you say, ‘Oh sheez.’ ”
Eddy rounds up carts for an average of 20 stores per day, usually finishing somewhere between 4:00 and 7:00 in the evening, depending on the amount of carts recovered. “I have a lot of work today. You know, I work with my kid, my daughter. She work with me.”
“So she helps you then?”
“No, it’s [because] of my wife, she left me. You know, I wake up at 6:00. Before, I [used to start work] at 6:00 a.m., now 1 start at 8:00. You know, for my kid I make breakfast. She’s in kindergarten, and at 11:20, I gotta go for her. She stay with me, you know, the mouse.” Eddy points to a stuffed toy mouse on the seat between us, which I assumed was either a mascot or a gift he’d picked up for a lady friend. “She leave this here. Now, I work all day. The manager in my apartments say, ‘It’s amazing, you have the cleanest house in the whole apartments. The others, they have wives.’ My apartment is very clean.” Indeed, Eddy is a tidy guy. His truck is detailed, inside-out; his clothes clean; he sports mint-condition black high-tops; he slips on a pair of work gloves each time he gets out to retrieve a cart.
“Mary say, ‘Oh, it’s amazing, you work with your kids and keep working.’ I’m mom and pop,” Eddy says with a noble smile.
“Okay, back to work,” he says, hopping out of the truck to retrieve a shopping cart. Eddy runs behind a Dumpster in the apartment complex we have just pulled into. I hear the clanging and banging of the cart before its metallic frame noses into view. “I know the [hiding] place is behind the Dumpsters,” says Eddy.
The flatbed of Eddy’s truck is fairly high off the ground. To load the carts onto the truck, Eddy pushes down on the rear bottom rack of the cart with the ball of his foot, snapping the nose upwards with a quick lift of the forearm and shoulders. It’s a dexterous feat. I try to master this skill several times throughout the day. To Eddy’s amusement, I never quite get the hang of it. In a matter of moments the cart is tied into the bed and we are rolling again.
“There’s one,” I say, spotting another cart, “straight ahead by the next Dumpster.”
“Oh, hey, hey,” says Eddy. “Fifty cents.”
“Is that how you get paid, 50 cents per cart?”
“No, it’s $9 a stop,” says Eddy. Eddy explains that he gets paid $9 for a load of 20 carts returned to a store; this sum comes from the $13 North County Cart receives. While most stores are flexible, plus or minus a few carts day to day, some insist on at least 20 carts in order to sign Eddy’s payment receipt. Most of the stores in Santee will accept less than 20 carts. On days like today, when the weather is overcast, Eddy is often unable to recover his allotment of 20 carts; people who walk to and from the store don’t often brave the harsh weather.
“Does it matter how many you return?”
“Lucky, yes; I bring them 20 or 30 carts it’s $9 — too many carts for $9. In Henry’s I only need bring 2 shopping carts.” Eddy points to an apartment complex as we pass and says, “These are rich people. We never find carts there.”
It starts to drizzle outside. Eddy switches the dial on the radio and settles on the theme from Titanic. He asks where I live. When I tell him I live in Pacific Beach, Eddy says he would love to have that route—to be close to the beach and beautiful women. Unfortunately for Eddy, the P.B. route begins at 4:00 a.m. so the drivers can beat the midafternoon beach traffic. Current family obligations limit Eddy’s options.
“Mary told me that people will often roll the carts into their house,” I say. “Do you ever have a situation where you get a tip that someone has carts in their house?”
“I remember one time in Lemon Grove, a guy put [some carts] inside the house — six shopping carts. They take the tires off and put in gardens, plant.”
“How did you find out that this guy had carts inside?”
“I was looking for a friend, and when I see inside the house, I see the shopping cart painted white, you know. They cut the [basket] off and they put the plant inside, you understand me?” I’m not sure if Eddy actually means the carts were in the house or the backyard.
“Do they get a fine or tickets for that? I’m sure they have to pay for the carts...”
“A hundred and fifty dollars. No, I don’t say nothing. It’s before I work this job. When the cart is broken, I take it to the store.”
I speak with Steve Davis of Lyon’s Equipment Service, who goes out to various San Diego stores — Lucky, Vons, Home Depot — to perform onsite cart repairs. I ask about the type of repairs he does.
“It goes from rust removal and painting to plastic replacement and a lot of heavy welding for broken brace bars and baby seats. In one store we may replace 250 parts, while in a store across town we may only replace 10 percent of that amount. The carts at stores by the coast rust really fast.” When asked if he can tell me what type of damage he sees from the homeless, Steve says, “There’s no real way to determine if the damage is due to use by the homeless or by customers.” I’m later told by a man repairing carts at a Lucky store in Pacific Beach that some have gone so far as to saw up the cart frames and use the sides for barbecue grills.
Eddy says he likes driving with me, because it helps him brush up on his English. Most of the drivers he converses with on the radio speak Spanish.
“When you see Mary?” Eddy asks.
“I’m not sure,” I say. The thud of the windshield wipers is going strong now, keeping time with Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” as the rains increase. “Mary’s a good lady,” says Eddy. “She’s my second mom.”
“How did you find out about this job?”
“I was working in construction [in Mission Valley] and my friend, Salvador, he says, ‘Oh, Mary needs one driver. You have a good record, it’s clean, come on! It’s good money, it’s clean job.’ ”
“How dirty do the carts get?” I ask.
“Use gloves and it’s clean. Here [Santee] it’s clean. In San Diego sometimes, the Chinese, Mexican, and Vietnamese throw trash in the shopping cart or the kid’s Pampers.”
“I can see why you don’t want that route.”
“You know where is University and 43? One day, when I work for other driver, I find Pampers and, you know, the woman, they...” Eddy searches his English repertoire for a way to say feminine napkins. “You see, like at Lucky 557 [ El Cajon ], people throw them in the street, in the gutter, everywhere. Santee, Lakeside, you know, the people is more clean, you know, good people. You see the shopping cart, nothing in it. Sometimes you find a good TV, good clothes — I take to the homeless sometimes. Every time [the homeless] see me they say, ‘Hey! How are you?’ The other drivers when they see the guys pushing the carts [they say], ‘Come on, give me my shopping cart....’ ” Eddy mimics a mean driver in a gruff tone. “When I see this [homeless] guy, sometimes I let him go. Poor guy, you know?”
“You cut them some slack once in a while?”
“They don’t have no house, they don’t have nothing, and they need the shopping cart to put their clothes. Maybe, that’s one or two [of them]. The other homeless use it for drinking and beer, you understand me? When I see the homeless, they use it to live and they take it easy. ‘That’s okay.’ ” Eddy tells me of a homeless guy he knew who got a check for $250 a month and blew the money in three days on beer and partying. “I don’t see him no more, though.”
As we pass a police car, I reach for my seat belt. Eddy says he has a good relationship with the police. “I work for the city, keep the streets looking clean. Sometimes the police stop me and say, ‘Hey, Eddy, we see two shopping cart in front of this place.’ ” I later notice a “Back the Badge” sticker on Eddy’s bumper. Eddy pulls in behind a Sprouse Reitz that has recently closed. Madonna’s new CD just went double platinum, announces the deejay on the radio as the stench from the Dumpsters overcomes us. Flies swarm. We roll up the windows.
Eddy says that he understands why Mary had me ride with him on a Wednesday; it’s a piece-of-cake day. “You need to be with me on Saturday when it’s busy—you need the truth.” I find Eddy’s truth involves the homeless and their often violent fight to keep possession of their carts. “You have the good face and bad face. I am the good face.” Eddy tells me about a friend of his, Roberto, who uses only an old bed frame as a border to keep carts from falling off his truck. He says some of the other drivers aren’t as neat or nice and tend to bang the carts around more.
Next, we stop at Henry’s in Santee to return their carts. Two women are picketing Yardage Town next door. A young heavy-set gal walks up to us outside Henry’s as we’re getting ready to leave and asks if we’ll go back inside and buy her cigarettes. “I just got out of jail,” she says, “and nobody will sell them to me. I don’t have my ID, but I have my jail papers.” I tell her that Henry’s is a health-food market and doesn’t sell cigarettes, which seems to leave her bewildered. Her dimpled white legs are enshrouded at mid-thigh by a long navy sweatshirt, concealing either skimpy shorts or flesh. I’m assuming she’s just been released from Las Colinas Women’s Detention Center, which we passed a few miles back. Eddy shakes his head as the woman storms off in the direction of a liquor store a few doors down. We share a guilty laugh as we watch her denied her nicotine fix once again.
Noticing the time, Eddy says, “I’ve got to hurry up. We’ve only got 14 shopping carts in an hour. I’ve got to pick up my little princess from school.” I can tell my presence is putting Eddy behind schedule, but he’s in good spirits. Doing his best to accommodate me, he asks questions so he can help me obtain the information I need.
I ask Eddy if he can wait a minute while I run into a store. “Okay,” he says. “One minute you got, and then I’m taking off.” He stares at me deadpan, then starts to laugh when he realizes I’m taking him seriously. He promises that Lakeside will be more exciting.
At Save-U-Foods, manager Wendy asks us in an Irish accent, “Where the hell do all my carts go? By the end of the month I’m down to five carts.”
From the boxes she’s breaking down, I snag some cardboard on which to take more notes. I ask to borrow Eddy’s pen. “No, I cannot give you my pen,” he says, as I’m baited for the second time.
Eddy tells me that he hopes to move up in Mary’s Company, then asks questions about my work and how I get paid. “California, el mundo de los suenos, ” he says, translating this to “California, the land of dreams.”
I find one company in Sail Diego, Cart Tronics, that threatens the livelihood of cart retrievers like Eddy with its anti-theft device for shopping carts. I speak with Cart Tronics owner John French.
“We manufacture and sell an electronic system to keep [carts] from being removed from retail sites,” says French, whose product, a radio-frequency-controlled wheel brake, has been tested at various San Diego markets, including Apple Tree and Vons.
“We’re a young company, and this is our first offer to the marketplace. We’ve been about two and a half years in research and development, and now we’re approaching about six months in sales. Our first Vons installation is at 30th and Howard. They’re looking forward to installing our system in several dozen other Vons sites in Southern California.”
I was just over at Apple Tree in Ocean Beach, and I had to try it myself. Sure enough, when I tried to push my cart over the yellow line by the parking lot entrance, the wheel lock came down.
“Marvelous!” intones French.
“How does that work?”
“Our electronic caster [attached to the front right wheel] contains an electromechanical control unit with circuitry and battery power, which has a little RF receiver. We bury a perimeter antennae in a saw cut [trench] around the site. That antennae loop puts its arms around the site and defines the limits of cart travel. Anybody can use a cart within the lot. The caster, however, reads the signal if someone tries to cross that line and electronically releases a breaking shell that rotates down and separates the wheel from the ground. It locks in place under the wheel and stops the cart. [It’s like] a little shell over the wheel [that makes the cart] impossible to roll.... The store has an electronic reset controller, and the courtesy clerk just goes out with this little hand-held controller, energizes the caster, and resets the shell. It’s really quite simple.”
“Have you had any feedback on the product yet?”
“You betcha. Just think for a moment. Why would Vons go from two sites—one in Santa Monica and one in San Diego, to dozens of sites? They’ve tested it at two sites, and now they’ve made a list of dozens [to implement the product}. Safeway in Northern California tested it beginning back in June [of ’97], and they went from one site to dozens of sites. T ake, for example, the local Vons store, the day after we installed our system, they said to us, ‘You know, you fellows saved me 120 carts yesterday.’ That’s the number of carts that walked away from the store on a daily basis that Vons had to pay someone to go out and retrieve. They’re absolutely delighted to be saving money. The interesting thing is that their customers like the system. You wonder, [Why does a shopper like this system?’ The reason is because they’ve got nice, clean, new carts that stay on the site, and they’re there when they need them. In the past, so many carts walked off the site every day that it was common people would get there and there'd be no damn carts. Those that were there were hand-me-downs from other stores in [need of] repair and dirty, because they’d been trucked all over town.”
I told French that I noticed Apple Tree has an additional physical barrier around the entrance to the store.
“You see, years ago, Apple Tree’s problem was so bad, they put up that steel fence to keep customers from taking the carts out to their cars. That worked to stop their cart losses, but when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, that fence became a legal problem for Apple Tree.
“Ultimately, our system now allows them to open the gate, so that they’re not in violation of the ADA and able to keep their carts too. There are five little companies around the world that are trying to solve this problem,” says French. “In truth, we are the most cost-effective solution out there.”
I asked French what it would cost the typical grocery story to implement his system.
“Most of the Safeway and Vons sites are going to cost in the $ 16,000 to $ 18,000 range for 175 to 200 carts. They’re picking their higher-loss stores, so they’re going to be getting an investment payback of six months or less. They’re pretty happy about that.”
While French’s company struggles to emerge from its infancy, Eddy and I have a job to do. In the ravine across from Food 4 Less, we spot a cart we must yank from the mud and drag up the grade. Carving tracks in the slimy slope, I fall on my ass, belting out a four-letter aria. Near the entrance to a pedestrian bridge, we observe another abandoned basket, resting on its side in the tall grass.
At Rick’s RV Center, next to a pancake joint off I-8, we find several carts loaded with weeds and trash. Eddy tells me that the guy who owns the RV Center uses the carts to clean up trash from his lot. He asks for my advice as to what we should do with the carts. “Dump ’em,” I reply without hesitation. As Eddy begins to tip one of the carts on its side, a middle-aged man runs out from the RV center office across the street. He begins to holler and asks us “what we think we’re doing.” While the man denies that Rick’s RV is responsible for filling the carts with trash, we leave the carts and move on.
Soon we’re driving around Lakeside in the pouring rain. Eddy pulls up to a single-story senior complex and hands me a spare rain jacket from behind the seat. Running off in opposite directions, we scour alcoves and entryways, recovering 13 carts from the seniors at Channel Road and Parkside Way. We also locate 21 carts in a complex across from Lucky 222. “We hit the jackpot,” says Eddy. Since there’s another Lucky just down the road, I ask Eddy how he can tell which Lucky the carts belong to. Retrieving a hammer and metal stamp kit from behind the seat, Eddy uses it to engrave a store number on one of the carts. Though not as enigmatic as the mark of the beast or human bar-coding, I find it peculiar that I’ve never noticed these numbers before. Eddy tells me that it takes about an hour and a half to stamp an entire store and that he sometimes has to arrive at 3:00 in the morning to mark the entire cart inventory.
Slightly before noon we pick up Eddy’s daughter, Maria, from school. Maria, who has been waiting around the playground with the other children in daycare, sees her father standing by Iris truck, smiles, and mas toward him. She wears jeans, sneakers, and a white shirt. Eddy envelopes her in his arms and holds her for a moment before we all get into the truck and drive off. Maria doodles on a piece of the grapefruit box I’ve been taking notes on. Her clear brown eyes dart from the cardboard to me. We exchange smiles as her father explains my presence, which puts her at ease. Wisps of shoulder-length brown hair brush against her cheek as a breeze blows through the window. She writes her name and her father corrects her, showing her the correct way to spell Ventura. Maria draws hearts and a smiling girl on one side, a disoriented face and warbled smile on the other. Although her English is as slight as my Spanish, I know enough to tell her my name and answer her question about when we’ll be having lunch. “En poco tiempo, ” I tell her.
Eddy stresses that he wants to put his daughter in a school where most of the kids speak English so she’ll learn faster. He says he also has a son in junior high who takes care of Maria once he gets home from school, though Eddy can’t drop his daughter off at the apartment until then. Depending on where Eddy is in his work day, it may be inconvenient to drop Maria off at the apartment, in which case she’ll spend the remainder of the afternoon riding with her father. Although Maria appears to enjoy herself, Eddy thinks she should be at home playing with other children. “Senor Mickey Rata,” says Maria, as my eyes scan a vacant, trash-strewn lot. She holds up the plush toy for me to see, repeating herself.
“That’s not Mickey Mouse,” her father corrects.
In deciding on a place for lunch, Eddy says he doesn’t know of any Japanese food in El Cajon. He also says most Mexican food this side of the border is too spicy and upsets his stomach, though we eat at Los Panchos in El Cajon at Maria’s request. I order fish tacos and carne quesadilla, Eddy gets the carne burrito plate, and Maria, the rolled tacos. Eddy insists on buying lunch, so I dump a few bucks’ worth of quarters in the jukebox for Maria and me. We make our selections by pointing at CDs— popular Mexican artists—with interesting covers. We occupy a booth nearest the juke, where the mariachi is so loud it rattles my rib cage. Eddy contacts another driver on his mobile radio and lets the music play in the background for a while. His friend replies in Spanish, “Is it time for cervezas yet?”
Although I’m in good spirits and cracking jokes, the idea of having lunch with Eddy and his daughter suddenly strikes me as more than I bargained for—especially as Eddy’s conversation turns more personal. At one point, he misunderstands one of my questions and tells me that his wife left him for another man.
After lunch, the sun breaks through the clouds, and we begin our search for the lost carts of El Cajon. Behind a strip mall we discover an assortment of multicolored plastic carts from Food 4 Less, Pick ’n’ Save, Pet Co., Target, Home Depot, and Save-U-Foods. I also spot empty 40-oz. Schlitz malt liquor bottles and an old Wurlitzer that’s been dumped here and ripped apart. A grasshopper suns itself on one of the yellowed keys.
Maria is just as adept at cart identification as her father, indicating one of several lemon-colored carts peeking through the brush as property of Food 4 Less (the other yellow carts belong to stores that do in-house recovery). Eddy tells me that the carts are all sizes and shapes, with different handles and distinguishing advertisements aiding the trained eye.
We pass the Regency Arms Apartments, where Eddy lives. Nearby, we find numbers 10 and 11 of the Pic ’n’ Save carts we’re looking for. This is one more Pic ’n’ Save cart than we need for drop-off, so we head to the store. When we arrive, only 2 carts from their stock of 50 remain in the store—the manager is frantic. Eddy speaks with a Hispanic female clerk, who signs his receipt and complains about the lack of carts. I wheel the 11 we did find back inside the store, while Maria looks at the candy and toys at a coin-vending station. She shares some fruit-shaped hard candy. Eddy points a few doors down to a laundromat where three days ago he found eight carts; people use them to wheel their laundered clothes home.
We stop at the Amvets store to return three carts. A guy comes out to tell Eddy about some Amvet carts in another strip mall down the road. “I just saw a shitload of’em down by Hardy’s.” I assume he’s the manager, but he doesn’t even work there. He’s the assistant manager’s boyfriend, a truck driver just back from a two-and-a-half-month stint on the road.
We find what I think are our last four carts down by the Shady Lane trailer park. Eddy asks if he can finish a certain area first, as it’s on his way. He says I should see the recycling center, which he thinks is important. For me, the adventure is beginning to wind down, and I realize how monotonous Eddy’s job is.
Maria and I stand outside Henry’s, counting the corralled carts in Spanish, while Eddy searches for the manager. A man who has just gotten in his car rolls down the window. “Hey, what do they give you,” he asks, “a buck apiece for returning those things?”
“No, not quite that,” I say.
“Well, they should; they cost about 175 bucks apiece.” I wonder how he knows this but don’t want to get into a conversation. I flash a weary smile.
I wind up my day with the Venturas at American Recycling across from the Eastern Trailer Court. Down a concrete ramp and behind the recycling machine are rows upon rows of carts the homeless leave after returning bottles and cans. A blond-haired guy says hello to Eddy and gives him a nod. Eddy tells me this man separates the carts by store for Eddy. In return, Eddy brings him cheeseburgers. The wheels of the carts have settled into the fresh mud. Although Eddy usually doesn’t like his daughter helping out, he lets her pitch in now. Eddy pushes the carts out of the mud, Maria wheels them ten feet over to the ramp, and I push them up the ramp. I let Eddy load them onto the truck, fearing I’ve strained my back trying to master his technique. Following Eddy’s lead, I stamp the mud from my shoes and
empty the dirt flakes from his mats before I get back in the truck. At 4:00, Eddy drops me off back at Lucky with 20-some carts from the recycling center. I notice he is not the same jovial fellow he was earlier. Eddy makes his good-bye brief and noncommittal, driving off to finish El Cajon before ending his day in Spring Valley.
The following week, I do the downtown recovery beat with Rey, a nondescript, less personable young man. At 6:00 a.m., I meet Rey in the underground parking structure of the Ralphs by Horton Plaza. Although the brightly lit, upscale-looking fortress promises inner city revitalization on the outside, I notice an air of destitution has infiltrated the market’s skin. A locked glass case filled with Dom Perignon and pricey cigars sends one message, while five carts filled with clearance wine and booze sends another. Two men in vagrant attire stand in line with red-tag liquor bottles as I wait my turn behind them for a token to the filthy restroom. Rey does not ask why I’m doing this story, nor does he have any reaction to my presence. My introduction is met with such indifference that I don’t bother to ask his last name. We pull out of the Ralphs garage at a quarter after six.
“How long have you been doing this?” I ask.
“Almost 11 months.”
“Have you ever had to do the route with a police escort?”
“I used to do that, but I stopped because you have to do it quickly. The cops don’t have the patience to wait.”
“They want you to do your job really fast?”
“Yeah, like quick. It’s hard because sometimes you have to kind of look around for [the carts]; you know, they’re not always visible.”
“So basically when you do that route you have one police escort that rides behind you?”
“One, sometimes two. In the downtown area they’ll ride with you, like two of them, in the morning.”
“So they follow you with the flashing lights and all?”
“Have you had any problems getting the carts back from the homeless?”
“One time I was starting to get a cart and somebody just took a swing at me. So I fell on the ground, because I didn’t know if there was somebody behind me.”
“Was there someone behind you?”
“There were three guys, all with shopping carts.”
“Were the police there?” “No, when you have a police escort they don’t give you a hard time. But when you don’t have it, they’ll give you crap.”
“Have you ever had anyone pull a knife on you?”
“Twice that’s happened? While you were by yourself?”
“In that case what would you do?”
“When the guy’s drunk, all I do is ignore it — just pretend that I didn’t see anything. I guess they consider it’s their right to have [the cart].”
“Do the homeless have to empty the carts out themselves?” “Sometimes they empty it by themselves, sometimes I do it — throw everything on the ground.”
“You just tip it over and dump it all out?”
“If you got the cops with you, you can do that, but if you don’t, you can’t dump it.”
“It’s not legal if they’re not with you?”
“So in this territory you’re just looking for Ralphs carts?”
“I have to pick up whatever I see, but sometimes I don’t bother to pick it up. If some guy’s pushing it, I’m not going to take it. If it’s in the street, I’ll take it—if nobody’s there. Like, in the morning, what they do is take the cart and find bottles and cans to bring to the recycle. So what I do is just get it later.”
“If you’re with the police escort, will they make the people take out their cans and bottles?”
“Yes, they do. I’d ride with them about 8:30. It takes about two hours or so.”
The first homeless person we spot is sleeping in the entrance to a theater on Fourth Avenue. As Rey approaches, the man stirs, bleary eyed, and mumbles, “You can’t have it, it’s mine.” Rey proceeds to tell him the law, and then we’re back in the truck and on our way without the cart.
“Even though the police aren’t scheduled to do the route, will they come out and help' you?”
“Yeah. Sometimes what they do is they lock [the carts] — they have their own lock and chain, so they [secure] it to one of these poles or a telephone. They just page me and tell me where it’s at, and I pick it up on the next route. Sometimes you’ll find one of these guys that’ll be giving you a hard time, and when you call the cops, it takes them forever to get there.”
“What are some of the stranger things you find people keep in their carts?”
“Most of it is just trash — that’s basically what you’ll find in them —just clothes, bottles, all this garbage that I don’t know why they keep.” Some primordial parallel exists between what the homeless cart and the satiating sense one gets from wheeling around a basket of sundries and frozen foods. Whether you’re collecting vintage cars, canned fish, or old bedsheets, biology supports that we are all hunters and gatherers.
“Do people with carts try and stay out of your sight?”
“Yep, most of them.. .especially downtown. Sometimes I’ll see two old women pushing carts, and I’ll try to take [the carts] away and they just ignore me and keep going. Sometimes I get sick and tired of it. The people here don’t give you respect, that’s the worst part; they’ll get nasty with you, especially the blacks.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know. When you’re trying to take the cart from them, they will say to you, ‘Why are you always picking on us?’ ”
“Some think it’s a racial issue?”
“Yeah, then you explain this is what you do for a living...”
Rey stops midsentence as we spot three vagrants ahead, clustered around a shopping cart. Rey and I get out of the truck, not sure whether we’ll kick ass or be stabbed. I notice the cart is filled with old clothes and books—a Reader’s Digest anthology and a V.C. Andrews novel. “Excuse me, sir,” says Rey. “You can’t be hanging around here with this shopping cart.” The group of three, including one short woman in a grimy hooded jacket, stare at us for a moment. A tall African-American man who appears to be in his early 30s says, “Seems to me you gotta have some law enforcement or some goddamn shit.” We get back in the truck and drive off, leaving cart and confrontation behind.
“If, like, three or four guys are sitting there, I have to be polite, but I have to take the cart [at some point]. If you come straight in there like some bad guy, they will give you a hard time right away.”
“You haven’t had anyone pull a gun on you, have you?”
“No, not yet. Hope it’s not gonna happen.”
We drive by a body on the sidewalk completely draped with an old blanket, as if pronounced dead. “Like this one right here, I guess this one is an old woman.
That’s one I don’t bother. I don’t take the cart from her, ’cause what she does is just ignore me and walk away with it.... Sometimes I tell ’em the next time I see them I’ll have to take their cart. But sometimes if they’re old, I feel...I don’t know what to say — I feel sorry. If it’s, like, some guy just sitting around drinking whiskey, yeah, I’ll take it. If they give me a hard time, I’ll call the cops. I have no problem with that. Especially in the morning; I can find the cops, and they will escort me right away. But in the afternoon, they’re all busy.”
“Do you find a lot by the shelters?”
“Yeah, but the problem is I can’t take them off shelter property; I have to have an escort with me.”
“Do these people that work for the shelter ever give you a problem?”
“Yeah, they give you a problem, because they’re trying to help the homeless, and they think you’re harassing them.”
As we talk, Rey periodically pulls to the curb, jumps out, and heaves carts onto the truck bed. He does not possess the same bounce-and-lift panache as Eddy; instead, he awkwardly grabs the cart with both hands and heaves it upwards, straining his back.
“Have the police ever had to arrest any of the homeless that wouldn’t give the carts back?”
“Sometimes they get arrested because they won’t give them up, and sometimes they find all these things, like drugs.” We drive through a one-block section near 13th and K that looks something like a homeless slumber party. Both sides of the street are lined with people sleeping or those who have just risen.
“Do the cops just look the other way and let them sleep here?”
“Yeah, I would say so, [but] they stop by there every morning and move them out. It’s been slow. I don’t see that many people pushing carts, not like I used to three, six months ago. Most of them got arrested [and are] back in jail. One time they did a sweep and they [found] drugs.” “What kind of drugs do they usually find?”
“I don’t know anything about that, but most of them have something in a plastic bag.” We pass a man sitting at the corner of Fourth and Broadway whom Rey claims threatened him with a broken bottle. Rey does a U-turn in the middle of Third Avenue and pulls onto the curb by the City Administration building. The line of homeless that are camped out here huddle on the ground with signs: “God is Building a Home in Heaven for us, but We Still Need a Place Until Then,” “Welcome to the Women’s Resource Fair,” and “The Streets are No Safe Place to Sleep.” One woman with Yoko Ono-style wraparound sunglasses walks up and proclaims, “I just found a perfectly good quilt over there in the garbage.”
The cart Rey had spotted from the road belongs to a young lady, who looks to be 19 or younger. A homeless man shouts, “Yo, confiscate it, bro!” The woman reluctantly begins to remove her belongings from the cart, which include a large canvas tote bag, leather jacket, pink feather boa, money cup, and a “Will Work for Food” sign. Rey tells me afterward that he sees a lot, of runaways on the street. As we get in the truck, one of the guys from the line taps on the passenger-side window. Reluctantly, I roll down the window. “Is it good money recovering carts?”
“I have no idea, sir,” Rey answers, “I just work for the company.”