Kidnap victim, mobile home, retail game-changer: The many lives of a shopping cart

Pity the poor shopping cart. Pushed around, gripped by clammy hands, rammed by bad drivers and wedged against the backsides of its brethren.

But the saddest fate for the hard-working, selfless shopping cart is abandonment. Look around your landscape, be it central city or suburbia. Stray carts are everywhere: Marooned in grassy medians as traffic roars by; drowned in canals; deserted by the railroad tracks; lost at the remote end of prairie-sized parking lots; upended next to sidewalks; kidnapped to back yards or basements and left for dead in vacant lots, immobile and forlorn.

There are red ones from Winn-Dixie, Trader Joe’s and Target, orange ones from Home Depot, blue ones from Presidente, forest green ones from Milam’s, lime green ones from Publix (where shopping is a pleasure except for the carts, overburdened with junk food and whiners in child seats).

Have you ever paused to ponder, “How the heck did it get here?” Carts turn up in unlikely spots, like the one from Sedano’s in a tidy Coral Gables neighborhood of million-dollar homes. The nearest Sedano’s is a mile and a half away. Here’s one under water, sprouting algae after being tipped off the Mercy Hospital seawall into Biscayne Bay. Here’s one by Miami’s City Cemetery, filled with Legos and children’s clothing.

Usually they have been separated from the herd. Occasionally they travel in pairs, like the two loitering on a South Beach corner, one green-handled, one beige, and both bearing stern warnings to shoppers that the wheels will automatically lock if taken beyond the parking lot perimeter. Cart confiscation is a constant problem for store owners, who pay up to $150 for a new cart. Yet these two, maneuvered by clever customers, had escaped. Were they glad to be free or longing to be back in their air-conditioned aisles, loaded with luscious canteloupes?

Errant carts, like the plastic bags that are our urban tumbleweeds, have become ubiquitous discards of consumerist society.

“Esta es mi casa,” said Carlos Benitez, pointing at his battered Home Depot carrito, rendered lame by a spastic front wheel. “This is my house.”

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“This is my house,” Miami’s Carlos Benitez says of his shopping cart.

Linda Robertson lrobertson@miamiherald.com

He lives on Northwest 17th Street, beneath the I-95 overpass. His neighbor Keith Jenkins, who also goes by Ebony, has a scrupulously organized cart stacked with size 13 shoes, blankets, toiletries, candles, a journal, a calendar and cat food. His nice sweaters and dresses hang from a chain-link fence by a No Trespassing sign.

“The cops made us move from 14th Street and it took me three hours to get organized,” said Jenkins, who dreams of designing a Tinker Bell fashion line for Disney. “My life is in here. It’s not just junk. You’d be surprised what you find on the street. A stranger gave me 20 pounds of clothes in a trash bag and I didn’t want to leave it behind.”

Jenkins’ friend Will — “He saved me when they tried to Baker Act me,” Jenkins said — keeps his belongings in a bag and does not have a cart, but he helps guard those of his buddies.

“The city comes through with a van and clears everything out if you’re not here, which is why we rotate watching for each other,” Will said. “They’ll take all these carts. But they pop back up. We never steal them.”

Julian Montague, an artist from Buffalo, N.Y., decided to stop ignoring those carts in our peripheral vision and focused on an anthropological examination of their existence. His project grew into an authoritative taxonomy of the shopping cart and an installation that was exhibited around the world, including at Art Basel Miami fairs; the Margulies Collection in Wynwood owns 17 pieces from one of his shows. He compiled 200 photos in a book, “The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification.”

“I treated them like animals I was observing in the wild,” Montague said. “It’s like no other urban object. It has a life, and can roam quite far. I found one from a store that had been closed for 10 years. It is useful at all levels of society, not just to homeless people.”

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Escaped twins out for a roll on the Upper East Side of Miami.

Linda Robertson lrobertson@miamiherald.com

Montague created 33 categories depending on where he found carts: True Strays, Plow Crush (carts hidden in drifts of snow and mangled by snowplows), Refuse Receptacle, Personal Property (used in laundry rooms, apartment buildings, garages), Naturalization, Transient Impostor, Simple Vandalism (he found one dangling from a street sign) and Complex Vandalism (he found one in a canal by the Royal Palace in Stockholm).

“They invite mischief,” he said. “At Niagara Falls, people have been throwing stuff off a cliff for years and there’s a gorge filled with shopping carts and mattresses.”

Montague always wanted to find a specimen in a tree but settled for one in a tall bush. He found fewer stray carts in Europe, where it’s customary to deposit a coin to unlock a cart, and none in Moscow “probably because they have guards with firearms patrolling their stores,” he said.

Even the great Christo was inspired by the under-appreciated mule on wheels. His 1963 piece, “Packed Supermarket Cart,” a metal cart wrapped in plastic, is available for $1.02 million from the Annely Juda Fine Art gallery in London. Christo also famously wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin, the Pont Neuf in Paris and islands in Biscayne Bay. The supermarket cart, originally exhibited in Dusseldorf, was part of a series that included a wheelbarrow, a bicycle, a Vespa scooter and a Volkswagen Beetle.

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Christo’s ‘Packed Supermarket Cart’

Annely Juda Fine Art Gallery

“These were sculptures that could move,” Christo said from New York. “It’s not meant for propaganda or to make people happy or smiling. It is a unique real thing.” Christo’s “Surrounded Islands” documentary exhibition at the Perez Art Museum Miami closes Monday and he will return for the museum’s “Art of the Party” fundraiser in March.

The cart’s uses are limited only by the imagination. Englishman Matt McKeown rigged a shopping trolley with a helicopter engine, put on a helmet and racing suit, and rode it down a drag strip at 100 mph. Yes, there is a world record for everything.

The cart revolutionized the shopping habits of grocery store customers. It was invented in 1936 by Piggly Wiggly and Humpty Dumpty owner Sylvan Goldman, who came up with a brilliant innovation with which shoppers could spend more money — by pushing a cart triple the capacity of the mesh baskets carried by hand that got heavy quickly.

“With the exception of the automobile, the shopping cart is the most commonly used ‘vehicle’ in the world: some 25 million grace grocery stores across the U.S. alone,” according to an article in Priceonomics. “It has played a major role in enriching the forces of capitalism, increasing our buying output, and transforming the nature of the supermarket — and for its role, it has been dubbed the ‘greatest development in the history of merchandising.’

“For grocery stores, they remain integral to the bottom line: studies have shown that larger carts lead to as much as 40 percent more purchasing. As a result, the carts of many retailers — including Whole Foods, Safeway, and Walmart — have doubled in size in the past 20 years, to as much as 15,000 cubic inches.”

Goldman, who also invented the airport luggage cart, became a multi-millionaire and subject of a biography, “The Cart That Changed the World.”

Today, the shopping cart is an online icon. Keep clicking and you can fill it to your heart’s desire.

So don’t take the humble cart for granted. And if you happen upon a stray, push it home.

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An abandoned cart filled with Legos and children’s clothes in the Omni area of Miami.

Linda Robertson lrobertson@miamiherald.com

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A stray shopping cart in Little Haiti.

Linda Robertson lrobertson@miamiherald.com