The Shopping Cart Man is dead. The news spreads in whispered conversations held over garden fences and rose hedges. A butterfly lifts off a snap dragon to the left of the porch step and flutters silently into the air as I realize I will never see him in his ragged old blue sweater, patched brown jacket and battered slacks again. He was one of us. An avenue man, a collector of cans, bottles and abandoned shopping carts. A character, a neighbor, a man we called ours. The Shopping Cart Man is dead and the world feels suddenly different.
Mommy wheels the chrome and yellow stroller out of the house. It has vinyl seats with yellow and orange flowers. I watch her lift Sis into the stroller, my sister’s beautiful red hair casts light like a burning match.
“They’re opening up his house.” Mommy says, pushing the stroller before her. My mother loves it when anything happens in the neighborhood. Every neighborhood event means a walk. The only event that isn’t celebrated with a walk is the occasional escaped prisoner from the mental hospital. On those days she quarters us inside, listening to the radio for news of an arrest.
“Open the gate, Eleanor.” I walk before the stroller, my fingers flipping up the latch quickly before the pain of the heat can register. The sun is so hot on a Utah summer day that every piece of metal burns. We walk north to East 2nd and then cross M street to follow East 2nd west. The day is so hot and dry that I am already thirsty. We slip from tree to tree, grateful for the shade as the stroller rises and falls over the broken sidewalks that have been fractured by the ever reaching tree roots. Four blocks west and we are there.
People mill around quietly. Mother’s trailing children push strollers past the red brick house, their eyes locked on the opened door as two men in suits look but go no further. Unembarrassed, Mommy joins the crowd of onlookers.
“He died at Holy Cross Hospital.” I hear one woman say, her words interesting me because that is where I was born.
“They can’t even walk in,” another adds. We watch another man walk up. He disappears inside the house only to re-emerge shaking his head.
“There are newspapers stacked so high that if they fall a man could be smothered.” Now I’m fascinated.
“And he lived here all this time?” Mommy shakes her head as we gaze at the dilapidated three story brick mansion. We’ve passed it a hundred times on our walks. We’ve commented on the state of its roof, the trash in its gardens but somehow we never noticed the collection of shopping carts that sit waiting to be returned to the store.
“Why are there newspapers stacked so high?” three pairs of eyes turn on me. My mother’s mouth tightens, her eyes turning back on the house.
“Some people save things, they stack them up and keep them because throwing things out is…hard.” She adds the last word as if she understands.
“Why is it hard?” I ask, looking up at her. Mommy doesn’t answer right away. She is thinking.
“Imagine that you’ve had to go without. That you’ve been hungry or cold or poor. Then later when times are better, imagine that you can buy things and keep things and everything you have seems important and valuable. Everything, every cent, every dollar you have is valuable. When everything seems valuable then throwing things away becomes impossible. That’s how it must have been for the Shopping Cart Man. Every newspaper must have felt valuable.”
I nod my head because in a small way, I understand. Every toy I own is valuable, every bit of food we grow or buy is valuable. We don’t waste because mother survived the war and the memory of past poverty stalks us still.
“Was he in the war like you Mommy?” I ask Mommy who is young and beautiful not old and shabby like the Shopping Cart Man. The look she gives me tells me I’ve made a comparison that should not have been made. So I listen and in listening I learn that for five cents a cart a wealthy man who wore rags wandered our avenues collecting abandoned shopping carts, discarded bottles and aluminum cans. In the cold of winter, in the heat of summer, in the chill and bluster of spring and fall he collected, pulled and pushed the weight of metal shopping carts to the store before returning to this stately home that had been in his family for a very long time.
In my mind I see the newspapers and other assorted objects that crowd every space inside his home. They leave a thin maze like isle that winds from room to room upstairs and down, filling every space in that grand old house. Through neighborly reports and subsequent walks I learn of a large bank account, of valuable furniture uncovered, of silk rugs and Limoges dinner wear that hadn’t seen the light of day in fifty years.
A young nephew inherits the estate. The house is repaired and the world forgets about the Shopping Cart Man. But each time it snows, each time I see a discarded shopping cart, each time I hear the rumble of small metal wheels on pavement I think of him and wonder at the type of deprivation that creates that kind of poverty.