Monday, March 1, 2010


One way to save taxpayers money is to sentence non-violent criminal offenders to (1) community service and (2) to push shopping carts full of cement sacks and with one malfunctioning wheel around a home center for 35 minutes. An alternate venue can be the supermarket, the broken cart overfilled with heavy food items.

No unsuspecting consumer, though, should be forced to push these bad carts, which under the law of averages, ends up in my hands or yours about every fifth try. How do they get this way, with one lopsided wheel, or one squeaky wheel that has everyone looking at you and silently asking, “What is the matter with that guy? Can’t he pick the right cart?”

I have historical interest in the matter, since one of the earliest carts was cobbled together in the 1920s and used in the Packard-Bamberger department store in nearby Hackensack, N.J. Since it had four wheels, the potential then began for one of them to malfunction. Yet in defense of the original inventor, I’ll bet the machining  and the parts were superior and thus less prone to breaking down. Why modern wheels are not better made is baffling. The squeeky wheel is said to attract attention in society, to “get the oil.” Not on carts.

Today’s carts are a mix of plastic and stamped steel. Those in our local big-chain super-duper markets are huge, especially if you choose the ones with car seats for the kiddies or even small toy cars that the children sit in. That adds even more wheels to the  cart, now the SUV version. Trying to parallel-park that style next to the cookie aisle is formidable, with junior tipping it as he reaches for the Oreos.

The carts I encounter, bad wheel on the fifth try or not, won’t hold four bags of groceries in brown bags, as logic would tell you they should. You end up smushing the packaged bread, already made soft by the preservatives. Designers should have to test their designs in the market, and their wheels should break down.

How does one wheel get broken? Do senior citizens drag race with the carts? And bang into one another at the supermarket roller derby? Do parents load four kids at one end, putting too much weight on a wheel?

At the home center, the carts, also super huge, are not well-designed either. Small items fall through the holes (probably jamming the wheels). Try hauling four 8-foot pieces of lumber -- you need red flags at the end as a safety precaution.

Perhaps the wheels are busted when people take the carts to the streets, dropping them off at apartment houses and other stores (maybe that’s how some of them end up in creek beds in these parts). One of my newspaper predecessors suggested that the wayward cart problem could be solved by making them radio-controlled. At the push of a button, small motors would steer them back to the stores. He added that any senior or junior in need of a lift might hop in and get a free ride. 

But, of course, that might break a wheel.

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