Posted by: trevormeers | February 11, 2010

Song of the Cart Wrangler

I was passing the time one Sunday morning in a Grand Junction, Colorado, Wal-Mart parking lot when I saw him: A man in a duster, boots and hat riding herd on the shopping carts. I immediately knew that someday I’d have to capture his legend. And so, in honor of all the solitary heroes riding the high lonesome of asphalt, this is the Song of the Cart Wrangler.

What’s that, son? You want a tale about the days of the great cart herds? Well, pour me another cup of that joe. Stoke that fire. I’ll tell you one.

Back then, the asphalt ran horizon to horizon, one unbroken sea of black from Lowe’s to Target to Wal-Mart. Big sky, too. You’d see the spring closeout banners on the horizon a day before you got to them, and at night we’d point the wagon tongue toward the McDonald’s sign just so we’d know which way was north in the morning.

Us boys hired on to run the shopping carts from the back 40 of the parking lots all the way to the stalls between customer service and the Pizza Hut To Go counter. We’d round ‘em up and line ‘em up in lines 25, 50, even 100 carts long on a good day. When you get 100 carts whipped into a line headed for a big box store, it’s a sound like you’ve never heard before. Those carts go to creakin’ and squealin’ from their bad wheels. Us boys went to shouting and whistling to keep the whole line of ‘em moving toward that store. It was the music of the suburban range, friend, wild as a Pier 1 stockboy. I’m sorry for all those folks who never got a chance to hear it themselves.

I still remember the sight when we’d crest the speed bump with a line of carts and point ‘em in to the final stretch of the stalls at the front door. Everyone inside the store would come out and line up by the automatic doors and wave us in. The girls from housewares wanted us, and the boys from electronics wanted to be us. I’d run the line of carts through the little waist-high door to the cart stall and slam the kiddie seat flat on the last cart. Then we’d all wind up having chai lattes until last call at Starbucks, when the night stockers would show up for work, buy a round of lattes and make us tell the stories all over again.

Was it always that great? ‘Course not. If it was, then everybody woulda’ been a cart wrangler. But fact is, it’s not a life for most folks. Believe me, partner, you don’t wanna’ be out on that asphalt wrangling five lines a hundred carts deep when things go bad. All it takes is one backfire from one ’89 Taurus to set ‘em all to stampeding across that parking lot. It happened just that way one night when Tommy was riding point, keeping an eye on a line headed up by one of our best ol’ carts. It was a Lowe’s NASCAR cart with two little steering wheels for the kids, and we’d trusted it to lead countless carts home to the stalls. But a Ford Ranger peeled out at Taco John’s, and that solid ol’ Lowe’s cart bolted, and, brother, it was on. Through the creaking plastic and the squealing wheels and the blaring loudspeaker in the garden center, I could hear Tommy yellin’ “Staaaaampeeeeeede!” Minute I heard him, I raced up to the front to turn the carts. But there was no stopping ‘em. Those carts caught the fever and set off like they were fixin’ to roll all the way to Menards, and I’m talkin’ about the south location.

I jammed my spurs into my Segway like I was lighting out after a Black Friday doorbuster on plasma TVs, and I made it to the front of the line. I turned that Lowe’s cart with a mighty shove—and took a mighty poke from a metal cart rack in the process. When it was over, Tommy was limping, but alive. But that ol’ Lowe’s cart lay mangled in the lot, crushed by a thousand of its fellow carts. We lost our best lead cart that day, but I don’t want to think about what would’ve happened if that Lowe’s cart hadn’t thrown itself in front of the herd. We mighta lost Tommy. Shoot, we sure enough might’ve lost the whole Husky mower collection out front of Lowe’s. I don’t like thinkin’ about what those yards would’ve been like if that had happened.

‘Course, every day didn’t end so good. Come every spring, the parking lots ran bank to bank with cars between Target and Wendy’s. On Mother’s Day weekend of ’09, I told the boys not to try it, but two straight weeks on the parking lot had put Frostys in their minds, and no one was stopping ‘em. They left Tommy and me to ride herd on the carts, and they set out to cross four lanes of parking lot traffic to get their hands on a Frosty. You see that marker over there by the B-Bop’s? That’s a reminder to every hot young cart hand who thinks it’s worth risking his life for a cold soft-serve dairy product.

I know what you’re thinking, pardner. Why do it? Why burn up all your good years starin’ at the south end of north-bound carts all day and sleeping with nothing but a worn-out bedroll between you and the mercury-vapor lights in a parking lot? I’ll tell you what, it sure ain’t for the money. But you see this golf shirt I’m wearing? You see that target symbol all of us cart hands wear? Take a good long look, pard. Because we’re ridin’ for the brand.

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