Burdens of the Modern Beast

Double-bagging: "It's sort of like a safety net," teacher Cheryl Douglass says. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Slogging around with a backpack, a notebook and a bottle of water, you stop for a while and stare at the historic black-and-white photographs in the National Museum of American History. You know, the ones depicting Americans going about their everyday lives: folks waiting for District trolley cars circa 1900, for instance, or people crisscrossing Pennsylvania Avenue in 1905.

Notice something missing? That's right: stuff.

The people -- all ages, all colors, all genders -- are not carrying any backpacks or water bottles. They are not schlepping cell phones, cradling coffee cups or lugging laptops. They have no bags -- shopping, tote or diaper. Besides a small purse here or a walking cane or umbrella there, they are unburdened: footloose and fingers free.

Now walk outside and take a look around. People on the same city streets are loaded down. They are laden with books, newspapers, Gatorade jugs, personal stereos, knapsacks, briefcases and canvas totes with high-heel shoes inside. They have iPods strapped to upper arms, fanny packs buckled around waists and house keys Velcroed to shoelaces.

Perhaps it's because we are multitaskers. Or because we're insecure. Maybe we are becoming more independent. Whatever the reasons, we are more and more burdened by our belongings.

Take Shey Moye, for instance, who is walking down Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda toward Maurice Villency, a furniture store where he works. Moye, 28, has a swanky brown leather messenger bag full of books and things over one shoulder. He has two large notebooks in his left arm and a paper-wrapped breakfast sandwich -- sausage-and-egg biscuit -- and a venti caramel macchiato in his right hand. He just feels more comfortable carrying a lot of things. "I can't help it," he says.

Then there's Cheryl Douglass, 59, a special-education teacher at Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington. School is out and she's on her way to her car. In her left hand she carries a black Lancome sack containing lots of file folders packed with papers, and, for some reason, an empty plastic bag. In her right hand: a pink Lancome sack holding more file folders, a notebook, a tennis ball, contact lens paraphernalia and a bag of Jolly Ranchers. Over her left shoulder, she carries a long-strapped purse that rests on her right hip. And also on her left shoulder, a Dunlop tennis racket in its black case that hangs by her left side.

She is a suburban Sherpa.

Asked why people in the past didn't carry so much, she says, "They must have segmented their lives, done their work at work and not at home."

She says she carries a different set of things when she goes to the gym -- shoes, workout clothes, a compact disc player to listen to while she exercises. And, when she was younger, she carried still another bunch of items -- diapers, bottles, blankets.

Contemporary life is so fluid. Work bleeds into leisure activity, which oozes over into family time. We never know what we are going to need or when we are going to need it. A book when we get mired on the Metro; a juice box when we are trapped in traffic; cookies for low blood sugar moments; a flashlight in case we have a flat tire at night.

"It's sort of like a safety net," Douglass says of the things we carry.

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