For a long time in my life I associated shopping bags with poverty rather than plenty, and even today when I look around the house after a holiday and see a lot of shopping bags, it could mean poverty again.
The first shopping bags I had anything to do with were bags handed out at the City Hall Annex in Boston in the 1930s when you want down every morning to see what the government surplus handout for the day was going to be. The bags were light brown and had lettering on the side that said, "Not To Be Resold."
When you walked up the street with one bag holding a couple of quarts of milk and the other containing beans, prunes, some flour, yarn or whatever they gave out that day, everyone knew by the message on the bag, "There goes another kid on welfare."
I remembered it later when I was a student in New York and rode the subways a lot. It was depressing to see the many little old ladies who rode from one end of the line to the other, living on the subways and carrying all their worldly belongings in shopping bags.
For years while I was growing up, most of the groceries that came into our house were brought home in brown shopping bags with the little rolled handle with the hooks on the ends to make the load easier to carry.
On Saturday mornings, before heading for the North End markets in Boston where the food was cheaper because it was purchased from pushcart vendors, my father would look for shopping bags.
After finding them he would fold them, slip them into his suitcoat pocket and along with my mother head for the subway for an afternoon of food bargain hunting. The bags were pretty drab and I always linked them up with people who did not own cars.
Ours was a large family to feed so the trip to the North End had to be supplemented at least three afternoons a week by a run down to the grocery in the square. "The square" was the name given to the local shopping center in my town. My mother made the trip and some days it would be a two-shopping bag run, another day just one.
My job was a meet the trackless trolley at the stop in Bell Rock Park to carry the bags home. My father was a firm believer in capital punishment, and if I missed the bus and wasn't there to grab the bags before my mother's foot hit the street as she stepped from the trolley - well, I always made it, so I don't really know what he would have done. I didn't want to find out.
For years I just accepted the fact that shopping bags were part of my mother's and father's hands.
When I was living in New York, they came down once on the bus to pay homage to our first born. I met them at the old Dixie Hotel bus terminal where, as I stood on the platform. I felt myself being pointed out to all the passengers as, "My son who lives in New York."
Both parents came off the bus carrying shopping bags, and I grabbed the bag out of my mother's hand before she set foot in the terminal, making sure my father caught the act.
It was a blazing hot day and I was working for The New York Times right across the street. I carried the shopping bags into the lobby and up to the reception room of the department I worked in so that they could benefit from the air conditioning before our trip downtown.
After convincing my father that I was not on "piece work" and could afford a taxi, we left.
The following day I took my mother shopping at Macy's where she fell in love with their shopping bags.
I bought five of them so that she could take them home as gifts for some of her shopping buddies.
On the telephone after she returned home she told me how many coversations she was able to get into while carrying a Macy's shopping bag down to the local market.
Realizing that a new avenue had been opened in her life I looked for more and different shopping bags.
If I were passing Bloomingdale's I would go in and buy a couple of shopping bags, put them in an envelope and mail them to her.
It became Lord and Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue, and the dull brown bags were now out the window. The local store was having a tough time pushing the bags with the store's name on them.
Her letters to me would say, "I met Mrs. so-and-so and she had a shopping bag from Neiman Marcus, her son is in the Air Force in Texas." Another time it would be a woman with a bag from Field's department store in Chicago where the woman's daughter was an assistant buyer. A whole area of communication developed from the status of a name on a shopping bag.
The shopping bags were now the postcards being sent home.
At one point a few days before Easter I carried a small red and white shopping bag up F Street. All it held was a box of stationery.
On the same day, while standing in line at a checkout counter at a local supermarket I heard on old lady ask the clerk if she sold shopping bags.
She bought the bag, put her groceries into it and headed out of the store.
I watched her as she walked slowly toward the bus stop and wondered if there was going to be some young kid waiting at the other end to take the bag from her hand before her foot hit the street.