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Aaron Gilbreath: A Bag Isn’t Just a Bag

October 18, 2011

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Portland, Oregon, is the latest city to initiate a ban on plastic grocery bags. In celebration of the bag ban, our writer, a Powell’s Books cashier, offers a sampling of responses to his question, “Would you like a bag?”

By **Aaron Gilbreath**

Gilbreath575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by B.S. Wise.

When news arrived that the city of Portland, Oregon was going to ban the use of plastic grocery bags on October 15th, those of us who work at Powell’s Books feared how our customers would react. It rains all the time here. Without plastic bags, peoples’ books would get soaked. Customers would revolt. As one coworker told me, “It’s going to be unbearable.”

As it turns out, the ban only affects grocery stores with over two million dollars in gross annual sales, as well as certain stores with pharmacies and more than ten thousand square feet, such as Walmart and Target. Powell’s is spared. But in environmentally and socially conscious Portland, a city that offers weekly curbside collection of yard debris as well as trash, shoppers still have strong reactions to the idea of bagging their books in politically incorrect polythene.

Freud might have agreed: sometimes a bag isn’t just a bag. In this case, it’s a symbol of all that’s wrong with our disposable, consumer culture. Every year, thousands of plastic grocery bags wash up on beaches all over the world. Bags strangle some animals. They entangle birds’ wings and interfere with their ability to fly. Other animals mistake bags as food and eat them, where the bags lodge in their intestines, sometimes strangling them. Americans use up to 100 billion plastic shopping bags a year. Millions of barrels of oil are required to produce plastic bags; approximately one to two percent end up getting recycled in the U.S. Polyethylene, commonly known as polythene, take an estimated thousand years to decompose. Even the single use bags that photo-degrade in landfills can leach their plastics into the soil and end up in the food chain through bioaccumulation. Others simply end up in oceans. There are now two enormous areas of the Pacific Ocean riddled with a thirty-foot deep soup composed of assorted, decaying plastics, one by Japan, one by Hawaii. This plastic soup is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s approximately twice the size of the continental U.S.

In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban them. Three years later, Los Angeles followed suit. Now it’s Portland’s turn.

I work the Powell’s cash registers. We’re the largest new and used bookstore in the world. During our peak seasons, we receive between 3,000 and 7,000 customers per day. On a normal day ringing up purchases, I ask hundreds of customers the same question: “Would you like a bag?” Their answers are as humorous as they are varied. In celebration of the bag ban, here’s a sampling:

1) Me: “Would you like a bag?”

Customer: “No, I’ve got arms.”

The line was so perfect I wanted it to be the bookstore’s new slogan.

2) Me: “Would you like a bag?”

Customer: “Yeah, I better.” She peered into her pastel-colored backpack and said, “Too many flutes. They won’t fit in here.”


3) Me: “Would you like a bag?”

Customer: “No, the book’s good the way it is.”


4) Me: “Would you like a bag?”

Customer: “Who you calling a bag?”


5) Me: “Would you like a bag?”

I picked up her books and noticed that they were environmental titles by David Suzuki and Bill McKibben. “I guess you might not want one,” I said.

Customer: “No, I don’t.”

Me: “Sorry. They pay me to ask.”

Customer: “It’s okay. But that doesn’t mean you have to be part of the problem.”


6) Me: “Would you like a bag?”

Customer: “Yeah, it’s drizzling outside. This trash I read is like a sponge.”


7) Me: “Would you like a bag?”

Customer: “No bag. Save the trees to make books.”

At the sound of his words, a smile stretched across my face. The line was so perfect I wanted it to be the bookstore’s new slogan.

He was a business man in his mid-fifties with curly salt-and-pepper. I looked at his books, expecting to find titles on advertising or ways to capitalize on your creativity but found a stack of black history and civil rights books from university presses.

“I have to admit that I want to take that line and make bumper stickers out of it. So I don’t feel like a thief, I’m going to need your address so I can send you half the profits.”

“Keep ‘em,” he said with a wink, “and the bag.”

________________________________________________________________________

Aaron Gilbreath has written for The New York Times, Paris Review, Gettysburg Review, Chicago Tribune, The Normal School, Fourth Genre, High Country News, and Gastronomica. His essay “Dreams of the Atomic Era,” from Cincinnati Review, is a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2011, and an excerpt from his Link Wray-themed novel, Run Chicken Run, appears at storySouth. You can find him here.

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