I can’t remember exactly when I noticed it, but sometime last Spring I noticed an empty lot on the road to my daughter’s high school – which was adjacent to an old, rundown neighborhood and the county hospital. This empty lot faced a carneceria and.. a "tobacco and discount store. The second store was a bright green color, almost matching one of the visiting shopping carts.
Maybe that is what opened my eyes to this particular subject and art form.
Not many people would think of it as an art form, but I saw it both as beautiful and a study in community cohesion and also perhaps a game someone who appreciates order was playing while the other neighbors saw the utilitarian nature of the enterprise.
I started calling the vacant lot “The Shopping Cart Lending Library” because some days it would have more shopping carts than other days. The first day I went there I got close up to the carts, noticed the trash in them, the broken mirror on the ground one of the carts rested atop.
One day I noticed all the carts were organized by color.
I had a rule, in these photos I would not rearrange the carts, I would only rearrange myself as I clicked my camera to get different perspectives.
I drove by the corner again today - my daughter transfered to a different school - and the lot was empty except for the expected trash. There were no shopping carts in sight.
After I found the shopping cart library last Spring, I started noticing abandoned shopping carts.
I started to hear their story.
Here in Bakersfield I found them downtown and on the East side of town, perhaps because this is where I spent the most time. I also noticed they did not appear in the Northwest, which my son calls “Casper-land because it is so white!” and more uniformly affluent.
I realized many people in my town didn’t know about the shopping cart lending library or its cousins, the shopping cart collections at highly frequented bus stops that neighborhoods shared as they got off and on the bus.
I saw abandoned shopping carts as a sign of cooperation or a sign of apathy or perhaps a little of both.
Until the night before last, I only photographed my shopping carts incognito, but when I stopped downtown Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but notice the most eccentric shopping cart yet. I was almost angry when the owner showed up, I thought the photo op was gone but it was simply too good to pass up.
He smiled wider than I could have imagined, showing his lack of teeth. I smiled back when he said, “Why thank you! I was on the news the other night, did you see it?” I explained this was the first time for me and he immediately pulled the greatest attraction – a mannequin head and a teddy bear– off the rolling sculpture and posed with it.
“Can you put it back?” I asked “That was what attracted me the most at first.”
He told me his name was John and he was quite congenial. He posed for me in several shots and laughed and we talked and I snapped a few more photos and he confessed, “I’m not even homeless! I live at the Decatur!” He showed me his room key.
“That’s great – you stay there at the Decatur! It’s an ok place!” I reassured him. It is a welfare hotel but it does provide him warmth, protection and a consistent shower.
He told me he took odd jobs sometimes and basically was one of the happiest people I have seen all week.
I suppose artists usually are the most happy and sometimes the most miserable people I encounter.
I had no money to pay John for the photo, but I forgot about it as we both just lived the moment fully.
I have thought of taking photos of people with their shopping carts, but I wanted to bring along payment in food and small bills. John and my friend, Kimberly taught me there are many kinds of currency. A conversation and a smiling face is one kind of currency that is never emptied from my pockets.
Like the shopping carts scattered around less affluent neighborhoods which I have taken to documenting, people like John are usually the ones people ignore or turn their heads when they are seen walking down the street.
I have committed to not ignoring the shopping carts or the people who use shopping carts as a different form of recreational vehicle. When we choose to see beauty, these metal contraptions become beautiful and the people who use them for shelter and as a larger and more grounded back pack may even become our friends.
I certainly didn’t expect to meet John-the-Sculptor with a great personality. I expected an angry perhaps drunk man who wouldn’t let me take a photo without giving him money. I was surprised and I would bet John would be surprised, too.
What public art have you seen or appreciated lately?
Perhaps it is time to look again and see beauty where perhaps you used to see shame or humiliation.
Remember John and his sculpture, unique and profoundly perfect, instead.
Julie Jordan Scott is a writer, performance poet, Mommy and mixed-media artist. Her word-love themed art will be for sale at First Friday each month in Downtown Bakersfield. Check out the links below to follow her on a bunch of different social media channels, especially if you find the idea of a Word-Love Party bus particularly enticing.
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