Discover more from Summer Lightning
Last weekend I was in Williamsburg, where vintage stores turn into Italian piazzas for a certain type of guy on beautiful summer days. A type of guy who wears old corporate logo shirts ironically and knows the exact era of baseball cap that fits them and always carries a tote bag. Tote bags are inevitable in New York city. Everyone seems to have forgotten that tote bags were supposed to end climate change. They have become the ultimate ubiquitous urban accessory. I know better than not to go on a rant about how each tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset the overall impact of it's production. That's why my last girlfriend left me. I ranted about her obsession with using tote bags at the grocery store to save the environment.
I went into The Strand the day after being surrounded by several thousand tote bags in Williamsburg. 18 miles of books it advertises on every board. I was caught by surprise to also find several miles of tote bags for sale. Customized for every identity and niche political group you can imagine. Tote bags have bipartisan support in the United States. In an attempt to avoid spiraling into despair about how everyone in the world did not agree with me, I tried to think about the moments I felt emotionally close to totes.
Growing up in Kerala, I had not set eyes on a big plastic bag, the type you get from grocery chains until I was 8 years old. We used what was called big shopper bags. Bags made from thick nylon or jute with a reinforced rectangular panel at the bottom. They also usually had a handle made from bamboo. Groceries for one week for a family of four would fit in two of these. They were priced possessions of the family. If it were not for me I don't think my mom would have ever lost one of these. I remember seeing a grocery chain plastic bag when the first-of-its-kind grocery store opened in my hometown. The bright sheen of the plastic, the red and deep blue logo embellished on it. It signaled upward mobility in a country that knew only of big shopper bags, wrapping things in old newspapers and cheap transparent plastic bags. Soon one of the kitchen shelves was to be taken over by identical plastic bags stacked into each other. Every time my mom took out one bag from the stack, she turned into a magician performing the endless rope magic trick—bag after bag after bag of the same logo, the sheen of the plastic fading, soon to be indistinguishable from its ordinary surroundings. There were only two big shopper bags. I remember the one my mom packed with snacks, a big bottle of water, boiled plantains and send along with me and my father when we went to watch a game of cricket. I would say it was like going camping but I've never gone camping with so much food.
The next day I decided to carry around a tote in New York. I had secured one from buying $400 shoes. I felt like a toddler playing with the cardboard box instead of whatever new shiny thing it held. I peered into the tote on the subway - Laptop, a decidedly mediocre John Waters book, cigarettes, lighter, way less innocent than the big shopper bag of snacks my mom had prepped. I kept getting annoyed by the tote slipping down my shoulders. This ceased to be when I added double-pleated pants and a striped blue shirt I found at a vintage store full of people who dressed like me, carrying a tote. In addition to becoming that type of guy, I realized that a tote bag with the right weight is like a good relationship - you know it's there but it's not pulling you down. Now I'm back in Texas, staring at cars. But what is a car anyway? Something like 20 tote bags?
Summer Lightning is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.