Grocery-Bag Conservation

THE supermarket whither I wend for comestibles has so many checkout lanes that I am seldom checked out by anybody who has checked me out before. It isn't very folksy to attempt idle chatter each week with somebody you don't know, so I was agreeably surprised to learn that a suggestion I had made was given some attention. Being a weekly philanthropist at this store, I have accordingly accumulated a considerable pile of paper bags, and I suggested long ago, and repeated the suggestion weekly, that somebody think up something for me to do with paper bags.

I find this is not a local urgency. Not long ago the Times of London ran a letter to the editor asking plaintively what one should do with all the rubber bands that come around the daily packages of mail.

Worse than that, a lady member of the Bundestag recently urged action to spare the German consumer the need of disposing of unnecessary packaging. She said some packages cost the consumer more than the item enclosed is worth. In the run of a year, she said, the average German household buys 9,000 separate items, making a national total of over 2 trillion containers to be thrown away. She suggested that people buying goods that are unnecessarily packaged should remove the packages and leave them by the cash register in the store - not only as a stern protest against excessive trash, but also against prices.

My immediate thought was of the string bag - what has happened to the string bag every German housewife carried over her wrist when she made the daily visit to the shops? Not only in Germany, but in European countries altogether? Every housewife believed things should be ``fresh'' and storage and refrigeration shouldn't be substituted for shopping every day. Home she'd go with everything in her string bag, and the string bag was used over and over again. If the string bag has been superseded in Germany by 2 trillion throw-aways, a point has been made. So there I was each week suggesting to my new-found checkout friend that somebody put his mind to the matter and figure out what I might do with my share of 2 trillion bags.

About a month ago I realized I was winning. A little placard propped by the scanner said that if I would bring back my bags the management would be pleased to pack my purchases in them again. Then the weekly give-away shopping flyer told me even better news - if I would bring back my bags the management would pay me 5 cents apiece for them. Progress! I'll have my pickup truck about half full, and will have to revise upward my IRS estimate for 1990.

There was a shopkeeper in my boyhood town whose name was Augustus Derosier - our only Frenchman. Shy on English, he had little to say, and shopping at his store was never a conversational trot. But he kept his prices a cent or two below those in our other (two) grocery stores, and on certain items you could save a quarter or so at a time. Today we'd class his place as a Mom & Pop, and certainly as a ``convenience'' store. It's incredible when you reflect on all the things Mr. Derosier offered that came unwrapped. No vegetables were ever pre-wrapped and neither were the few meats he sold - sausages, bacon, and corned beef he made in a barrel under the counter. Prunes and sugar and cookies and bread came ``loose,'' and if you wanted molasses or vinegar you brought your own jug.

When Mr. Derosier had brought all the things you wanted to the counter, he would reach for a paper bag the right size so you could carry things home. But he had no cash register, so the bag was used to tot up your tally. He would lay it on the counter, and then fish for the stub pencil in a pocket (it was often behind his ear) and he would methodically set down the price of each item. Mr. Derosier did this in French, and did it half aloud so we could hear him.

``Vingt-sept, dix-neuf, trente-et-un''... then he would add. ``Quatre-vingt-douze,'' he would say, and then he would translate. In those times a family of four could eat off 92 cents for a week. He would make change from his pocket, and when the groceries arrived home there was little to toss away. The bag? Mother would put my lunch in Mr. Derosier's bag on days when she expected the weather would be too foul for me to walk home at noon. I could sit there at my school desk and eat while the snowstorm beat at the windows, and I could see how much we spent at Derosier's.

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