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    How I Became Obsessed with Shopping Carts in Turners Falls

    and Wrote Poetry about Shopping Carts



    I started my cart art in 1997, after wrecking the fender of my car by driving into one that had strayed into the road on Central St. It was early morning, frosty, my window was still thawing off its ice crystals and the sun was blinding as I traveled easterly. Those carts are heavy! they don't just bounce off and fly away when hit. They don't move when kicked--yes, I got out and kicked it while it was down in the gutter. The new fender on the 86 Camry cost about 200 bucks. 
    I began noticing them everywhere, and thinking about why they were around the town so much. They were all over the place in Turners Falls, the downtown was littered with these loitering conveyances. Not because we have a lot of stores, but we have a lot of bedrooms and kitchens.
    Much of the commercial real estate was converted to low income housing "Powertown" buildings some time in the -80's? -I think. It was probably a great idea to save the buildings from extinction as neglected flop houses owned by disinterested out of town slum lords.
    Many townspeople who remember the busy commercial district of the 60s and 70s decry this conversion, as though it kept away commercial ventures that would have thrived there. Looking around at what succeeds in TFMA--int he 90's anyway--I don't know about that. Did low income housing keep businesses from thriving here? It kept people living in the downtown area in buildings that were well maintained and affordable. There was some control of things not possible with individual investment.
    I look back at some of the blocks that were privately owned and what a disaster they were. The Arnie's block had whores working out the back of it upstairs. Arnie had three store fronts filled with old food stuffs and then furniture and dirty knickknack crap. When there was food at Arnies I used to go in sometimes with the kids. We would pick up some of that odd stuff you only find in marginal food resellers for dirt cheap and it always tasted weird, like southwest style veggie chips or spelt cookies.
    Arnie would let people run a tab in a book he kept at the counter. I thought this was pretty cool of him and it reminded me of stories about the depression or scenes from the Walton's whichever came first and it's hard to tell now. (In '95 we anonymously donated 500 bucks to wipe out those debts, a grandiose gesture of feel-good alcoholism which we did every year around the holidays in some form or other-baking pies for the homeless or women's shelter, donations, this and that).
    The Crocker building took up a whole block pretty much and that place had a terrible fire around 97 that killed a man Palden Sangpo from Tibet. It started when a mattress was soaked in gas and lit by some teenagers fighting over a drug deal. The fire alarms had been disabled --way to go, private investor! Palden, who worked at the Shady Glen and sent his pay home to wife and children living in exile in India-leapt to his death from a window. I created a memorial Japanese style scroll about this fire a few years afterwards, with a poem to Palden by D. Detmold in Tibetan translation.
    With examples like that I don't know why the Powertown apartments were blamed for lack of business in Turners. Why not blame the car or the demise of the mills by the canal, who employed a fraction of what they did in the big "heyday"? 
    At any rate, the carts were out there rattling around downtown because they were useful for people. It was a public convenience. Leave one, take one, ride one, play one. The downtown was perfect for wheeling home your kids and groceries. Who would seriously walk all the way back two or three blocks just to return a cart, particularly if you were old or infirm or had little kids anxious to rip into some of those bags of goodies you just bought? Not me. 
    The store tolerated, aided and abetted this practice. Once a week the store sent out a truck to pick them up from the streets. This was their customer base and there wasn't really a good, feasible alternative to getting the goods home if you hadn't a car. Still there are some who look upon the carts as "what's wrong" with TF downtown. Another scapegoat for nostalgic nitwits.
    I didn't want to waste any time being angry or outraged about the negative aspects of this rather ideal little adaptation to the local environment so I decided to celebrate it instead.  I started making iconic shopping cart art and borrowing them to decorate and re-release. My shopping cart art piece that pretty much explained it all was "Map Showing Distribution of Shopping Carts at Sea Level, Turners Falls".  (See painting gallery for picture, the original went to UCLA last year to my sister-in-law marketing professor's office!) The painting was on loan to Town Hall for a while hanging behind the selectboard at their meetings!
    My first cart installation is  pictured  last in the photo gallery. I took a dozen carts and put cow's heads and udders on them, then wheeled them downtown to the corner of L and Third, which was a vacant lot back then in 1998 or '9. A big sign asked "Got Milk?" next to the grouping. It was nerve wracking assembling these loud, clacking carts at night. I was afraid of getting caught, although I didn't take the carts from the store, I guess I was just defacing them somewhat. A friend called in the newspaper and the Greenfield Recorder ran a picture of my "Urban Herd"...Oh yeah, it was April Fools Day, too. I am sure a lot of people got a chuckle on their way to work, but the store was NOT amused. The truck that picks up the stray carts mounted one of the heads on its radiator grille, and I heard rumors that the manager wanted to "sue" whoever was responsible. MCTV tried to turn it around by running pictures of the cows with "thank you food city" running underneath them...Nothing happened. 
    Here is "Ode to a Shopping Cart"
    by Nina Rossi

    In my ubiquity
    I am invisible.
    I am everywhere.
    For those that seek me
    I am in every alley
    I wait on corners and sidewalks
    I wait for the multitude
    And for the individual
    The lost and the found.
    I am the answer and the means 
    I bring life and follow the wind
    I am random 
    I am chaos
    I am the logic and the reason,
    I am the quest, the quenching and the hunger 
    The life bringer and the answer.
    I bear the load for arms that are tired
    I carry the children and the bread
    And support the old and infirm.
    I herald the morning and the evening 
    The wind sings through my emptiness
    And I become winged on the hills
    I am inclined to be level
    And time rolls me to the river…
    Yea though they would worship me
    With internets and malls
    And credit card one click
     I am cursed by the fortunate
    Reviled by the guzzlers
    Scorned by the swift commuters and
    Despised by reformers and grant seekers.
    Blind to my service, they
    Seek to gather and chain me
    But I am persistent and enduring
    I am there for those who need me.
    The invisibles, the lost, the poor, the adventurous
    Yea though I am abandoned at the end of the journey
    I am there again when it begins
    I am the function, the fulcrum, and fullness of life.
    I am the Way and the Means,
    The shopping cart. 

    I did try to rope other groups/people in to studying the shopping cart as a sort of "community art project" but was unsuccessful.  I wanted the support of other people to motivate me to keep going, and to make it feel legitimate and not  the weird "outsider".  Ultimately I accepted the outsider status as what is necessary to carry forth the idea. "Just do it".
    I made a series of works featuring carts and debuted it at the Greenfield Library.Maybe it was around 98-99?
    I also took those pieces to MCTV and did a short feature where I read Turners Poems I-V  as a voice over on top of the camera panning my paintings. I was really making an effort to get my work out there and be known. I wanted to keep up the momentum I had gathered in GCC. I was trying to figure out how to make a life including art and writing.
    I applied to "Interface", a group event in Athol at Haley's Antiques pairing artists and poets.  At that point I was rather too enthused about myself, about throwing myself forward and getting in the spotlight. The Kings from Orange ended up illustrating my poem "Modus Me" which is about the squid-ly point of view in a vaginal way.
    The organiser of Interface was one of the judges of the poet's seat poetry contest and encouraged me to apply to the contest that fall and so i did, and got first place that year and possession of the Poet's chair. That was cool and I was invited to do a few readings at People's Pint and Blue Moon in Amherst. I didn't have that much good stuff that would stand up to an audience, really. The Pint crowd liked "I Dream of the Sea" and applauded it spontaneously which felt good.
    I was verging on being a real show off, something which I have always been on guard against and afraid of being seen as. Smith was full of women who were much smarter and talented than I am so that helped reign me in a bit, but maybe not too much because I never really made any good friends there. Things felt competitive in the writing arena. I didn't get a sense of whether my stuff was good or not, since so many other peoples work was a lot better.
    It was becoming clear that my marriage just couldn't change with the times as I started Smith and then I quit drinking in 1998. Maybe this was another reason I didn't bond with my fellow women, I wasn't out drinking wine with them and having those good college times. Being sober radically changed my marriage and my relationships to my family--my mother, father, sister.  They were not happy with my sobriety. There was no empathy, no celebration, just avoidance and criticism. Strange! 
    I did the wrong thing in putting down an ultimatum with my mate. Quit or we are through! Didn't work. Drove his drinking underground and put a pile of lies between our twin hypocrisies. I was not ready to leave, not ready to deprive the kids of their father. We struggled on for six more years, deep in denial of what was really happening to us.
    Out of this zone of upheaval rose the poetry of TUrners I-IV. I retained a focus and fascination with the gritty streets of Turners and continued to glorify the lowly shopping cart.
    My work still contains shopping carts whether in appropriate context--or not. Once I was working on a collage of the Beehive Apartments (see painting gallery for photo) and created a composite woman pushing a cart--heavy, pink shirt, flip flops. There was the rattle of a cart outside my window, and I looked out to see this very woman walk by, pushing a cart and wearing a pink shirt and flip flops! 
    When I put together my exhibit at the Jones LIbrary in 2004 I thought about using a shopping cart in the show. My theme was legalised gambling/scratch tickets and how it takes food off the table, so a cart would have fit in. I was going to alter it with tickets, bones, and such. But I worried about the legality and that the library would frown on it. Ever since the installation where Food City freaked out about the cows, I was leary about even owning up to being the shopping cart artist. Now that things seem to be "cooler" at the store I feel ok owning up to the art stuff. By cooler, I mean they hosted an improv theater event in the bakery section last fall and added localvore items to the shelves. They are remaking their image. 
    I'm not sure about how my solo voyage into shopping carts became an iconic symbol of the town. I think David Detmold and Lisa Davol's adoption of my theme helped spread it, as well as the placement of that "cartography of TF" painting at Town Hall. People who hadn't noticed the carts on the street began to see them. I'm happy that I helped them see it in a less negative and condemning way. Trying to get rid of these carts on the street would have an unnecessarily harsh impact on the life of downtowners--just for the aesthetic preferences of more priveleged residents. 
    My sympathetic view of the carts had an element of despair and longing in it as I identified with a theme of abandonment. I was startled to hear a different view point from the artist James O'Rourke, who also did a shopping cart painting (that I have been babysitting here at the house for over ten years now). While in recovery at the Multenbry House in town he saw the carts as symbols of nurturing and abundance. People taking care of each other. Groceries, blessings, meals. Interesting, to him, from the bottom, it looked like a sun rising; to me, farther along, a setting sun. 
    Can there be anything more heartbreaking in it's scantiness than a family moving its belongings from apartment to apartment in a shopping cart? Aren't we glad to see an older person able to lean heavily on the handle while pushing home their bag of food? A pull behind cart does not offer such support. Those little carriers would never hold toddlers or babies either. How could a looped in bus service ever serve the needs of door to door service either? Who could pay for running such a service?
    I've never thought of a better solution than this free range shopping cart environment that has evolved on its own. I have heard of certain towns where shopping carts have been purchased specifically for the use of street people. A church purchased them and put placards on them stating that they were for general street use not store use. That could be another wrinkle. Town or some entity could purchase "street carts" and perhaps artists could embellish these in creative ways. I don't think tranferring from one store cart to another street cart would work unless the store carts absolutely couldn't leave the store but putting a physical handicap on them like a pole so they wouldn't fit out the door. And how many street carts would one need? What is the typical "haul" on collection day? Twenty maybe? 


    Turners Poems I-V

    Turners I


    I am a stranger and I live here.

    could be

    Newburgh, Orange, Bellows Falls,

    all those silent sisters with their hair shorn,

    and pustules and trolley tracks on their

    brick red faces hung in prayer over

    main street, frowning above the

    prickly cheeks of empty lots...

    Couldn’t be Chicago, New York

    Couldn’t be picturesque, eccentric, lucky or rich

    but still she glows Kodak in the evening,

    the sky bouncing red from wall to wall and

    Hopper in the morning geometry of windows:

    depression green trim, closed shades with circlestring pulls.


    At noon the striped chrysalis awnings of stores

    have still not been violated and some wake up remorseful. 

    A light blinks by the bridge: yellow, red, go

    shopping carts twist ankles in gutters

    or hide along alleys

    or clack in chrome herds on corners waiting to cross over

    or wait for midnight grocery ranchers

    or the first of the month

    or just something grander than beer cans from here to there,

    diapers at the dollar store, dirty laundry Fridays,

    Saturday round-ups at the corner ( L and Third).


    There, a windfall confetti lies on poverty:

    scratch tickets shining gold, silver, red

    through the storm drains

    three cans of Reddi Whip, a flip flop,

    a shoe, a sword , a spoon

    garbage tarot under the Gravel Moon.













    Turners II


    Here nothing stops the nails from being sucked

    slowly out of the wood.

    Here, the tipped edge of a dream juts into the river,

    a triple decker porch splinter sharp and dangerously leaning.

     I have been here at least long

    enough to know what repeats itself .


    Three blond girls are

    done with dolls. They ring

    doorbells, know what to say.

    Up and down the street barefoot on an old bike.

    Their hair is long, and they eat whenever.


    I told myself and I tell myself

    read, stranger, read loudly through it!

    Throw watermelon vowels and telephone pole T’s.

    Walk through it and lay waste to it!

    Let that tongue roll and crack among it like

    a long grey summer sidewalk.

    Give it words and names, stranger,

    give it something worth stealing.

    Be full of saying and loving it

    the greasy stranded sadness of it

    the menopausal freedom of it

    the wabi sabi robbing of it

    the howling rub-and-drubbing of it.


    Three blond girls looking

    for my neighbor’s husband.

    Tell a lie about a dead battery,

    a jump start, their mother’s car.

    Learned their lines and headed on.


    Stranger make a poem here stranger

    live it up and

    take it down

    take it down:









    Turners III


    I know them but I do not know their name

    these weeds with yellow, purple mudras

    on a thousand delicate arms.

    Ownership here means tending lower, duller grasses

     (go away stranger, and rent this instead)


    In my back yard, coal clinkers, rib bones under

    a skin of dirt. A tar paper doghouse filled with hornets.

    Bucket after bucket, meal after meal,

    nothing ever happened here but that it

    loved itself repeating

    loving itself.


    I could

    scream in the night

    I could scream in the night

    as if the factories would wake up

    stomachs churning all that undigested history

    tossing and turning their great heaving bodies along the river:

    fatherless sons.

    I could

    scream in the night

    I could scream in the night

    as if our puny post industrial arms could go in there

    and hammer that big metal back to its awful Jurassic,

    could find out the color of dinosaurs from their bones.


    O the big jangled job of it all runs along my spine as I sleep

    kicking the lazy turbines around under the dark blanket

    of the Connecticut.
















    Turners IV


    It frightens me

    although I have made my hillock chaos

    before this life

    although this is my life

    although it is not.


    Begin the love of it

    never so perfect to live in, begin:

    street howling with the rage of a boy with a pipe.

    movie mad, they say about these kids, movie mad.

    My quiet steps, too, the poem in my hand

    Movie mad, madly moving along

    not brave but yawning wide to its bricks and bitterness

    high as a smokestack and stronger than

    the dream of money still rolling along the river

    but sleepy like a pregnant woman

    glassy with doubling cells: the houses subdivide

    I’ve seen them, odd chambers and endometrium

    of paint crazed, flaking, lead too,

    scraping, crazing me as it enters my mind

    I’m just gobbling up the grand din,

    never changing chances and I blink down town:

    I travel through my heart to the part that beats the child,

    flings the cat by the tail

    walks away, doesn’t look

    or won’t or can’t

    drinks because or not

    and willing lotteries and blame and

    worn elastic, slapping slippers, sneakers with

    a soul so thin -- the dollar store -- a walking town

    plastic sacks and suckers, soda cans march up and down

    the bank, the booze, the PO

    me walking, poem in hand, quietly

    heartstruckblind on central street

    slatted shades, torn and staggering

    criss cross themselves, rattling...

    Everybody drinks, don’t they? beer cans

    in a yard scratched thin, thin as a child’s shriek....

    How is there anything left from that?

    How can there be anything more than

    that morning drink, the sleeping noon, the slower, redder

    burn on into night,

    seizures, seizures and delights.



    Turners V


    in among it all an odd beauty in the bones

    the red brick, the gilded windowpanes of evening,

    the always whispering water falling from the dam

    the steeples rising up above the tin trimmed roofs

    and the hot twinkly nights of summer booming off the brick...


    And this is home,

    And this is home.