WELL, OKAY. HERE I am. Standing here under these, these … klieg lights. With my small basket. Just waiting. Waiting for the woman in front of me to get through the line. Waiting for the cashier to figure out the cost of -- what is this? Arugula? Waiting with Vesuvian dread rising up inside me, ready to spill over my Pompeii of guilt. Waiting for the Question. I should have beaten the Question to the punch, done something about it weeks, nay, months ago. But no. Not me. Me? I drive my car (true, not an SUV or, saints preserve us, a Hummer), but a car nonetheless. A gas-guzzling, fossil-fuel-burning, pollution-emitting contributor to the planet’s demise. Do I walk to the store, which is roughly a mile and a half away? No. Bicycle? No. I drive. I might as well take a pillow and hold it over the earth’s face. Let’s get this over with
, I think, fidgeting as the interaction between the woman and the cashier seems to occur in slow motion. Let’s get up there. Let’s get the Question. My mind wanders as I stand and wait. Organics. Did I buy any organics?
No, of course not; I’m too cheap for that. Besides, I don’t care what they say -- I don’t think organics taste any better than the regular stuff, the stuff jacked up on more chemicals than a professional baseball player. Actually, that’s not true. I do care. I sometimes go to the co-op to buy locally and organically grown tomatoes, herbs, and peaches. I also go to nearby farmers markets that feature locally grown and organic produce. But here, in this grocery behemoth, my interest is more in finding exotica than organics. The vast majority of the produce here has been trucked from halfway across the country and from other nations, just like the produce at conventional supermarkets has been. By the time it gets here, it is as tasteless as everybody else’s. The difference is that it costs twice as much. Maybe, though, I should buy the more expensive stuff even if it does taste the same as the others. Maybe it’s better for the environment. Maybe that’s worth something -- sustainability and all. Man, what is taking this woman so long? Oh, no. No, not a check. Oh … I pick up a magazine and idly leaf through it. The magazines here are not typical tabloids. They are healthy-living and environmentally friendly publications that show you how you can save the world. They’re depressing. I don’t want to change the world. I just want to get through this line. She finally finishes, and it’s my turn. My dread is so great that I want to ask the Question myself. But I wait. Not for long, though. The cashier barely glances at me, looking instead at my groceries. And then it comes, the three most-dreaded words in the English language, the words that are simply accusatory of all my heedless ways: “Paper or plastic?” PAPER OR PLASTIC?
I don’t know. Choose paper, and there goes the rain forest. Choose plastic, and landfills grow taller and sea critters choke to death on the littered remnants. Paper or plastic? The correct answer, of course, is “Neither.” The correct answer is “Oh, I’ve got a cloth bag, thanks.” The correct answer is “I’m doing my part.” But do I own a cloth bag? No. No, I don’t. And why not? Because I live in my own private Pompeii. It is in peril. Guilt won’t save it, and neither will heedlessness. I have been meaning to get a cloth bag. I have. Really. I mean, why not? It seems to me there are only two downsides: One, you forget to bring it. Two, apparently the cloth bag says something about you, so you want to make sure you choose the right one. Apparently, cloth bags have become a fashion statement. They sell, I’m told, for $15 and up -- designer environmentalism. But that isn’t why I haven’t bought one. I haven’t bought a cloth bag because I haven’t gotten around to it, because I haven’t thought about it, because I have procrastinated. And so now look at me, standing here, feeling guilty when I could be feeling smug. I look over at the other counters. There is a lady without a cloth bag. There’s another. Even here, in this center of environmental awareness, my thoughtlessness has company. I feel better. But not for long. So what if they don’t have one either? Is mass procrastination somehow going to help? Even a heedless, thoughtless guy like me knows the answer to that. “Those cloth bags over there,” I say to the cashier. “How much are they?” “A buck ninety-nine.” “’Scuse me,” I say. “A buck ninety-nine?” “That’s right.” I look at the design. It has a retro rendering of an oyster, like something you might see on a bowling shirt. I like it. I think about the number of shopping bags I often come home with, whether I’m here or at a regular store. And how many, whether they’re paper or plastic, I will no longer have to figure out what to do with. And most important, I think about how I will never again have to answer the Question. “Gimme four of them,” I say. A small step for mankind, one giant leap for a man.
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