The photographer lurches through a West End back alley, shuffling along the icy asphalt, when she sees her subject sitting there in all its rusty glory.
It’s made of metal, dusted with white, and bracketed by red plastic pieces. Its fold-down seat that reads ‘Safeway’ is broken in half, so now, it just says ‘Sa." Its wheels fixed in inch-deep snow, for the moment, it’s at rest.
Yes, the photographer, who prefers to remain anonymous, is shooting pictures on her cellphone of a shopping cart during a cold mid-January afternoon. And no, this isn’t the first one she’s captured. Not even close. It’s probably closer to 3,000.
Since 2016, she’s been snapping grocery chariots for her very-real, very-active Instagram account, @shoppingcartsofwinnipeg, which since then, to her shock, has garnered over 1,000 followers—a small number for a high school quarterback or a fashion influencer, but for shopping carts? Come on.
These carts aren’t beautiful, and the photographer admits she lacks formal training, but for some reason, the account has a resonance. Each deserted cart becomes a Rorschach test for how a follower views it — as an issue in itself, a symptom of society’s failures, or as a hunk of woven metal on wheels.
The photographer sums it up like this. "Something about the shopping carts seems to me like a perfect microcosm of this amazing city." And the more that idea is considered, the less strange it sounds.
Before the grocery cart, there was the basket, a mobile, hand-held carrier that until the 1930s was large enough. But in 1937, an Oklahoma City grocer saw in the basket a limitation: they could only be filled so far as customers could carry them, so he developed a prototype of the modern cart to give customers more space to indulge and to give his business more revenue.
In 1940, Sylvan N. Goldman patented the "folding basket carriage for self-service stores." The cart has been ubiquitous ever since, as has been its presence in urban North America.
Yet each cart, despite its intended purpose as a vehicle of commerce, quickly becomes something entirely different as soon as it leaves the Sobey’s parking lot.
To some, it’s a nuisance blocking the sidewalk. But to others, the cart is transmuted into a multi-pronged tool for staying afloat and alive in a city whose weather is unforgiving and whose housing market is increasingly unaffordable.
"In my North End neighbourhood, shopping carts are often used as moving trucks," wrote Joy Eidse in a 2010 article for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Manitoba branch. She goes on to say they can be used as laundry transport, as wheelchairs or walkers, as ambulances, as storage, or as the driving force of a community of back-lane ‘binners’ searching for recyclables and other handy material for survival on the street.
Some classify these as examples of misuse, Eidse writes, but she saw it differently. "They are a reminder of how society is failing to adequately respond to those in dire need," she wrote.
The photographer doesn’t intend her Instagram to reflect that notion, but she can’t deny it’s done just that. "The carts are deeply tied to poverty and income disparity," she said next to a pair of upside-down carts wedged in a Spence Street snowbank. "Any time there’s something going on in this city, the carts can reflect that."
“Any time there’s something going on in this city, the carts can reflect that.” –@shoppingcartsofwinnipeg photographer
Stanley Q. Woodvine, a writer and designer in Vancouver’s Fairview neighbourhood, has been homeless for 16 years, and agrees carts can’t be extricated from the context of poverty.
On his blog, sqwabb.wordpress.com, and in his writing in publications like the Georgia Straight, carts have been a consistent vehicle to illustrate his city’s housing crisis and social inequities. In one cheeky post, titled ‘Available for immediate occupancy,’ Woodvine describes a blue plastic cart like a realtor would a downtown condo.
"Cozy one-room, Vancouver-style carriage house, with storage. Modern construction; well-ventilated; with a fabulous view of False Creek. No utilities except for running water from November through May. Located right in the heart of the Fairview neighbourhood, on the corner of Alder St. and West Broadway Ave. Close by a hospital, transit, shopping, and back alleys," he writes.
"Hurry. This one is sure to go fast."
His most-read post explains how to get a coin out from a pay cart—another example, alongside self-locking wheels, he points to as an anti-poverty innovation.
Woodvine says shopping carts are always about money. If you use one in a Costco, it means you likely have it. If you use one in any other context, it’s assumed you don’t. Over the phone, he says that even if the Instagram account isn’t meant as a commentary, it still is one.
"Everybody knows carts represent poverty and homelessness, a kind of failure of a social contract," he says.
"Even when it’s empty, a shopping cart is loaded with meaning," he adds.
It’s something the photographer acknowledges, and she recently fundraised for Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, a local non-profit, by putting together a calendar of some of her favourite carts, including one submerged in Omand’s Creek.
In the back lane of McMicken Street between Sargent and Ellice, one of her favourite alleys, she says a cart, though made of metal and plastic and rubber, can become anthropomorphic; its contents, location, and condition can help tell the stories of the people who left them there.
Or, it's just a shopping cart.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.