But who to call? My contact list took shape like a trail of crumbs. I started with the New Jersey legislator whose proposal first kicked off my pursuit. She put me in touch with the state ombudsman, who put me in touch with a woman who uses a wheelchair and whose experiences showed unreturned shopping carts are more than a petty annoyance.
Who fetches the wayward carts? Labor union officials put me in touch with grocery store employees and cart clerks. I went to parking lots myself, hoping the gods of news would favor me, but I saw nothing but responsible cart behavior. There were video archives of local government meetings about what to do with abandoned carts, and the reality YouTube series Cart Narcs, in which cart slackers are confronted on camera.
I was amused to discover a book written about carts, and a short artistic film in which a cart was given human qualities.
My colleague Brent Lewis and the artist Shirley Yu provided the visual lift, creating animations with miniature shopping carts to illustrate parking lot behavior.
“One group of carts, courteous and polite, makes it easy for everyone, putting themselves away,” said Ms. Yu. “And the other group, mischievous and malintentioned, makes it hard, giving us all the runaround.”
There were other stories to do on the Express desk, so shopping carts went to the back burner while I wrote about human smuggling, vaccines, court cases and a series of earthquakes. But about a month after I had started blindly casting about for shopping cart material, I filed a draft.
My editor, Patrick LaForge, pushed for more.
And there were other shopping cart gems to discover. A 91-year-old former technology professor featured them in a radio show in the 1990s. There were works by Banksy, a filmmaker’s anecdote, the childhood memories of a Virginia board of supervisors official and Times archival stories about the inventor of the shopping cart.
For every interview I did, as many opportunities fell by the wayside. A half-dozen retail store managers declined interviews, as did an anthropology writer, who was in labor, and the sociology professor, who let me down lightly in a reply to that email:
I will have to pass on this.
Thanks for offering.”