11/20/2012 12:58 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

Chronicles of a G-Man -- Gouges for Freaks (Part One of Two)

In our town, as in many, people who don't have cars can walk to the grocery story on nice weather days (which aren't always in abundance here, as we are one of the rainiest and cloudiest parts of the country).

If efficient, the small shopping event leaves one with a bag of goodies to stroll on home with. But the once-a-month DSS, food stamp or unemployment shopping spree will load one down... and with no car, one's choices for grocery transport become limited to either paying for a cab or pushing a bounty-laden shopping cart through town.

Once home, I'm sure most responsible residents would say, "I'm tired and still have to put away all this crap, so... while I'd really like to want to feel like pushing this thing all the way back to its rightful place among the other carts in front of the store... screw it."

That's where the city steps in. When we have a full complement of guys on the back of trucks and there's one driver who takes either truck number 231 or 234, an open-backed stake-body with a lift gate, to drive around the poorer sections and collect those stray shopping carts. Any cart abandoned on the curb line or sidewalk is fair game, but some people have earmarked one as a personal grocery rickshaw that he/she stashes up by the apartment or around back. We're not allowed to retrieve them from there because they are on private property. I've seen people "loan" theirs to someone else, "But make sure you bring it back!"

Truck 231 can transport about 40 or so shopping carts safely, but we can also throw carts on top of the orderly stack in back and drive slowly so the extras won't slide off their precariously high perch... onto unsuspecting cars, residents or dogs.

We take them to a large, open, dingy, leaky storage area. When there are enough of a certain supermarket's brand of cart, the city contacts that store and sells them back to them at $10-$12 each. In one low-income area of roughly four streets, a city worker can find up to 40 or 50 abandoned shopping carts every two weeks.

I was unloading 43 carts at the Price Chopper with one of their employees, Tony, and we shared some conversation. Weather and standard small talk gave way to actual information and Tony offered some personal history: He'd was from here originally but moved away to greener pastures (actually the browner, tanner ones of Phoenix, Arizona) for 14 years. He'd also logged some time in Santa Cruz, California. I've always heard how lovely it is there and he concurred that it's a crunchy, hippie town with big redwoods. He returned here to help his ailing mother. "An act of a good son," I said, one worthy of heartfelt blessings I did bestow.

We spoke about moving around and seeing places, which I've done quite a bit myself. We spoke about the nomadic mindset.

"Some people use these carts for transportation... like a portable personal taxicab for their groceries," I said.

"Some homeless folks live outta 'em," said Tony.

"We have to collect 'em from in front of apartments, but I'm not the guy to take one from a bum. God bless those folks. No matter how they got there, that's a very tough life, homelessness."

"They can have a cart," Tony said.

"They can have a cart," I said.

"There are a lot of homeless in Arizona, and there was one guy I tried to give money to and he got mad at me. Turns out he's gonna pay for whatever he needs himself."

"Proud," I said.

"Does it his way."

I explained an interaction I'd had when living in Manhattan -- how I used to have a daily ritual of a heated sesame bagel with butter on my way to ballet class at a place called the Bagel Buffet. Often there was this friendly homeless guy crunched in between the door of the Bagel Buffet and the door for the apothecary beside it, and one time I went in and ordered two of them and had them separately bagged up and brought one out, held it toward him and explained that I'd packaged it especially for him. I was specific about what it was and wanted him to know as best I could I'd not tampered with it, and that I'd bought it for him in earnest. He smiled at me and said, "No thanks. I already ate."

I ended up giving it to an obese guy in the West 4th Street subway station whose pants looked more like a blanket and who smelled severely of urine.

Around 25 years ago, New York State revised certain criteria for funding institutions that provide full time care for the mentally and psychologically handicapped in need of assistance. As a result, the Binghamton Psych Center had to release all but the most desperate individuals. Up on the east hill, they opened the front doors and shooed people down into town to live. I lived downtown then and met many of them. Our town was nothing if not colorful. There was Samuel the Holy Man, with a shopping cart in place of a staff, and the Cat Lady, who communicated mostly by meowing unless you mentioned your car's engine size, because she had an encyclopedic knowledge of transmissions. I used to eat breakfast near her at the Oasis Tea Room, a greasy spoon where they made your eggs in their own pan on a burner rather than on a grill. She'd call across the room to some young kid eating waffles with a grandparent, "Meow... meow..." and then overhear two gearheads discussing an engine at a booth, whip around suddenly and say: "Is that a four-banger 2.1 liter or the six-barrel four-by-four?"

Then there's Jim, who a lot of folks call Cowboy Bob, but he told me he prefers Elvis. Jim doesn't talk much, just walks a lot all over town. He's probably 5'4" and 90 pounds and wears spangly cowboy gear including boots, a 10-gallon hat and a holster with plastic guns. Once my wife saw him stop downtown, whip out a pistol, wave it overhead and fire off a few plastic rounds. Everyone knows Jim, including the cops. He'd most likely get shot for doing that in Tucson or NYC, but not here.

These people are needed. They make the world more... something. In a way, our town is like the island of the misfit Toys. That land was always one of my favorites.