Christopher Caldwell, (fleeting) consumer advocate
Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Back in the 1980s I spent one afternoon working for Ralph Nader and wound up with bite marks all over my bum. The memory returned a couple nights ago when a college kid came to the door, shaking the cup for some charity. He’d memorized a spiel about dioxins and microfluids and picoliters. He must have noticed my look of dead-eyed boredom, because he stopped mid-sentence and said, “We’re responsible for the D.C. bag law.”
“I hate the bag law,” I said.
He gave me a look of pop-eyed incredulity. The bag law was clearly his trump, the line that’s supposed to get any bleeding-heart to say, “Well, heck, if it’s for the bag law . . . let me get my credit card.”
Washington, D.C., makes merchants charge 5 cents for every bag they give out. It has surely benefited clean water, but the benefits to petty tyranny have been more obvious. I know a cheery teenage girl who works as a cashier. Pitying an older man leaving the store with a lot of unwieldy knick-knacks, candies, and toiletries, she offered him a bag, only to have the geezer wheel around and hiss that he had been responsible for the bag law (in my neighborhood, apparently, the bag law is one of those victories that have a thousand fathers) and that, while he would not report her to the authorities this time, any further indifference to the Environment We All Share would have consequences.
Such vigilance has borne fruit. I bought a computer at the Apple Store in Bethesda the other day, along with various necessary data sticks, patch cords, and other small, expensive, awkward-to-carry doodads. When I asked for a bag to put them in, the salesman informed me that Montgomery County, Maryland, had a 5 cent bag law, too.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked, using a synonym for the word “kidding.” I pulled a nickel out of my pocket.
The guy wouldn’t take it! Out of fear, not hauteur. He needed documentation of the transaction, lest he be suspected of having done a human being a favor. Unfortunately he had handed off his little credit-card reading machine to a colleague, and now he couldn’t find her. It took 10 minutes. One often gets the sense in an Apple Store that this is what Europe would look like had Germany won the war.
I told Bag Tax Boy none of this. I had once been in his shoes. One college summer, I lived in SoHo and worked as a busboy. I was not a good one. Busboying required precision skills of the sort that can be dulled by immoderate youthful drinking. Turns out, the slightest departure of a tray from horizontality could send all the refuse-filled crockery, glasses, and ashtrays from a recently departed party of six onto the table of a newly arrived one. Soon I was looking for work.
My roommate had canvassed houses for Ralph Nader’s New York Public Interest Research Group in high school. I met them on Broadway, near City Hall, and was taught their spiel on the bus to Queens. There was a lot of palaver about pollution and the corporate establishment, but our never-fail line was that we were fighting Consolidated Edison to keep utility rates down. The neighborhood we worked that day was not promising: brick Cape Cods, weedy sidewalks, chain-link. No one seemed to be up for a fight with Con Edison. I came to a house that had no front door. A concrete walk went around the right side of the house into a narrow alley. I rapped on a tinny screen door there. There was no doorbell, but there was a sign on the brick wall at eye level. At exactly the moment I read the words “vicious dog,” I heard the sickening tinkle of a chrome leash on the cement behind me. I ran.
I almost made it. It was very painful when, two strides from the sidewalk, the dog’s jaws closed around my right buttock. It was even more painful when, one stride from the sidewalk, the dog ran out of leash.
A kindly lady across the street had seen what happened. She sat me at her kitchen table and gave me a glass of juice. I told her husband what I was doing in the neighborhood, fighting Con Edison and all.
“Bet you aren’t doing so great,” he said.
“How’d you know?”
“Did you see that plant down the block?” he said. “Everyone in the neighborhood works there. Want to guess what it is?”
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