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???????????????????????????????????????There are plenty of etiquette manuals around, but I’ve never seen one strictly for proper shopping cart operation. When shopping carts leave the corral, they take on a mysterious life of their own. Just how long is one allowed to sit, alone and unattended, before someone else can claim it? Carts can look like they’ve been abandoned, but appearances are deceptive.

Recently, I was shopping at Fleet Farm. It’s basically a Guy Mall that smells like tires and sells junk food in bulk, along with fishing lures, monster-sized jeans, overstock military supplies and fitting rooms that require the help of an attendant. Her job is to monitor the fitting rooms, count your garments and flip a switch under the counter that opens the fitting room with a nasty buzzing sound. If you’re having an off day, this whole process can make you feel like you’ve done something wrong.

shopping carts are an important part of the shopping experienceFleet Farm is also the only place where men grab a cart and start shopping. Think about that. When you shop, for the most part, aren’t women the ones pushing the carts? They plunk their purse in the section where toddlers sit, heading down the aisle with a list in their hand, heels clicking briskly as they set out. At Fleet Farm, men are seen – solo and as part of a couple – pulling a cart from the corral and pushing it.

That’s where I got myself in trouble.

I stood, list in hand, in the automotive section, carefully double-checking that the oil I picked matched the list. Hmmmm…5W-20? 10W-30? Synthetic? Synthetic blend?  It was akin to asking Hulk Hogan to pick out a pair of ballet shoes. I’m not large and hairy, but everything in the automotive section starts hazing into one amorphous product if I stay there too long.

My first mistake was not taking a cart. My arms bulged with a case of oil, on top of which I had stacked a radiator belt and a box of spark plugs. Fleet Farm is rather warehouse-y inside, and the checkouts are a mile away when your arms are full. I spotted an unattended, empty cart a few rows up – oh, joy! My eyes lit up, and my arms ached ever-so-slightly less in anticipation. Surely it was waiting for me!

Fleet Farm is a popular Midwest storeI approached, carefully looking down each aisle to see if I could spot a potential owner. That’s another Fleet Farm peculiarity – the men push the carts, and as they wander away from their wives or girlfriends, these women are spotted walking down the main rows, heads swiveling back and forth, back and forth, looking down the side aisles as they try to find their missing men.

For once, I had no wandering husband to locate. I walked up to the cart, and with a sigh of relief, dropped my burden, metal rattling as the load settled. As I wheeled to the checkout, a low, rumbly voice came from behind.

“Nice try.”

No accompanying laugh, nothing to ease the sting of my thievery.

The cart’s owner materialized out of nowhere, just in time to see me lay claim to what was apparently his cart. Red-faced and silent, I pushed the cart back, heaved out my load and looked at my accuser.

He smiled, the lip-stretchy kind without showing teeth. Maybe he meant it nicely, but I wasn’t feeling the love. Turning, I started my rubbery-armed trek to the checkout.

Fleet Farm really needs to clear a spot in the bulk junk food aisle for an etiquette manual.