Why People-Watching Isn't The Same Anymore

Illustration by Marina Esmeraldo.
On the subways of New York City, especially in the winter when everyone’s in the same black coat, shoppers show off their fashion sense on their laps. Yes, your handbag is like your car here, both being objects that connote status and investments that almost exclusively depreciate in value. But there was a time when the other bag you'd carry was just as evocative of your sartorial predilections. I'm talking about paper shopping bags. Sturdy, reusable enough, and always branded, old shopping bags were counted on to tote everything from one's non-commuting shoes (this was before the advent of athleisure, of course) to umbrellas and lunches, to the ephemera of daily life that just didn't belong in a handbag. And ever since reusable totes made of recycled materials and emblazoned with inspiring mantras became a standard gift with purchase, you just don't see the paper ones as much anymore.

As an avid people-watcher, I used to love seeing which paper shopping bags women — and it usually was women — had obviously held on to, and then wondering why. That twentysomething in the patent flats with the heel crushed down from too much sliding her feet in and out under her desk all day is probably using that tattered Barneys bag as her lunch tote because she has bought only one thing there one time (on sale), and she was really, really excited about it. She might've also overestimated her temp-job bookings that month, which explains why she’s bringing lunch in the first place. (Okay, that one was me.)

If you looked closely, you'd see the corners of the black paper sack were wearing white, evidence of having been used, set down, carried, folded up, and used again for a long time.

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Sometimes you'd see a fancily dressed lady lugging a Prada or even Chanel shopping bag, as if she just completed a fruitful jaunt down Fifth, but then you'd realize you're in a totally different part of town. And if you looked closely, you'd see the corners of the black paper sack were wearing white, evidence of having been used, set down, carried, folded up, and used again for a long time. I'd spend the whole day wondering what single item this woman had once purchased from Chanel. (Temp jobs were like that back then; you had time to think.) Was it a single bottle of Le Vernis she’d only swipe on her nails for very special occasions? A leather agenda? Maybe she got a gift for someone else. Either way, that bag bearing the all-caps sans serif font made her incredibly proud. It might as well have been an actual accessory by the brand. This often made me think of those “My other car is a Porsche” bumper stickers.

And then there were the austere grannies with Macy's bags, the small ones, overflowing with the day's newspaper and some knitting, maybe. These sacks weren’t meant to belie experience with a certain designer or brand; they were just held on to by the kind of woman who lived by the "if it ain't broke" mantra: You just don’t throw away a perfectly good paper bag, and you sure as hell don’t spend money on something unnecessary to replace it. Sitting quietly, hands folded around a package perched neatly on her lap, this woman comported herself as if the idea of buying an additional bag to carry alongside her pocketbook simply hadn't occurred to her. Nothing for me, this grandma's improvised tote said. I'm just fine, thanks. It's how my own grandmother would ferry her miscellany, I think, if she were living, and in a place that requires public transport rather than those roving carryalls other parts of the country refer to as "cars."

Trends have made everyday handbags only more comfortable and accommodating, and reusable totes are now foisted upon shoppers in such quantities as to almost defeat their eco-friendly purpose. Purchasing an item (at the grocery store, at Bloomingdale's) and actually needing the paper bag it comes in is almost passé — even if you saved all month for that thing, and the bag says “Medium Brown” and is the perfect shape for schlepping your clip-in shoes to Spin class.

I suspect the incendiary rise of online shopping has had something to do with the demise of old-fashioned shopping bags, too. It’s easier than ever to get anything shipped anywhere, and at prices grandmothers who lived through the Depression would approve of. And speaking of blips of commuter entertainment going obsolete, when was the last time you struck up a conversation with a stranger about the book she was reading? Tablets and Kindles make that all but impossible. Likewise, if shoppers don't tote their purchases home in bags bearing the names of their favorite stores, and then selectively keep those bags in heavy rotation, how are you supposed to make up extremely detailed narratives about the lived experiences that brought them to that purchase, that bag, that day on the train?

Technological advancements make life easier. Of course they do. But certain small pleasures are lost in the process, ones that were so small to begin with that you don't even notice them fading away. Until one day you look up, and there’s no paper shopping bags to be seen, just canvas totes — like that guy’s with the WNYC logo on it. I wonder if he’s a donor or an employee, or if his wife spoke on a panel there about oyster farming in the Hudson and the controversial way it would affect children’s test scores. Or maybe a benevolent straphanger gave him the tote to collect his groceries, after his paper sack completely dissolved in the rain. Okay, so maybe I can still furtively people-watch even without the paper-bag narratives of my past. Hey, what else am I supposed to do on the train?
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