The Matter of the Vagrant Shopping Carts

Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was at a DNA conference in Sacramento, California, and was down ‘Old Sacramento’ marveling at the statue of Theodore Judah. The key to the survival of all civilizations, from the Sumerians to those yet to come, was the efficiency of their transportation system. Most people, alas, Noonan mused, did not understand that. As for instance, he told his twins, the reason Europeans have small cars as opposed to American automobiles was because of the Romans. The Romans constructed their roads two wagons wide so there could be two-way traffic. Thus all roads in the Roman Empire – and tunnels, bridges, aqueduct underpasses and roadway pullouts – were built on this model. Starting in 312 Before the Christian Era when the Appian Way was constructed as a supply route during the Second Samnite War. Automobiles would not make an appearance in Europe until the 1900s, 16 centuries later. Europeans then had a choice: build cars with a wheel span that matched that of the Roman wagons – 4 feet, 8.5 inches – or widen every road, bridge, tunnel and aqueduct underpass in Europe.

They went with the small cars.

The Roman roads also influenced transportation in the United States. The standard railroad gauge in Europe was 4 feet, 8.5 inches to accommodate Roman-constructed roadways, bridges, tunnels and aqueduct underpasses in Europe. English engineers designed America’s railways because America would have to buy locomotives from England. Those locomotives had a gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches, so that was the standard for America’s railway system. Then railway bridges, tunnels and underpasses were built to accommodate railway trains of that size. The Roman influence exists to this day, Noonan had told the twins.

Even when it comes to space exploration.

All rocket boosters for Cape Canaveral have to arrive by train and those trains have to use the railway bridges, tunnels and underpasses designed to accommodate a train with a gauge of  4 feet, 8.5 inches.

Noonan was particularly pleased to be in Sacramento, that is, old Sacramento, because it had one of the few statues of Theodore Judah in the country. This was too bad because Judah was one of the unsung heroes of transportation in United States history. Born in 1826, he studied engineering briefly and then embarked on a vision to open the Far West to the railroad. At 28 years of age, he was hired to be a civil engineer for the Sacramento Valley Railroad. It became the first common carrier railroad built west of the Mississippi. Later he helped the California Central Railroad become a reality.

But his vision was much broader. He saw the future of the Far West tied to railroads so he set about developing a plan to link the railroads of the East – which only extended as far as St. Lewis.

On the eastern side of the Mississippi.

The first bridge across the Mississippi in St. Louis would be the Eads Bridge which started construction in 1868. Interestingly, when the bridge was finished in 1874, people were skeptical the bridge could hold up under the weight of a locomotive and fill rail cars. To convince them otherwise, the designer of the bridge, James Buchan Eads, led a contingent of elephants from a traveling circus across the bridge. The bridge did not collapse so it was deemed safe for rail traffic.

There was money for a railway in the Far West but you had to fight for it. Judah did. He put together a group of local businessmen who would later be known as the “Big Four,’ whose names reverberate in California to this day:  Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker. They incorporated as the Central Pacific Rail Way of California and Judah was sent East to get secured government bonds for the pipedream on the West Coast. In Washington, Judah wormed his way to the funding by becoming Clerk of the United States House of Representatives subcommittee discussing the railroad and, when the bill passed the House, worked as the secretary to the Senate subcommittee to give the railway life.

He was successful.

On July 1, 1862, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act which issued land grants and U. S. bonds to the newly renamed Union Pacific Railway. He had made the transcontinental railroad a reality. He had secured the funding for a railway to run east from Sacramento, where  Noonan was standing and the monument of Judah stood.

Spoiler alert, a term Noonan used to advise colleagues that all was not well in the rosy scenario before their eyes, Judah was in for a massive shock. While he was a mix of the idealist and realist, the Big Four were simply rapacious rogues. They were not interested in the dream of a railway linking anything, just the amount of money they could swindle. The Central Pacific was simply their means to an end – and a very lucrative end at that. When Judah realized he was in a den of thieves, he left California for New York to find investors to buy out the Big Four.

He never made it.

On November 2, 1863, at age 37,  as he was crossing the Isthmus of Panama, he contracted Yellow Fever and died. With their future, and finances, secure, the Big Four became the Robber Barons of the West Coast.

Noonan had always wanted to go to Sacramento to, at the very least, honor the memory of Theodore Judah. Here was a man who dreamed big. He would not live to see that dream fulfilled and died bitter because of the partners he had whose vision of the future was significantly different than his.

As Noonan was admiring the face of Theodore Judah looking out across the ages, so to speak, he, in this case Noonan, was approached by a man who pulsed Robber Baron. The man clearly knew who Noonan was and made a beeline for the detective.

“Captain Noonan?”

“Could be.”

“Well, you’ve got a beard so that’s a good sign you’re the ‘Bearded Holmes.’”

“Depends on who you are?”

“Harold Smithers of Smithers Brothers, Inc.  We’re a financial holding company for a dozen supermarkets here in Sacramento.”

“What does a holding company have to do with supermarkets?”

Smithers smiled. But it appeared more serpentine than human. “It’s all about money, Captain. Supermarkets take in cash and credit cards and we handle the transfer. When you spend, say, $55.25 at a local supermarket and sweep your credit card, the money for a dozen supermarkets comes to us. We invest the money until it is used to pay expenses. While the money is with us, it earns short-term interest.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“It is. And the interest rate is low. Less than 3%. But on millions of dollars, it does add up.”

Noonan grinned. It was a knowing smile because no one ever approached him with a song and dance without a card.

“And the reason you are looking for me?”

“Expenses, sir, expenses. We, that is, the supermarkets are hemorrhaging from a despicable loss.”

“I see.”  Noonan was unimpressed. Anytime businessmen talk of ‘losses’ they meant they were failing to skin someone to the full extent of the law.

“Shopping carts, sir, shopping carts. Do you know how much a shopping cart costs?”

“Not a clue,” Noonan said flatly.

“$189.49 each. Even if you buy them in bulk. Shipping depends on volume.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because our supermarkets are seeing a sudden increase in shopping cart disappearances. Ten percent vanishings are about average. But we are seeing numbers into the 30 percent range.”

“You mean shopping carts are leaving the stores’ parking lots and not coming back?”

“More than that. A lot of shopping carts are used to take groceries home. Those eventually come back. Or, more frequently, we make safaris into neighborhoods looking for abandoned carts.”

“But a lot of them are simply disappearing, right?”

“Correct. We’d like you to look into the situation.”

“W-e-l-l,” Noonan clawed his logic for the correct answer stated mildly. “That’s not really my business, you understand. It’s a local law enforcement issue or a social patrol issue.”

“True, true,” Smithers hemmed and hawed. “But there is a new mosque in the area and that makes it a Homeland Security issue.”

Noonan saw where this was going. In an instant he was miles ahead of the next sentence. Smithers had made it a Muslim problem because the local police had probably laughed it away. The local Homeland Security commissioner had probably done the same thing. The real question was not what the problem was, it was how Smithers had managed to reach the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security to order Noonan to look into the matter. Noonan knew the next words out of Smithers’ mouth would be related to the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security.

Noonan was not disappointed.

“The Old Sacramento Commissioner of Homeland Security apparently knows your commissioner. In Sandersonville. He also knows you have the ability to solve, shall we say, odd matters.”

“I’ve been lucky.”

“Well,” Smithers was serpentine again, “if you call you Commissioner of Homeland Security in Sandersonville, he will fill you in on the details.”

*  *  *

It was a rare day when Noonan used the electronic Beelzebub to call the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security. Usually the calls came the other way. But today Noonan was on the West Coast and the Commissioner was on the Atlantic. But, in fact, he was not. He was in Washington D. C. at a Homeland Security Conference. The instant the Commissioner said he was at a conference, the scales fell from Noonan’s eyes. Now he knew the connection between East and West, so to speak.

Yes, I am aware of the situation.”  Commissioner Edward Paul Lizzard III said in a regal tone. “He has a situation there in Old Sacramento and I suggested he contact you. So he’s done that, yes?”

“Actually, no. I was approached by a businessman named Harold Smithers.”

“Yes, Smithers. Good family. Responsible. Neighborhood watchdog for Muslim activity.”

“There is no Muslim activity here, s-i-r.”  Noonan dragged out the s-i-r just a split second short of insubordination. “We are talking about shopping carts. Were you aware of that?”

“Never underestimate the ingenuity of the enemy, Captain. Never.”

Anytime the Commissioner addressed Noonan as Captain, the conversation was over. The next thing the Commissioner would say was an order. “National Security, Captain. National Security. Here, in Sandersonville and there in Old Sacramento. Evil has no border. Your contact in Homeland Security there is Harold Shahan. Hop to it, Captain.”

Harold Shahan was no more pleased than Noonan when it came to the assignment. Shahan was, at best, 30, clean-cut in the millennial way of dress and wore shoes which, in Noonan’s use, would be called dress sport. Footwear an officer of the law wore in case he had to suddenly break into a run after a perpetrator. Shahan was typically American. Rather, he was not a typical American. He was not white, black, yellow or brown, but a mix thereof. He had curly brown hair in a bun, weighed what Noonan had weighed in boot camp and sported a modest mustache.

“First of all, Captain, I’m …”

Noonan cut him off. “Until there’s a crime, I’m just Heinz.”

“Works for me. Then I’m just Harry. Or like my mother-in-law pronounces it ‘Arry.”

“Lucky you. My mother-in-law rarely remembers my name.”

Both men chuckled.

‘Arry offered Noonan in the Homeland Security Visitor Room. “We have to meet here. Regulations. Stupid but here we are.”

“Same here as back East. Let’s get to the nubbins.”

‘Arry grimaced. “Fine with me. First of all, I want to apologize for my Commissioner. He sees conspiracies everywhere. There is none here. But he has to keep finding something nefarious so he can report he is doing something.”

Noonan smiled. “Been there, done that. It’s all about the publicity for more money for the Department.”

Now ‘Arry shook his head. “Yup. So here we are. It’s not even a nothing case. It’s what we call a dump and run here on the West Coast.”

“Same on the East Coast. When you have a worthless case you dump it on the lowest person in the department and say, ‘solve it.’”

“Got it. Here’s the case. Smithers Brothers would chase a dime out onto the freeway. The company has convinced the supermarkets they represent not to spend money on the new shopping carts. The ones with the electronic locks. Do you know about those?”

Noonan smiled. “We don’t have them in Sandersonville but I know what they are. One of the wheels of a shopping cart has an electronic lock. As long as the shopping cart is in the parking lot, the wheels roll. If the shopping cart leaves the parking lot, one wheel freezes.”

“Correct. They are more expensive than regular shopping carts. Smithers Brothers is against the expense because it means the short-term money they are investing will go down.”

“I understand that. But shopping carts are missing, correct?”

‘Arry smiled as he shook his head. “Yup. The problem is simple but takes a backstory.”

“I’m all ears.”

“Do you know what a curb cut is?’

“Think so. It’s where the cement pavement on the corner has a cut so a wheelchair can be used block after block after block.”

“Good for you. I didn’t know they had sidewalks in Sandersonville.”

“We’re not all beach. Go on.”

“Arry smiled. “Most older cities have WPA sidewalks, Works Public Administration from Depression days. There were no curb cuts in those days. Today we have people in wheelchairs so curb cuts are necessary. Once the curb cuts came here, the shopping carts started disappearing. We, I, did the initial investigation. Nothing nefarious, Heinz. There’s a group of concerned citizens who are taking the shopping carts and reducing them into low-level wagons.”


“Yes. See, before the curb cuts, someone in a wheelchair had to hire a cab to take them to the store. The tax cab had to sit outside the store, running up the meter, while the disabled person shopped. So more than half of the money spent was on taxi fare. With the curb cut, the disabled person can link the low-level wagon to the wheelchair and toddle on down to the store. No cab fare required so more money can be spent on food.”

“It doesn’t bother the community group that they are using stolen property, the shopping carts, to make the wagons?”

“Not really. Possibly for a good reason. Now the story gets complicated and easy at the same time.”

“This will be good.”

“You know it. They, the Old Sacramento Community Service, is using abandoned shopping carts. Someone pushes a full shopping cart home and leaves it on the sidewalk. Sometimes the shopping cart is collected, other times it is left there for days. Or pushed into a vacant lot. The problem is all shopping carts look the same. Even if they have advertising. The supermarkets don’t care if the shopping carts collected in the such-and-such neighborhood are theirs or some others stores. So, over the years, every supermarket has shopping carts that were bought by some other supermarket.”

Noonan shook his head. “So, from a law and order standpoint, nothing has been stolen.”

Now ‘Arry shook his head. “Correct. And that’s exactly what the police said. There is no way to prove a crime has been committed. No supermarket can point to a specific shopping cart and say ‘that was mine and it was stolen from my premises.’ The Old Sacramento Community Service does not take shopping carts from any parking lot. They are just converting found property to another source. Since they do not charge for the wagons, there is no money to follow.”

Noonan finally pulled a small notebook from his pocket with a pen attached. “Let me finish your story. Since there is no violation of the law there is no police report. If there is no police report Smithers Brothers cannot record a loss.”

“Arry nodded. “And since the Old Sacramento Community Service is a community action effort with volunteers, it is not a nonprofit, not a 501(c)(3), if you know what that is. So the shopping carts are not a charitable donation.”

Noonan finished the scenario. “So what Smithers Brothers are doing is pressuring Homeland Security for a report that will substitute for a police report.”

“My read.”

“Let me further guess there is a strong connection between Smithers Brothers and the Commissioner of Homeland Security here in Old Sacramento.”

“Brother-in-law’s brother-in-law.”

“And your Commissioner had to do something so…”

“Dump and run. It lands on my desk. This is a big nothing. No Muslims, no cabal of perpetrators, no nefarious criminal gangs and most important, no police report.”

Noonan chuckled. “Let me finish your sentence. Now you have dumped the problem on my desk.”

“Sorry about that, Heinz.”

*  *  *

Two weeks later Noonan was sitting at his desk in Sandersonville when Harriet, the office manager and Khan of Common Sense, came into Noonan’s office with a large envelope. Noonan was up to his elbows in a speech he was going to give to the Sandersonville Chamber of Commerce. ‘Give’ is an inoperative word as the ‘giving’ was going to be done by the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security in the sense he would hand the speech to the local newspaper and then just take questions from Chamber members.

“What’s this ‘Certificate of Merit’ the United Unitarian Membership of Old Sacramento?”

“Not a clue.”

“Really? Odd, you know, it has Edward Paul Lizzard’s name. Not yours. And His Majesty never went to Old Sacramento.”  She stared Noonan done, “But you did.”

“W-e-l-l,” Noonan dragged out the word, “he must have done something to get the ‘Certificate of Merit.’”

“Don’t ‘well,’ me. Now, tell momma the whole story.”

“Not much to tell. Just a guess. See, do you know what curb cuts are?”

“I,” Harriet said royally, have been in a city or two. They are cuts in the sidewalk so people in wheelchairs can use the sidewalks.”

“Correct. And to help those people in wheelchairs save money, a collection of do-gooders in Old Sacramento have been taking abandoned shopping carts and converting them to low wagons so people in wheelchairs do not have to pay for taxi fare to and from shopping centers.”

“And,” Harriet said with a grimace, “keeping the disabled from paying for a taxi to sit and wait for them to finish shopping.”

“You got it. The problem was that the stores could not write off the loss of the shopping carts. Over the years the shopping carts had made the rounds. When a shopping cart was picked up in a neighborhood by Store A it could have been a shopping cart from Store B, but no one cared. So every store has shopping carts from all the stores.”

Harriet shook her head. “I can see the future. When the stores figured out that someone was making wagons out of old shopping carts, there was no way to make a buck. The carts were not stolen and even if it was claimed they were, there was no way to say which cart had come from which store.”

“Proof is what accountants – and the IRS – need. You can’t claim a business loss unless you can prove it exists.”

“And how did you get sucked into this mess?”

Noonan’s gaze went to the ceiling tiles. And through. Up to the Third Floor Throne Room of the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security.

“Muslims involved?” Harriet said with a sneer.

“In a hint to the Commissioner of Homeland Security in Old Sacramento from his brother-in-law’s brother-in-law.”

“Ain’ in-laws great.”

“It was a dump and run. It was dumped on my desk so I took it and ran.”

Harriet waved the certificate. “So what did you do?”

“Simple. I just called the United Unitarian Membership of Old Sacramento and asked them to take a donation that did not exist. They don’t pay taxes so there would be no IRS problems. Everyone went home happy. The United Unitarian Membership of Old Sacramento got a nice write-up in the paper and coverage on the evening news. The supermarkets could write off the missing shopping carts as a donation to a nonprofit and the brother-in-law’s brother-in-law gets kudos within the family.”

Harriet gazed to the ceiling and through it to the Third Floor, “And His Majesty gets a win he will squander for publicity for more money for the department.”

“Ah, it’s a cruel world, Harriet. By the way, do you know why shopping carts get  angry?”

“Oh, no! A joke.”

“They’re always getting pushed around.”

Steven C. Levi is a sixty-something freelance historian and commercial writer who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, his home for past 40 years. He has a BA in European History and MA in American history from the University of California Davis and San Jose State. He has more than 80 books in print or on Kindle.