backforward

supermarkings ode to the brown paper bag

There are some things one simply inherits an ardor for. In my case they are the buttery taste of bone marrow, the smell of smashed basil, and the frank feel of brown paper folding in the hand. 

A couple of years ago I traveled to a high mountain city in Guatemala, and took with me two dozen crooked swatches of brown paper, which I had cut from grocery bags. In the cold evenings I would sit in a café that served melted chocolate and I would draw on those creased scraps: tiny tomatoes, children's eyes, coffee beans. It was utterly soothing, even though the young men laughed. And then the paper ran out.

In the days following I discovered that the Guatemalans had no paper like it – O brown bag, color of ordinary! – it just didn't exist there. It dawned on me, then, that the brown paper bag is an American object.

And not only that, but it has an ancestry and a birthplace. Invented (and peddled door to door) by a botanist named Francis in 1852, the very same year my maternal great great grandparents arrived from Genoa. The brown bag was a technological masterpiece, but one that would be tweaked and fought over for the next eight decades, until it could stand on its own (hence the acronym S.O.S., Self-Opening-Sack) and fold flat in a flash, like a ghost in a hallway. 

I wish that I could go back in time, though, and do an oral history of the brown paper bag. I have all these questions with invisible answers. Such as, what was it like for the average American to encounter a brown bag for the first time? Was it something to inflate and fill with candlelight, marvel at? Did it instantly replace the pail as a thing to carry lunch in? What words were used to describe it? Did a brown bag crumple or rumple? Crinkle or wrinkle?

But I'm getting carried away. Let's go back to Luigi, my great great grandfather, who thought he'd be a goldminer, but turned out to be a shopkeeper, selling sundries to the town. Now, the ledgers show nothing of this, but I am absolutely positive that Luigi began to wrap his purchases in brown paper (parmigiano? pane? zucchero?) and then tied that paper up with common white string, another one of my favorite talismanic materials. I can just feel it.

And who could deny that as Americans we have brown bags in the blood? All those sheathed math books, scrawled with glyphs; all those school lunch bags, stained by jelly and fingerprints. Some bags reused and therefore wrinkled as the ears of elephants; others slick and still proud of their folds, new to the world.

*

When I went away to boarding school my mother would send me quixotic packages wrapped with brown paper, and she would always draw on that paper – untidy mysterious messages and faces – so that the present became more about the wrapping than what was inside. Recently, when I asked her about the brown paper, she said, "It really draws me," and then paused, realizing her pun. At home, she'd pull bits of brown paper into her paintings, the way a bird sneaks receipts into its nest. 

No surprise that, for me, the material seems the perfect thing to flatten and make marks on. Immense pleasure is usually what I experience while deconstructing one: cutting along the seams like a dressmaker in a dream; pulling the handles off one by one; and admiring, finally, the dun body stretched out on the table. What does it ask of me?

Broken down, the paper bag gladly offers up its different parts: the wide intimidating plains of the front and the back; the leaner, folded flanks that run between them; and the thicker, chewy seat which I rarely ever use. From the pattern of the whole my favorite cut never changes – two squares released from a portion of the sides, like the haunches or the hips, where most action happens. And this, this is where the creases are, that make me crazy with happiness. With an origamic inevitability, the paper holds its past.

Collapsible vessel, pulpy ship. The forgotten brilliance of the paper bag is what makes me admire it; and that they are so strong and uncomplaining, like mules. I love, too, the wax finish which diminishes with age. In my hand each one feels unique, a different manifestation of the species, drawing me in. 

And yet – in the wake of my scissors ride truths I hadn't known. That brown bags come 500 at a time in a bale (like hay), and have a value (three and a half cents). What about the hideous fact that many of them aren't actually recycled at allHowever callous I may have become, I still find myself astonished: a tree felled and aged for three years with the sole purpose of making me this self-opening elephant-mule, durable and vanishable, luminous by candlelight, in which to carry home my milk.

But this piece is not about the sourpuss truth. This piece is irrational. What I mean to say is, sometimes you just love a thing, and that love is unconditional. In the world beyond waste, with gluttony and carelessness extinct, even the word supermarket obsolete, I will celebrate and sing. But I will also sneak into your house and look under the sink (will there be sinks?) for the last brown paper bag.