I would absolutely read a well-researched think piece on the cultural significance of the tote bag, because I can personally only offer speculation.
During the recent
boozefest convention T and I attended, he chided me about all the schwag I grabbed. We’ve been set on keeping clutter to a minimum, so naturally one would assume bringing in superfluous freebies would be frowned upon.
But I love a tote. I love the concept of a re-usable bag that is also kind of disposable. Like, you probably didn’t pay for it, so if you need to leave it behind because you’ve all decided to go out for drinks after the potluck and you don’t trust your host to return it, it’s no big D. Furthermore, though I usually dislike the idea of wearing a company’s logo on my person when I’ve paid them for the clothing already, the free advertising of freebie totes offers two bonuses: promoting the brand of the product/organization you ostensibly support and promoting one’s own status as someone who supports said brand/organization. It seems petty, but sometimes carrying the right Planned Parenthood or New Yorker tote bag can say more about you to would-be accosters than any of the words you might speak yourself.
I recently pulled out all the tote bags in my house. See photo above. Here are how they rank, based on quality, design and sentimental value, from least favorite to best best.
12. Yellow “Dirty Sue” Tote
This is one of the most recent acquisitions, and one I didn’t intend on keeping long. It came with some magazines and a teeny tiny Glencairn class at a Tales tasting and it reps the bottled olive juice producer Dirty Sue. Text reads: “Keep the world clean and make your martinis dirty.” I dislike nylon totes, they lack the essential “I grew up listening to Joan Baez at Christmas” feeling embodied by unbleached canvas ones. Plus, I do NOT like my martinis dirty. I like gin to taste like gin.
11. Random Tote Featuring Two Parrots
I think this one it T’s, though he disavows it. It’s a flimsy, unstructured thing that’s mostly good for being easily balled-up and thrown into another bag in case you get too many impulse-buy chia snacks at Lassens and need an extra vessel in which to carry them. No idea where it’s from. The design is fun, though. They put birds on it.
10. Artists & Fleas LA Tote
Though I do have years of fond memories strolling around the aisles of the Artists & Fleas market in Williamsburg, this lil satchel is a recent freebie and I’m not so attached to it. Acquired at the Venice A&F flea market, which was cool, but it’s another flimsy bag with the kind of straps that cut into your shoulders when you fill it with kombucha.
9. Orange “Life Booker” Tote
Though this bag has been in my life longer than any of my human relationships (I think it came from a clothing swap around ’06-’07?) I haven’t used it in years. It’s decent quality and nicely structured, but the main issue is that I have no idea what “Life Booker” is. In the past decade, I’ve never looked it up.
8. 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference Tote
So, this is a great bag. It’s deep, the canvas is thick. It’s got a solid bottom structure and a pleasing color scheme. Why so far down on the list? Because I spent $45 to go to the AWP conference last year because it was in LA, and I felt as alienated by the publishing and academic community as ever. Which, I admit, is kind of my own doing, having bid adieu to both communities after graduate school when I decided they didn’t want me anyway. Maybe this one will make a comeback, someday, but for now carrying this bag brings an extra weight of shame and disappointment. It IS a great bag, though.
7. Uncle Val’s Gin Tote
This is a shitty, thin, unstructured little bag with sharp shoulder-incising straps that isn’t even that deep. But I like this gin. A lot. And I had a very nice time at the Tales tasting from whence it came.
6. Sustainable NYC Tote
This is an O.G. tote bag I got for buying way too much crap from a local vegan ice cream/coffee/pastry/gift shop in the East Village in the late aughts. I hung out a lot in the E.V. at that time, trying to convince a young man who lived on St. Mark’s and Avenue A that he wanted to be my boyfriend. I think you got a bag if you spent over $50. Never underestimate my ability to drop money on things like coffee, muffins, and wallets made out of old car tires. It is vast. I loved that store, I got my first Diva cup there. I’m pretty sure it’s turned into a Duane Reade by now.
5. LA Review of Books Tote
Why yes, I do subscribe to LA’s hot young literary journal! I love the red logo, the structured bottom and the high-quality canvas. It’s not quite tall enough to encompass an entire bunch of Swiss chard, however, and for that, it falls in rankings. That, and the guilt of all the back issues sitting on my desk, unread right now.
4. Broadway Natural Tote
This is a big old tote bag that is close to my heart despite its being made of synthetic fabric and having teeny tiny handles that don’t go over your shoulder. I got this bag for spending over $30 in apples, oatmeal, and peanut butter Puffins cereal at the best doggone organic food store in Astoria, Queens. It reminds me of living with my BFF Robin and my late Chihuahua soulmate, Mr. Miyagi, in a series of semi-comfortable Astoria apartments in my 20s. This bag became the go-to storage unit for all of Miyagi’s dog accoutrements, including sweaters and rain slickers from my Mom, his brown puffy vest for NYC winters, extra harnesses, doggie shoes he refused to let me put on him, and an XXS dog snuggie. I donated the clothing and supplies to LA Animal Services, but I am keeping the bag in remembrance. RIP little bud.
3. New Yorker Tote
I have mixed feelings about the New Yorker. On one hand, I’m a happy subscriber and enjoy hours of bathroom reading each text glut of an issue. On the other, I interned for their fiction department a few years ago and found the experience demoralizing and cynicism-inducing. On the third hand (first foot?) LOOK AT THIS BAG. IT IS GORGEOUS. Tall, wide, thick canvas, graceful use of font for graphic design. This might be the bag I’m most likely to carry with me to run errands, but that doesn’t put it first in my esteem.
2. Unnamed Press Tote
This one is a no-brainer. It’s the thin kind, which does have certain advantages in portability as it can fit, rolled up, into a back pocket. Plus a cool/mysterious quote from Florence in Ecstasy, Jessie Chaffee’s beautiful novel, and pink illustration. The pink is a nice touch. Also, Unnamed is my publisher. So, yeah. I like this. Read all their books. Especially mine.*
1. Planned Parenthood Tote
Now more than ever, I’m proud to call myself a supporter of PP. In addition, this is a fantastic bag. Not only is it made well, but the full-color graphics are a cheeky shout out to the main message of the design: “328,676 Men’s Health Visits” is position atop cute illustrations of men’s brief-style underpants. An important message: Planned Parenthood helps everyone. They would even conduct a sliding-scale cancer screening or STI tests for someone as blatantly misogynist as many of our elected officials. This is an organization that was there for me year after year with affordable maintenance care when I didn’t have insurance or had insurance so shoddy that an urgent health appointment would have to be scheduled 4 weeks in advance. I’m happy to let all of my likeminded neighbors know that I give them enough money to merit this bag.
*MOVERS AND SHAKERS: STORIES AND ADVICE FROM THE WOMEN CHANGING THE ALCOHOL INDUSTRY, Unnamed Press, fall 2018