Ever since New York City’s plastic bag ban went into effect, I’ve found myself in a strange state of mourning. It’s not like I don’t see the upside to reducing single-use plastics. But now that they’ve gone away, I’ve fallen in love with the plastic bags of the city I grew up in. You always want what you can’t have, I suppose.
I can’t believe it took me this long to realize that a plastic bag is a piece of culture in itself. Every time I crinkled up a bag and placed it below my sink, inside a bigger plastic bag, I was ferreting away a little piece of Noo Yawk, baby! Lately, I’ve been reminiscing about all the strange ways I've interacted with plastic bags—cue “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”—how I’d treasure and save the nice ones (i.e. Strand, Manhattan Fruit Market) to reuse for the most special occasions, inadvertently creating a complex plastic bag hierarchy I wasn’t even fully conscious of. Disposing of icky kitchen garbage is for the bags from the supermarket or the bodega, the type with menacing smiles that implore you to have a nice day. The more elite bags—the ones that are smooth, often transparent plastic as opposed to the crinkly, opaque stuff—are reserved for when I’m going away, and need to encase something I’m packing in plastic, or for bringing baked goods to my mom’s apartment.
I think about this invisible plastic bag pecking order, and I feel a deep tenderness. There is so much weirdness in the way that we are required to organize our lives—we form profound relationships with seemingly insignificant objects that we are forced to interact with over and over again. It’s not until something major happens, like the plastic bag ban, that you recognize the major role these little pieces of ephemera have in our lives.
I remember how cool I felt as a teenager, clutching one of those iconic black bags from a liquor store, and later, as a grown-up, moving to Greenpoint and feeling more and more connected with the neighborhood as my kitchen became populated with bags from Busy Bee Food Exchange, Rachel’s (a 24-hour fruit-centric grocery), and Xi’an Famous Foods. The other week, my sister took me to a Peloton class and I felt good after snagging a thick white (i.e. good quality) plastic bag from the locker room, knowing I would give it a good home underneath my sink, and likely repurpose it as a laundry bag for a vacation. Woven together, every plastic bag I acquired in the time before prohibition creates an account of my life in New York City.
Sometimes, you don’t realize you love something until it goes away, and as it turns out, I fucking love plastic bags. I firmly believe that garbage like this—culture so low it’s not even considered culture—can tell you as much (or more) about our world as a novel or a piece of art. Your local grocery store’s plastic bag tells you more about your neighborhood than some shitty hipster mural. The Marvel’s Avengers-branded celery at the supermarket tells you more about the power of film in the early 21st century than an indie movie at your local arthouse cinema. Maybe I believe this because I’m a contrarian at heart, or because I have a sort of Hyper-Capitalist Stockholm Syndrome, but I’m forever struck by the grotesque artistry of movie tie-in fruit snacks, of pharmaceutical commercials, of “disposable” pieces of plastic that are adorned with beautiful flowers that will float around the planet for eternity.
(image via a great New York Times photo essay of plastic bags)
They're the ultimate intersection of culture, marketing, and literal garbage—and so am I.
Long time no talk! Apologies for falling out of touch. What can I say? At the end of last year I fell into a depression and didn’t feel like writing, and I’ve been slowly climbing out of that for the past couple months. I recently quasi-quit social media, logging on as infrequently as humanly possible, only when I need to post a link, and it’s done wonders for my state of mind. Now that I’ve started consistently reading books again, I gotta say all the old ones are sexist as hell. It’s a real bummer! But nevertheless, books are pretty good.
In case you missed it, I wrote a defense of Billy Joel of the upcoming issue of VICE Magazine. Please, read it! It’s a fun one.
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Lots of love,