I am wearing my father’s faded olive drab fatigue shirt from Vietnam. He died five years and fifteen hours ago on the Austin Blue Line “El” platform by cardiac arrest. The platform is four blocks from the home I was sleeping in at the time, he was waiting for the train to work. Like today here in Minnesota, a heavy snowfall had summoned itself upon. My dad had heart problems and trudging through the snow to the “El” was just too much.

Nine days before, I was in Bangkok, Thailand awaiting a plane home after three months of living. I was tan and more skinny than usual and all the wind in my sails was carrying me back to America a changed man. I was strong and alive and waning indifference toward all the apathy and sorrow I had felt my whole life. I was secure and proud.

It isn’t often in life when a soul can resonate purity. True to told panache ambiance that radiates, reverberates, ripples rolling “r”s like a pirate. Awesome. I was that.

Then the phone call came and the police at the door and the hospital waiting room. My sail wilted and I felt all the tears.

Now is a different story.

Now is a story of my life and it is sad too, but it is still life.

I am wearing my father’s olive drab fatigue shirt from Vietnam. It is covered in splotches of red and white paint. I am also wearing his dog tags and two keys that remain on the chain. Also, I am wearing an oval crucifix that says on the back,

”I am a Catholic, please call a priest,”

I had to untangle the chains, which took me a spell of logistics, but I’m wearing them now and they feel heavy and greasy with jungle juice and old. SE Asia was different for my father. It was different for me.

Paper bags are bags made of paper. The most common is a brown grocery bag that sometimes has handles. They are robust and large. People in America use these paper bags to carry groceries and then an infinite number of uses. Perhaps they will use them to store garbage, or recycling or anything they need to carry somewhere else. Sometimes people who drink on the street will use a paper bag to conceal the bottle they are drinking from so the authorities won’t hassle them. Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines.

A curious thing has happened in recent years. Paper bags have become decorated and replace wrapping paper to conceal gifts. This is very clever. One can give a gift in a paper bag, and then the bag can be reused! Wow.

I’m about to listen to Ma Vlast. Hold on to my feeling.

I havn’t yet mentioned my affection for Spanish Red wine, which I am drinking right now. The girls at the liquor store always put my red wine in paper bags with cardboard splices so the bottles don’t clink together.

I also have a place in Chicago where I go to get Pizza Puffs, Chicago Style Hot Dogs, wet Italian Beefs, Gyros and these paper bags are white and soak up all the seeped thru grease. They become transparent. Good ol’ paper bags.

You know what a paper bag is.

When my father died, just before my mom and I got in the cab home from the hospital, an orderly brought me two paper bags.

”Wassthis?” I asked.

”Your father’s possessions.” The nice lady said, handing me two brown paper grocery bags.

Inside were his clothes, his wallet and his wedding ring.


It looked like it took a fall, the fall of his death. Like they had to pry it off his finger. I rolled the ring around on the tips of my fingers like...

The dog has to go out. I’ll be back in a moment, which is all we have.

I used to take the old brown paper shopping bags and make masks out of them, but the eyes were always too far apart so I couldn’t see.

So for a long time, the bags of his possessions rested where I left them, in the closet of the back room. I passed them upon time after time and only longed to dig through the pockets, but I didn’t dare. Until.

One day I emptied the bags onto the floor and hung his shirt and pants on a hanger. I took the tie he wore that day and draped it around my neck. Then, I took the paper bags and crumpled them up small and put them in the trash.

I sighed and waned and felt myself stand, calling the wind back. Today was that day.

"Paper or plastic?"

Bags, of course.

The paper bag that we run into all the time these days in the average grocery store (or under our sinks, in our closets, etc. from our last trip there) dates back, in its present form, to the mid-1800s. Although paper has been used for packaging for hundreds of years, prior to around 1750 or so it was in fact an ostentation, as paper was manufactured mostly by hand and used primarily for writing on. Wrapping something in paper, or forming a container out of it, would be somewhat akin to having a nice cashmere bag today - you generally wouldn't provide those for free with purchase.

In any case, up until 1870, mass-produced paper bags looked much like envelopes, with folded-over structure and flat edges/sides. Although flat-bottomed paper bags existed, they were difficult to make, requiring manual labor. In 1870, a woman named Margaret E. Knight patented a machine (which she'd invented in 1867) which could fold and glue paper so as to produce a bag with a flat bottom. The mass-produced paper bag was now useful for actually carrying object of some weight and volume. That machine is now the property of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C.

By 2001, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 767 firms in the U.S. involved in the manufacture of paper bags and treated paper, with a total payroll of over $2 billion. According to the American Forest & Paper Association (which appears to be a paper industry group), paper grocery bags come made from paper of 25 to 70-lb weight, capable of holding between 2 and 25 lbs. of cargo.

A single company, the Union Bag and Paper Company, of Georgia (U.S.), produces over 35,000,000 paper bags per day. That's a hell of a lot. There is an ongoing debate, fiercely fought, between proponents of paper and plastic bags, both of whom are reviled by those who feel shoppers should tote reusable cloth bags. Although evidence seems to indicate that paper bags cost more energy per bag to manufacture(it's hard to wade through competing advocacy group statistics), there is one big point in paper's favor: unlike plastic bags, paper bags are biodegradable, being made of out not much more than wood pulp and some glue. Plastic bags tend to stick around, causing an enormous percentage of litter-based pollution. Also in paper's favor is that it is a renewable resource (if slowly). Paper is made from cheap, soft wood, which grows faster than other wood crop. Plastic, on the other hands, comes from petrochemicals (snooty word for oil, brother) which, as we all should know, probably aren't renewable.

Paper bags are useful for all manner of things, of course! Besides just carrying things home, you can have all kinds of fun with them. Light enough paper bags can be made into hot-air balloons (if you're really, really careful!). Paper bags can be blown up and burst to surprise the unwary! They can be used as insulting cliches ("You couldn't think your way out of a wet paper bag!"). Upside down and placed on one's head, they make excellent costumes, as they can be drawn upon. In a chilly emergency, you can burn them for warmth with little worry about toxic fumes (unless they're plastic-coated, of course). Unlike plastic bags, they fold neatly (assuming they're not damaged) and can be stored flat. Wrapped around a bottle of hooch, they can protect you from the po-po while advertising one's sleaze factor! Opened, lying on their sides, they provide excellent pet toys.

So next time you're in the grocery store, pick up a few.

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