Lost Journal: What’s with the White Plastic Bags on Disabled Cars?

By Tim Mollen

Journal Entry: August 4, 2006 (age 37)

Today, my wife, Amanda, and I drove 300 miles to attend a family reunion in Fairlee, Vermont.  To be more exact, we drove 255 miles before breaking down on Interstate 91.  A loud RAP-RAP-RAP-RAP sound was followed by billows of foul smoke, forcing us to pull over.

As we sat in our disabled vehicle, a hundred thoughts raced through my brain.  Who in my family will want to leave the resort’s welcome barbeque to come pick us up? Will they bring us hot dogs?  Will the hot dogs plump when you cook ‘em?  Who do we call for a tow?  How are we going to get the car back to Binghamton?  Where is the nearest restroom?  But one question towered above the others:

Where are we going to get a white plastic bag to stick halfway out of one of the car windows?

I have never known exactly what a white plastic bag is supposed to signify, but the fact that every disabled vehicle I’ve ever seen has had one indicated that we should get one now.  Perhaps I could flag down someone headed home from the grocery store, and ask them to empty out a sack of sundries.  Or maybe I could get a white T-shirt from my luggage and use it as a white-plastic-bag-lookalike. Would that count?

In my head, I reviewed all the past theories I have come up with regarding the ubiquitous, white plastic bag.  Do most drivers carry a stash of them in their glove compartments in case of emergency?  If so, what do they hope to communicate to passing traffic?  (“Hey everybody – this empty car is only parked here on the side of a busy interstate until I work enough overtime to pay for a new carburetor.”)  Is the bag placed as a symbol of surrender to the Fates, admitting to the divine puppeteers of the Universe that yes, we know we should have signed up for AAA?

Or perhaps the bags are placed by people other than the drivers of the cars.  Do tow truck drivers use them to “claim” cars that they will be back to pick up after they go get a bucket of mackerel at Long John Silver’s?  Do gang members use them as “tag bags,” claiming the vehicle for their boyz?  Are public relations personnel from the Hefty Corporation tapping a new marketing niche?

The gravity of my current situation caused me to think in even more creative terms. Could it be that an abandoned car gets lonely?  If so, the rear and side airbags might seize the opportunity offered by their newfound privacy and mate – producing small, white plastic offspring.  The baby air bag would then do its best to escape the vehicle and, presumably, go for help.  I explained this theory to Amanda, and she looked at me with genuine concern.  “I know we didn’t hit anything, but could you have gotten a concussion?”

Just then a passing tow truck driver pulled over to help us.  How he found us without a white plastic bag in our window, I’ll never know.

Tim Mollen
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