The Utility Knife of Destiny

Stanley and me

Almost 40 years ago, I purchased a utility knife at a small hardware store in San Francisco. Nearly all hardware stores in the city are small; it’s efficient to have one within walking distance in every neighborhood. Even if you have a car, San Francisco is a parking desert.

I can’t remember exactly why I bought the knife, but I never let it go. It lurked in kitchen junk drawers for years as I moved from apartment to apartment and finally to a house. From time to time it was needed; and it was always there. We grew old and worn together.

But the old days are not the new days. Now the old utility knife rides shotgun in my pocket I never know when I’ll need it. We’re part of the Cardboard Revolution, the two of us. Many of your are. My wife and I still shelter at home; we place orders online, and the world ships them to us. The necessities of the day go plop on our doorstop in brown cardboard boxes. In the distance, someone in a uniform scurries back to a truck for another drop.

Something’s got to cut open all those boxes, and then cut ‘em down for recycling. My old friend Stanley is ready. It’s even handy for deflating packing pillows. Thank goodness those things can be recycled.

And frankly: a good retractable utility knife will handle most of your pocket-knife needs. You need big pockets, but I’ve got them.

I’m all in favor of buying local. But when Korean billionaires buy the local chain of natural food stores… and when the Albertson’s supermarket empire buys our old regional chains… what’s local?

Anymore, everything comes from far away. The profits all go to somewhere far away. Local-owned retail is fast becoming a pretty story, like one-room schoolhouses.

My wife and I play the game for our own benefit. So the WaySafe market that delivers our food keeps running out of stuff we want? Go to the manufacturer!

Biff’s Blue Mill ships us a couple of crates of oatmeal, seeds, and legumes every couple of months for the same price as Waysafe or better, with free shipping. (And Biff’s is an employee-owned company.) I don’t always cut down Biff’s boxes. They’re too good. My wife uses them for storage.

So WaySafe can’t keep the chocolate products we like in stock? We can get that direct, too, from a big chocolate company 100 miles away. Okay, it’s now owned by an international chocolate empire, but the price is the same as retail and the shipping’s free if you buy enough. I like having a small crate of chocolate on the premises. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

Or there’s Bidet and Beyond, who we buy dishes from online. We can get the particular brand we like direct from the maker; but they charge full list and have a high bar for “free shipping.” B&B sells the same dishes at discount with free shipping for relatively small purchases. They want to lose money? That’s their problem.

Let’s not forget Red Bullseye, the general merchandise chain. We’re not in love with their online store but when we need enough general, you know, stuff, to qualify for free shipping, we go there.

They’re odd. Red Bullseye keep my box knife busy. We once placed an order for six objects; it came in five different boxes on three different days. One box contained a single small pack of batteries. And yet all the boxes were shipped from the same address. They do this all the time. How does that even make sense? I found a forum of supply chain guys online and asked them. They were happy to reply:

Me: Why do they do this?

SCGuys: Because it’s too hard to for them compile a full order. They have no good way of keeping the partial order in one place until it’s complete, so they ship the pieces. Say the warehouse has merchandise on tall racks with three levels: ground level, second level (reached by ladders) and third level (reached by power lift). Individual pickers are assigned to one level only. So if you order has items on all three levels, one picker gets any items from the first level and ships them; another picker finds and ships your items from the second level; and so on.

Me: How do they make any money this way?

SCGuys: Making money may not be their goal. They may be trying to earn customer loyalty, or to grow revenue at the cost of profit. Corporations can have many reasons.

Me: Still sounds stupid.

SCGUYS: …..

Red Bullseye is doing a little better, but it still keeps my utility knife way too busy. They’ve wised up and invited third-party vendors onto their site who ship the product on their own, and Bullseye warns you about this. It’s a bit Amazon-like.That’s fine; I’ve started using some of those vendors directly. They’re small-timers who specialize; good people to do business with.

As for Amazon? I stay away. If I need books I call the local bookstore; if they don’t have it — they often don’t — they’ll order from their distributor, who ships direct. So how is that different from buying from Amazon? Well — it’s not Amazon. There are many reasons to dislike or even hate Amazon and someday, someday it will crash like the Hindenburg. I will not cry. There are alternatives to Amazon, and nearly all of them are better and even cheaper. And possibly less evil.

So the big boys play their e-commerce games, and I game their system as best I can; Stanley’s always there to cut up the debris.

But I don’t like our system. I don’t like buying from giant companies who eat their competition, even if I can game them online. They’re gaming me better. All the profits go not to my community, but far, far away into a few pockets that already bulge; my community becomes poorer. I see a future where the players get bigger and bigger and the choices get fewer and fewer.

And I don’t like our global economy and global supply chain which runs so fast and loose that COVID could take the world by storm. You know, just walk in and own the place. I don’t like that my washing machine comes from Italy and the cheap houseware I buy online come from China where the power plants burn coal — the most polluting coal, at that — and belch greenhouse gases with abandon.

I don’t like that fleets of heavily-polluting jetliners carry loads of expensive crap across the globe from thousands of miles away, just because it’s a little cheaper than making it close to home. And few are in a hurry to address those issues because, y’know, that’s money.

You can still buy my Stanley utility knife, by the way — the same model, 40 years on But it’s been made in China for many years.

Joe Biden’s on the pulpit this week talking about the coming climactic catastrophe — and it is coming. We’re not going to head it off. There’s no political will to reign in pollution, because that also means reigning in the entire global network we’ve built for making things as cheaply as possible with no thought to the environment or even the welfare of the American people.

Too many billionaires stand in the way. In our country the right-wingers are too convinced that God is a billionaire, and the Democrats are too owned to redistribute income and tax the rich so that we can fight the problems that they cause. We won’t get there; we’ll be too late with not enough.

Winston Churchill once said about America something along the lines of: you can always count on the United States to do the right thing — when all else has failed.  And we probably will: people tend to wake up when doom stares them directly in the face. But will it be in time to avert huge consequences for billions of people?

Probably not.  There’s way too much to do, and no one or no thing in charge.  Yet.

Somebody once said “Pain is the great teacher of mankind. Under its breath, human souls grow.” We have a lot of teaching coming at us. It’s already begun.

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