Sunday, October 4, 2009


The scraps of cardboard spill across my dining room table, a jumble of ragged edges and neon colors. We lost our boxtop/soup label coordinator part-way through last year, have had a hard time finding a replacement, and the coupons have been piling up.

We've never made a big effort to collect boxtop or soup label coupons. But these programs have a life of their own. Kids bring coupons from home. People in the surrounding neighborhoods stop by and drop them off. Employees in some unnamed department at one of Charlotte's banks mail them to us once a month or so (since our coordinator moved on, I haven't really kept track).

So here I sit, sorting through the pile, separating the expired coupons from those that are still good. Some are a pleasing size, about an inch and a half wide, easy to hold and read. Others are almost impossible to decipher – tiny, with blurry print. I peer down below my glasses and squint to make out the microscopic dates.

Why am I doing this? I wonder. Is the check we'll eventually get really worth the effort?

The bank employees, for example. They take the trouble to cut out coupons and bring them to work. Someone there collects them, puts them in an envelope, and writes our address on it. It then goes to the mailroom, where it's weighed and gets the proper postage. If there are bottle caps, the postage can top a dollar.

After the coupons reach us, someone sorts them again, counts them out into bundles of 50, and then spends more time and money packing and mailing them. In the process, some expire. During the three years or so that we've been getting coupons from the bank, all that work has probably added up to less than $100. Wouldn't it be simpler for everyone if the employees just sent a check every now and then?

But there is also something very real about these remnants of our corporate-driven economy, parted from the products that they once adorned. The cardboard ones feel stiff. Those printed on metallic paper shine. Those cut from plastic bags curl into miniature rolls. Most important, someone cut each one out, and took the trouble to get it to us.

One group of coupons, snipped and bundled, has a note. The donor has written down the number of each kind of coupon, calculated the value of one set ($12.90), and cautioned us that five of them will expire at the end of the year. A handful of ripped ones have been neatly taped together.

The writing looks like an older woman's. I imagine a pair of hands snipping, sorting, counting, just as I am doing now. Clipping boxtop coupons isn't exactly a tradition like weaving, or basket-making, or growing roses. But still, somehow, I feel the slim threads of connection.

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