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A person carrying a white American Apparel tote bag and skateboard. Photo: Onnie A. Koski/Getty Images

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You Need Three Tote Bags, Max

It’s time to ditch the rest.

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You need three tote bags, max. And I’m not just talking to a person named Max. I’m talking to all of you. You need three tote bags at most. I’ve already lost friends over this, but this is the pile of upcycled canvas I’m willing to die on.

Up until this month, I was like you. I had a tote bag, pregnant with five other tote bags, hanging off of every doorknob in my apartment. And I have A LOT of doorknobs, because I am very successful, financially and professionally, and I hold a stable part-time job. Just kidding! I have exactly the amount of doorknobs you’d expect for a 25-year-old freelancer/receptionist who is also getting a degree in fiction writing for reasons that I’m having a hard time justifying to myself anymore. I was just telling you I was a big hit to impress you.

And that’s why I kept my tote bags around for so long, too. To impress you. And to impress this incorrigible Max guy. That’s why you and I hoard these tote bags. To prove we’ve been somewhere cool (“cool”), like a San Pellegrino event in a garage in Chelsea with cast members from Pretty Little Liars. Or to prove we’ve done something impressive, like read a whole issue of the New Yorker. I’ve done both approximately once, and yet I’ve kept the insignia tote bag around for years, pretending it’s my norm.

Tote bags are usually free, but in the socio-political matrix, they’re just as loaded as carrying an It Bag. Ask me to name one It Bag, and I can’t. I have exactly one nice bag, a black Mansur Gavriel bucket bag, and it’s ruined with pens and facial oils. But I never felt I needed an It Bag when I had all my totes with me because I was able to prove my imagined status to people by proving that I Shop Small and also that I go to Whole Foods and also I went to Storm King three years ago and I went to McNally Jackson and I went to Powell’s and I donated to NPR with my mom’s credit card in high school. Tote bags made me feel like I wasn’t a materialist, and yet I had 50 of them. I am now strong enough to be a snob on my own, and you are, too. Promise.

I had a tote bag with a pair of boobs on it, and I liked to walk around my stodgy Upper West Side neighborhood, emboldened by my tote. I’m really not cool enough to be walking around with a pair of boobs at my side. And the truth is, if you’re carrying a tote bag around that’s cooler than you are, you will be found out. Always.

An anecdote about a T-shirt and not about a tote bag, but I’m hoping that you’ll understand the parallels: When I was 10, a friend’s cool older nanny was getting rid of some clothes and gave me a T-shirt with Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara silkscreened onto it. My family was on vacation at Yosemite National Park as part of our collective family objective of staying at every single historic National Park Great Lodge in America. It was this whole thing my mom made us do that we all hated.

Anyway, at the historic and haunted Ahwahnee Hotel, my sister and I were grabbing Italian sodas (remember the early 2000s?) at a coffee kiosk in the hotel. The barista, in my memory, was a cool, hot, young political activist guy paying his way through his philosophy PhD, probably.

He handed me the strawberry soda and said, “Hey, pretty cool shirt you got there.”

And I said, “Thanks.”

And he said, “Do you know who that is on your shirt?”

And if I had not been a 10-year-old, I probably wouldn’t have felt the need to prove or justify to a strange man that I knew the origins of my T-shirt.

But I was 10, so I said, “...No,” and then walked away and spilled my soda and then I was too embarrassed to go back and ask for a new one.

It’s like that, but with tote bags. Ask me what “asana” means and I couldn’t (and wouldn’t, at this point) tell you, but I still owned and operated four different Lululemon tote bags, free with purchase.

This is why you need three bags, max. I purged mine, ensuring the ones I kept are plain enough that they’ll draw little negative press my way, or ensuring that they’re advertising a product I can stand behind. One tote bag I kept from Flying Tiger says, “Blue is my favourite color.” in red writing. The other is an Outdoor Voices tote bag whose strap length is sufficient and its innards sturdy. The third is a non-descript wide canvas tote from Madewell that I got for free.

They do the job. If one’s occupied with work stuff, you can use the second for the gym (or the park or whatever. I’m not here to tell you how to live your life, except with tote bags), and the third to use as a purse and to haul stuff from CVS. You don’t need any more tote bags than this.

You should only be buying enough groceries to fit in three bags. Any more groceries, and you will have too much food in your refrigerator. You will throw moldy strawberries out and say better luck next time over their shriveled bodies in the trash, and you will never try the new brand of almond milk a homeopathic doctor told you would cure you of all heavy metals in your body before it expires.

I understand there are some caveats: Some people have families, and they need more than three tote bags of groceries. Counterpoint: Do you? Just take the kids to a drive-thru Pizza Hut. I ate a lot of Pizza Hut buffet growing up, and here I am, alive and thriving in an online women’s space. I know who Che Guevara is now, kind of, I’m only slightly weighed down by heavy metals, and I’m not at all weighed down by tote bags.

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