I was beginning to think it wasn’t going to happen. After 90 minutes with the Cart Narc, taking part in a “Narc-along” as he patrolled multiple grocery store parking lots on a sweltering July afternoon in Pasadena, California, there had yet to be any devious altercations like the ones that had made his YouTube channel famous.
Sebastian Davis, a boyish 42-year-old better known as “Agent Sebastian” in his Cart Narcs videos, was dressed like he was going to war. He was wrapped in an actual bulletproof vest (a gift sent by one of his many fans—this one a cop in Louisiana), with a red patch reading “CART NARCS” across his chest, just above a strapped-in GoPro. He carried an orange baton, like one an airport worker would use guiding a plane out of its gate. And he was in Nike Free Runs, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice, light up his voice-siren alert (a deliberately obnoxious variation on the buoy-weep that police will use to pull someone over), and deploy his catchphrase: “That’s not where the cart goes!”
But as the sun was beginning to set, his only encounters that day with people who had committed cart offenses—that is, people who hadn’t returned their carts to the designated cart return areas—were cordial affairs: a young woman whose cart wheels had locked on her, the anti-theft mechanism having been inadvertently tripped; an older man wheeling his cart out to the sidewalk to wait for his wife to pick him up. After having consumed a robust amount of the Cart Narc’s more incendiary interactions with what he calls “the lazybones”—exchanges that can be equally fascinating and hilarious, as people argue with him in a manner laced with an intensity that feels legitimately dangerous at times—I was, truthfully, a little disappointed. The dignified side of his beat was not what I most wanted to see.
But then, action struck. “Uh-oh,” Davis said, cutting himself off mid-sentence, turning on the GoPro and dashing across the Vons parking lot. “Classic curbing, two-wheeler,” he said, approaching a middle-aged man who had lodged his cart partially into a planter area, leaning halfway onto the asphalt. “Come on over here, buddy,” Davis said. “Cart return’s right there.” Unmoved, the man started to drive off in his Nissan Maxima, at which point Davis implemented his typical counteroffensive: dropping a magnetic bumper sticker that says “lazybones” onto the car. (There are a few varieties of magnets, including one that says “I don’t return my shopping cart, like a jerk.”) The man rolled down his window, and they began to discuss the disagreement:
Man: “Take that shit off.”
Davis: “Well, you left your cart blocking the pathway.”
Man: “Take it off.”
Davis: “Will you move your cart?”
Man: “Take it off.”
Davis: “Move your cart.”
At this point, the man peeled off in a huff.
Soon after, more action. This time, the cart was left in a walkway next to the accessible parking spaces (and only a few steps from the actual cart return), and, as Davis scampered over, the cart-abandoner said, “I have asthma” as she got into the passenger seat of a vehicle. “You walked pretty darn far to have asthma,” Davis replied. The woman said she was recently in the hospital: “Do you want what I have right now?” she snapped, suddenly coughing, “because I’ll give it to you happily.” A second woman in the car then flashed a previously unseen parking placard and said, “You don’t know who you’re fucking speaking to, so fuck off.” Davis placed a lazybones magnet on the hood of their car, gently, like a teacher handing back an exam paper with a big, red “F” on it. “I know I’m speaking to a couple lazybones, actually.”
Since 2018, when the early version of Cart Narcs launched, a common refrain uttered by alleged lazybones is to suggest that Davis “get a real job”—at which point he will invariably tell them, “This is a real job.” He’s not lying. The Cart Narcs YouTube page has over half a million subscribers—these are his beloved “Narcateers,” as he calls them—and the videos are broadly spread on all major social media platforms, especially Facebook, TikTok, and Reddit, always with some degree of inspired debate in the comments.
But even in a more traditional sense than most YouTubers, this is Davis’s job. He’s a creative producer at The Woody Show, a popular, widely syndicated morning comedy show that’s under the umbrella of radio behemoth iHeartMedia, which in turn owns the Cart Narcs intellectual property. The ad revenue that comes in through monetizing the videos goes to Davis, who says it is used to cover expenses. For his overall work with iHeartMedia, Davis is paid a healthy salary, which he describes as being six figures. Some people clock in and send emails all day. Davis clocks in and becomes the Cart Narc.
Here’s how it works: Several afternoons a week, Davis will put aside his other responsibilities at The Woody Show and head out to film. Most of his videos are shot in the Los Angeles area, where he lives, but he brings his Cart Narcs gear with him when he travels—occasionally he’ll book a trip to some exotic location, like Australia or Japan, just to shake things up. “I’ll drive from Boston to New York and stop every half hour in some little town,” he told me.
The ideal parking lot is one in which there are plenty of cart return areas, he explained. “Zero excuses not to put the cart away, essentially,” Davis said. “That’s what I’m looking for.” In the lot, he’s developed a sixth sense for what to watch—and listen—for. “Oftentimes, you’ll hear it before you’ll see it,” he said. “The jingle-jangle.” Davis said the tell for whether someone is going to return their cart can be read “all in [their] first step.” “If their head is up, and they’re looking around,” he elaborated, “and they’re going somewhere purposefully, they’re looking for the right place to put it.”
According to Davis, roughly 50 percent of people that he calls out for not returning their cart will simply put it back—no harm, no foul. Twenty-five percent will ignore him. And then that last 25 percent will quarrel in some way, disagreeing with his logic, his methods, or both. This combative group is where the money shots come from—people seething, bickering, bartering, threatening. He’s had drinks thrown at him, he’s been chased around. In Texas, he’s had guns pulled on him or flashed at him. “I’m a killer,” said one Texan in 2020, “and I’m fixin’ to put my six right in your forehead.”
During the Narc-along, after the driver of the Maxima burned a little rubber on his way out, I realized that my adrenaline was running. I asked Davis whether he still got a rush out of these exchanges, having been through them hundreds of times. “Not anymore, no,” he said. “It’s like the Matrix, where it’s all slow motion to me. … I enjoy the nuances of it—I was talking about the differences—but the general beats are all the same. They’re variations on the same lazy symphony.”
The idea for Cart Narcs came out of a casual conversation at the Woody Show office about little annoyances committed by others, and Davis didn’t expect the project to be much of anything at first. But with each new video, he added a few notes to the music sheet, and eventually the lazy symphony was being performed on computers and phones across the world. From a glance at the comments sections, the success of Cart Narcs can partially be attributed to its ability to tap into a well of frustration that many have with the perceived selfishness of those they live among. Usually in life, that frustration is abstract, or fueled by l’esprit de l’escalier—a feeling of mourning what you didn’t or couldn’t say. But here the resentment manifests itself in the form of a literal agent, enforcing a concrete moral scenario on which most seem to agree: Even if you’re not required to, you should probably put your shopping cart back.
“I think Cart Narcs has taken off because it’s just such a great study in the human condition,” Renae Ravey, a cohost on The Woody Show, told me over the phone. “Something as simple as putting a cart in a cart corral, and you get busted not doing it, and your immediate response is you want to beat this guy to death because he’s caught you. … I think that’s why people gravitate towards it.” Ravey thought about it for a beat and laughed. “And I mean, there’s always going to be that group that just like seeing people get confronted and pissed off.”
Sebastian Davis goes by many names. To his family, he’s “Garrett,” which is his middle name, and starting in college, his fraternity brothers started calling him “Sebas,” in reference to the Dumb and Dumber character—as in, “Kick his ass, Sea Bass!”—and that name has stuck on The Woody Show. “Davis” itself is also a stage name, which is a shortening of his full, hyphenated last name.
“I’m used to bossing people around,” Davis’s mother, Karen, told me, poking fun at the meme that her name has become. She and her husband, a tax attorney, decided to homeschool their kids until high school, partially due to the fact that Karen despised school growing up. Sebastian, who is the oldest of four, noted that he was raised in a “a chore-intensive household,” and described a dynamic in which he and his siblings would have to pick up others’ trash before heading home from places like the park.
“I ruled those kids with an iron fist,” Karen said. “I’m not saying I was abusive to them, but with four kids, you have to just keep things in line. They can’t start getting away with stuff.” Karen remembers that it was routine for people to come up to their table at restaurants and compliment her kids’ good behavior.
Sebastian seems to have taken after Karen in certain ways. They both pursued STEM programs in college—Karen studied nursing and Sebastian studied chemical engineering—but were compelled to keep a foot in the humanities: Karen learned Latin and Sebastian took an internship at a radio station. She and her son also share a dislike of those who expect others to clean up after them.
Karen told me a story of when she worked at a dining hall in college. Students were expected to bring their trays back to a return area, but they were getting worse about adhering to the system, and one day she approached a group and asked them to bus their tables. “They were just going to leave their trays on the tables for us to clean up, which is not really our job,” she remembered, clearly still irritated decades later. She said that one of the girls then pounced on her, beating Karen badly enough to send her to the hospital. (I later asked Sebastian whether this story may have been a Batman-esque origin story for Cart Narcs, but he learned about the story himself only after the channel started.)
In high school, Davis worked at a grocery store—yes, wrangling carts, among other tasks. (“Fun job,” he said, sincerely.) After college, he worked as an engineer in Atlanta for a few years, but continued to moonlight in radio. In 2015, he got the job at The Woody Show and packed his things for L.A. The show’s host, Woody Fife, picked him up at the airport and they went straight to a comic book convention, where Davis did man-on-the-street type interviews.
The slogan of The Woody Show is “Insensitivity training for a politically correct world,” and it can reasonably be described as a fairly conservative show. (A recurring segment is called “Redneck News.”) Davis said his personal politics lean more on the “independent-slash-libertarian” side of things, and that he and the cohosts don’t always align on politics. “I don’t use the word ‘family’ like Fast & Furious,” he said. “I mean it like ‘brothers and sisters who you can argue with in a fun way.’”
Davis’s main beat in the early years was straight-laced interviews with oddball characters, often with the attempt to make fun of his subjects. One of his ongoing series, for instance, is called “Trolling With Sebas,” and probably his most popular non–Cart Narc series is “Who Paid for Your Coachella Ticket?” in which he seems to take particular joy in finding the adults at the festival who will admit that their parents paid their way. (Another subtle question he asked in the 2018 edition: “Who paid for your boobs?”)
Trolling may be the name of the game in other contexts, but at least when it comes to Cart Narcs, Davis doesn’t think the term fits. “I’m not the Merriam-Webster over here, but to me, a troll is someone who agitates someone simply for the sake of the agitation,” he considered. Cart Narcs, as he sees it, has a point: “You could argue it’s a good use of social media,” he said. “I hate the term ‘influencer,’ ’cause it doesn’t mean anything—but this, you’re influencing decent behavior, hopefully. … It’s a weird subgenre of practical comedy with a good message.”
It’s surprisingly clear when shopping cart etiquette became a modern lightning-rod test of moral character. In May 2020—at the beginning of the pandemic, as people were fiercely debating what they owed to their fellow citizens—an image of a 4chan post titled “The Shopping Cart Theory” went viral. The post explains in clinical, unwavering terms the massive stakes of this simple task: “The shopping cart is the ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing,” it reads. “A person who is unable to [return the cart] is no better than an animal.” Google Trends shows “Shopping Cart Theory” searches skyrocketing at the same point that “Cart Narcs” searches really began to take off.
It may be an “ultimate litmus test” to many now, but in the decades after the shopping cart was invented by Sylvan Goldman in 1936, it did not appear cart etiquette was much of an issue. Judging by archival photos, anyway, American grocery store parking lots through at least the 1950s did not appear to have cart corral areas, meaning that people were expected to return the carts to the front of the store, if an employee didn’t walk out with them. (Lazybones, of course, still existed in this era as well.) It was only in the 1970s, as supermarkets and their parking lots ballooned in size, that corrals seem to have become common—a “meet you halfway” gesture by the store. (Or a way to break down the expectation that an employee would bring your groceries to your car for you.) It’s become common in other countries to use a coin-deposit system to motivate shoppers to return their carts, but, aside from a few chains like Aldi, American supermarkets have left cart-returning to the honor system. This was probably a mistake.
The Cart Narc has an “old-person exemption” that he applies on a judgment basis, and he also refrains from busting people with dogs and young children. (While he believes that able-bodied adults should return their carts even with their hands full, he doesn’t want to get innocent children and dogs involved.) If you have a clear disability, it seems Davis will use his judgment to decide to give you a pass as well—but having a parking placard alone is not enough for him: “A lot of people I bust are using a friend’s placard or family member’s placard,” he reasoned. “They walked all around the store, loaded a full basket of groceries, and then suddenly, ‘Oh!’”
A common argument you’ll hear in Cart Narc videos from an accused lazybones is that it’s someone’s job to wrangle the carts. That may be so, but clearly the corrals are there to be used. And if no one returned their carts, it would be pure chaos in the parking lots, causing problems for disabled customers and serving as potential hazards for cars. (I emailed 10 grocery store chains to ask whether, as a matter of policy, they would like their customers to use the corrals when possible, and none responded. But a brief survey of employees at three different Los Angeles–area supermarkets was unanimous: If you can, put your shopping cart in the corral, they said; it’s not a huge deal, but they don’t want to pick up after you.)
So the Cart Narc appears to be in the right on the principle of whether taking your cart back is the right thing to do, if you’re able. This is the same ruling that Michael Schur, creator of the Emmy-nominated sitcom The Good Place, came to in his recent book, How to Be Perfect, a sugarcoated guide to assessing the world through the lens of various moral schools of thought. On the subject of the shopping cart dilemma, Schur believes that it’s best philosophically solved by considering the concept of ubuntu, a southern African belief that might be summed up by the phrase “I am, because we are.” Using the ubuntu mindset, Schur writes, we should put our shopping cart back “because it helps other people, and we are only people through other people.”
But how does this righteousness become complicated when you add in the fact that the Cart Narc is shaming other people to do the right thing? And more than that, what about the fact that he’s also antagonizing them on camera in order to amuse people on the internet?
In a vacuum, Schur believes that shame is not as bad as it sounds. “Some amount of shame is good,” he told me, “because if you are shameless—entirely shameless—and you’re incapable of feeling shame, then you’re Donald Trump; you just do whatever you want, and there’s no feedback from society that tells you that you’re on the wrong path or that you’re misbehaving in some way.” Extrapolating from there, he considered, “That must mean there is some amount of shame that it’s OK to make other people feel in certain situations.”
Still, when you add the YouTube element, Schur believes that the Cart Narc is somewhat in the wrong: “It’s a slightly unfair fight to use a person just going about their day—you don’t know what’s going on in their life, you don’t know what kind of people they are,” he said. “And you’re kind of preying on the fact that they weren’t expecting to be ambushed by a film crew, and then capturing their adrenaline-fueled response to being filmed in that moment.”
The Cart Narc has a tendency to irk even those who agree with his principles; generally speaking, narcing is not something that is widely supported. But one defense of the Cart Narc that can’t be denied, whether you like him or not, is that he does seem to have influenced a good number of people to become passionate about the issue of being courteous. And while some lazybones busted by him may double down, the overall impact has to be considered if it outweighs the negative. “I think the ratio is definitely in my favor as far as that stuff goes,” Davis said. “The positive leverage of social media for Cart Narcs is that one person’s screwup can be an inspiration for however many other people who watched the video.”
In the Cart Narcs video when Davis goes to Japan, there’s no one for him to bust; at the Costco in Chiba, all the carts were neatly in the return areas. So, without much to do, he begins an impression of fellow first-person documentarian John Wilson (of HBO’s How to With John Wilson). That impression made me realize that Cart Narcs shares a certain quality with shows like How to or Nathan for You: It offers a glimpse at some of the more bizarre and amusing people on the planet—people whom you would usually never do anything to other than pass in the parking lot.
Davis avoids cursing and narrates the videos in his radio-friendly voice as if everyone is his pupil, so it makes sense that he sees parallels between Cart Narcs and stories for kids: “These are little Aesop’s Fables,” Davis said. “Little stories about good and bad. This is Goofus and Gallant from Highlights for Children. These are little moral tales, but told with real people in a silly way. So it’s the same reason everyone always has loved stories, since the beginning of time. It’s that we see ourselves in these people, good and bad.”
But tucking Cart Narcs away in any traditional genre still feels like it’s missing something, too. It doesn’t capture the rawness, the absurdity, the repetition, the brutality. Maybe more than anything, its genre can be understood only as “YouTube”—as part of the media organism that has reshaped the world by finding ways to give us unadulterated, compressed versions of what we seem to crave, even without us being able to describe why we crave it.
In his new documentary, The YouTube Effect, Alex Winter looks at the history of the platform and sees something that began with a video of the cofounder looking at elephants at the zoo and has resulted in people climbing up the walls of Congress. (Winter’s 2020 documentary Showbiz Kids was produced by Ringer Films.) Algorithmic echo chambers have developed into what Winter calls the Rage-O-Sphere—a media ecosystem built by and for the modern viewer’s insatiable desire to be riled up. When I called Winter, I expected him to be wary of Cart Narcs for the way that it feeds into this. But he actually saw it the other way around.
“I think he’s taken the Rage-O-Sphere,” Winter said, “and just shows it for the utter inanity that it is—that anyone can get absolutely enraged about anything, no matter how stupid.”
Winter, a father of three boys, conceded that his “tolerance for that kind of influencer is very low.” But, he said, “[Davis is] really talented. He has a deft ability to lure people into extended sequences, real-time sequences—that takes talent. And when someone comes along and does that, well, you really can’t help but laugh your ass off.”
Davis seems to enjoy being the Cart Narc—to a point. “I do get kind of like, ‘Ugh, OK, more carts,’ that sort of thing,” he said. “I just don’t have the appetite to do it full-time.” He’s described the Cart Narc beat as tapping into a bleak part of society that he simply doesn’t want to live in. “To see it time and time again …” he said, trailing off. He mentioned his trip to Japan. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Not everyone wants the channel to go on forever, anyway. Ravey, Davis’s Woody Show colleague, told me that the longer it goes on, the less she likes it. “Because I find my concern for Sebas’s safety outweighs anything that would come back from the segment,” she said. “I don’t want to be the radio show that’s gotten somebody killed for a bit in a parking lot.”
But how could Davis quit? During my Narc-along, grocery store employees—the type of workers who have to undertake endless, thankless tasks with a “customer is always right” mentality—came flocking out to meet him like he was the working-class pope. They took selfies, they chatted about their shifts. It would be difficult to make any argument against Davis while this was happening. “I mean, we want to yell at people, too,” a Vons employee named Eric told me, sitting on the curb, taking his break.
There was also a steady stream of shoppers who approached him throughout the afternoon, more than one of whom said something to the effect of “You’re doing God’s work over here.” Most of these people were old enough to do their own shopping, but at one point a kid—maybe 14 or so—stopped his mom as they were heading toward their car. “Yooooo, are you guys the Cart Narcs?” he asked, thinking that I, too, must have been an agent. “Can we take a selfie? I’ve seen all your videos.” Davis posed for the picture, and told the kid’s mom, “Glad you’re raising a good kid who takes his carts back.” She seemed very confused.
A few moments later, I saw the kid pushing his cart back to a corral, so I gave him a smile and a thumbs-up. With a stern look—pure honor and duty personified—he pointed his thumb back up to me. To him, there was nothing funny about it.
Nate Rogers is a writer in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, GQ, and elsewhere.