The Charmin Drops at Midnight

We made it through the worst of the pandemic without getting sick and without exhausting our stockpile of toilet paper. It sounds trite, but it feels like a pretty big accomplishment—the toilet paper win, not the part about minding science and not putting everyone at risk like a selfish moron.

In the early weeks of the pandemic toilet paper shortage was savage. I live in a house with one other human who is also a grown-up. Walking into a “Tyler used our last three remaining roles to flood the toilet and now we are absolutely going to have to move” situation was never in question. I thought I’d remain calm and level-headed while the hunt for bath tissue ignited as if it were a subplot in National Treasure. Reader: I did not.

Some mornings my study looked like one of those crime lab rooms: images of toilet paper brands tacked to the wall over maps of area grocery and big box stores, little arms of multi-colored pieces of yarn tagging the connections between product and location. The other grown-up would lean against the doorway, surveying the scene with a scribble of concerned lines etched into his forehead. I’d be hunched over my laptop muttering, “I just saw a tweet from TPRainKing99 with intel that a shipment of the sweet, sweet double-ply is en route to Hartford. If I left in an hour and diapered up….” And that’s when the other grown-up would carefully and quietly back away as if he had just come upon a grizzly mama with her cubs and delicate extraction was all that stood between him and catastrophe. The other grown-up is smart.

Irrational or not (what did I really think was going to happen? I’d have to break into my precious stash of Golden Girl-themed cocktail napkins?), the anxiety fever felt real. I know I ended up paying designer prices for a 12-pack of some brand I had never heard of—Organi-Sheets or Soft-n-Sweet or MegaWipe—simply because it would arrive within the week and not in time for the holidays as was the case with all the other familiar name brands (I will carry this grudge against Scott Tissue to my ever-lovin GRAVE). I know I wasn’t the only one. Judge if you must, but those were scary times. The only people who had remotely prepared us for such scenarios were Stephen King, Suzanne Collins of The Hunger Games fame, and Will Smith in I Am Legend. For a few weeks at least it felt like any and every scenario was in play: states could close their borders, the water supply could get compromised, energy grids could collapse. Anyone who has had the grim experience of watching a youth unable to access her technology for more than 15 minutes can testify that power loss is a very, very bad thing. Making sure the closet was snug with bath tissue was the smallest way to achieve some peace of mind and a modicum of control, both which went MIA the second quarantine mandates went into place.

There was another way to increase your supply to meet household demand (again, even if that household contained one other human grown-up who passionately believed that Timberlands “go” with dress pants and, so, was not exactly what you’d call discerning). But it made trying to kidnap the Pope seem like a breeze in comparison. You could try your luck in the newly formed wild, weird frontiers of the jungle that was the grocery store.  

Because I was relatively low risk I couldn’t justify jockeying for a precious Instacart or putting further stress on essential workers running around gathering orders for curbside deliveries. I would rise at dawn like a warrior (To be clear: If I were an actual warrior, I’d sleep in and get going with wrath and vengeance stuff at a sensible brunch-like hour. They would never see it coming). I’d roll up to the supermarket as the “golden hour” for seniors and at-risk people ended, and “once more unto the breach” I went.

In an effort to minimize my existential grocery store dread, I started making my list in relation to the layout of the store. This would shave off precious minutes where I’d have to be inside, silently freaking out behind my stuffy mask about all the things I’d be forced to touch and handle. It felt a little like I was pulling off a heist, except the rewards were escaping hospitalization and realizing that I had just spent $6.50 on a package of generic brand Oreos.

During one trip to the store in that first month of the pandemic, I was gliding up and down the newly adjusted one-way aisles as smoothly as an Olympic skater entering into the final combination of her program, when I came to the top of the paper product aisle and stopped. There it was. A thing of rare majesty, like Loch Ness, Big Foot, Yeti, and a unicorn all combined into one mythical creature: toilet paper. I blinked. Was I dreaming? Had I fallen into a wormhole somewhere in the pasta aisle and emerged in 2015? Was this a trap? As if in a trance, I started to roll my cart forward and stopped again.

A woman stood a few feet in front of me. In this brave new grocery world, I had to wait for her to clear a safe distance. No problem. Happy to play my part even if it meant ruining my personal best supermarket cannon ball run. My patience and goodwill slowly evaporated into volcanic rage as I watched her take her sweet-ass time inspecting the packages of bath tissue. She picked up an 8-pack, turned it this way and that (was it made from something other than liquified pulp substances?), and gave it a little squeeze. She held it another few seconds, considering it again as if it were one of those Magic 8-Balls: Will I have comfort on “the go” today Magic 8-Ball? Ask again later. She goosed it again. And then she did something which, to this day I believe should have been grounds for immediate citizen’s arrest. She put the damn package BACK ON THE SHELF.

Okay, this was not the Holy Grail of Charmin or Cottonelle, Tiffany, I get it, I do. But, what, YOU THINK YOU’RE TOO GOOD FOR TOILET PAPER SITTING OUT ON THE STORE SHELF LIKE A GIFT FROM GOD HERSELF? HOW DARE YOU, TIFFANY! WHAT KIND OF BEST PANDEMIC LIFE ARE YOU LIVING THAT GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO BE A DISCERNING SHOPPER AND NOT LIKE THE REST OF US FIGHTING OVER SINGLE-PLY LIKE A BUNCH OF GRIMY, FERAL ORPHANS IN A CHARLES DICKENS NOVEL?

I stood there for a good 15 seconds after she had wandered away down the aisle. Must be nice, Tiffany, I muttered enviously into my damp mask as I took my allotted one package of the glorious white stuff and tossed it onto the top of my disaster preparedness cart. It must be a good feeling to seamlessly graft your habits and attitudes from “the before times” onto the gaping void of “whatever this is” now.

I was not doing so well in that department. Basic things I thought were pretty solid—democracy, science—suddenly seemed fragile. I was scared for my friends and family and for people I had never met in New York and San Francisco and London and New Delhi. I was carrying a map in a language I couldn’t read and a compass with a busted dial. We were all building our lifeboats out of different materials. I guess, for some people, it was just as easy to continue on taking the small wins for granted or not seeing the wins at all, but I just couldn’t. And I’ve realized since then that I don’t want to. Sorry, not sorry Tiffany.

2 thoughts on “The Charmin Drops at Midnight

  1. I just spent an hour standing in line for food-truck Donutz at the Farmers’ Market. I’d estimate that 40% of the people were masked, but fortunately the people in front and behind me were. It seems as if the pandemic is over whether sciences says it is or not. First person retrospective essays like this will be gold in the decades that follow. I’d love to read reflections like this from previous catastrophic times. You can read all the articles you want and not get a feel for what a pandemic is like. This is real, this is good.

    1. Jeff–you are most kind. Appreciate the support and thanks for reading. I agree with you that getting to hear about individual experiences of this incredible time will be invaluable to trying to understand what it was REALLY like to live through the day to day. I will look forward to seeing what kind of art and accounts emerge as we do. Stay well and keep your eyes on the horizon!

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