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Toilet paper hoarders reflecting a sad picture of American grit

Written By | Mar 18, 2020
toilet paper, hoarder, coronavirus, COVID-19

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WASHINGTON: What do you hoard in a crisis? Local supermarkets in much of the country are sold out of flour, rice, and milk. And, of course, toilet paper. In different parts of the country, there are shortages of corn chips, frozen lasagna, ground beef, and chicken. Hand sanitizer and face masks are in short supply.

Guns and ammunition are also flying off the shelves.

Sometimes hoarding is its own punishment. An acquaintance reports that customers are calling the supermarket where he works to ask whether they can return milk. They can’t drink it all or don’t want to, it takes up a lot of room in the refrigerator, and it doesn’t keep.

A similar buyer’s remorse is taking place with people faced with eating frozen lasagna every day for the next six months.

It may be best not to hoard foods you don’t like, or that you don’t enjoy eating every day.

Toilet paper is an odd thing to hoard.

Nothing speaks more clearly of the decadence and comfort of American life than the urge to hoard toilet paper. What we consider a necessity has been, for most of humanity until very recent times, an almost unimaginable luxury.

When our parents moved my siblings and me to Germany in the 1970s, we were in for a shocking lesson about life in Europe. During our first night at a Gasthaus, my sister ran to my parents’ room wailing, “what is this?!” She had what looked like a strip of greenish-gray crepe paper in her hand. “It was in the bathroom! I can’t use this!”

The next day our first shopping trip was to the BX to buy real toilet paper. That German stuff was just too foreign for our tender American bottoms.

Toilet Paper by any other name is not the same

As we traveled the continent, we discovered that there was worse.

French toilet paper came in packets of squares that felt like wax paper. Italian paper was much the same: zero absorbencies, zero softness. A few years later I moved to Brazil. The paper there was something like perforated squares of wrapping paper. And you weren’t allowed to flush it down the toilet. Bathrooms had small covered waste bins where you placed your used toilet paper.

When I went back to Brazil to visit with my sister a few years later, her face turned into a study of disgusted dismay when she saw what she was facing.

The toilet paper in Russia and Ukraine was barely adequate when I moved there after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but better than the sandpaper of previous years. And, as in America today, it was in short supply. That didn’t phase the Russians.

According to one fascinating article on the subject, they didn’t even have toilet paper until 1969.

We started removing traces of excrement from our bumholes 24 years after defeating Hitler, 22 years after designing the AK-47 and a whopping 45 years after Sergei Eisenstein experimented with color cinematography in motion pictures. F**k it, we invented the goddamn space toilet two years before we thought it appropriate to give our citizens something to wipe their butts with after using the regular Earth kind. This is how well adjusted our goddamn priorities are, people. This is how we keep shit real.
Russians have a remarkable capacity for “keeping shit real”.

In the absence of toilet paper, Soviet parents assigned their children the task of cutting up issues of Pravda for bathroom use. Care was needed; pictures of party leaders had to be carefully removed lest the ersatz toilet paper earn you a trip to a labor camp.

Americans once had that capacity. My mother recalls that her parents kept a Sears catalog in the outhouse, both as reading material and for posterior hygiene. Using the slick paper in Sears catalogs must have been a lot like living in France.

We were once a tough and resilient people. The widespread appearance of toilet paper hoarding says that we’re not so tough anymore.

My daughter asked what will happen if we run out of toilet paper.

I waved towards our living room windows at the woods outside and told her, “nature will provide”. She thinks I’m a monster. There are more important things to have in a genuine emergency. This is a comfortable apocalypse. We can pass it eating Oreos (oh, God! there’s no milk!) and watching Netflix.

When civilization really begins to collapse, we won’t have Netflix. We won’t even have electric lights or hot water. What then? You’ll want matches, needles, and thread, bandages, water purification tablets, knives, a field guide to edible plants.

You’ll learn how little you need toilet paper.

The world has gone mad. The headlines are grim. People fighting over toilet paper is the best news I’ve had all week.

Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.