Coronavirus We Have to Take Seriously, But Toilet Paper? Really?

March 17, 2020



This coronavirus shutdown is one of the more peculiar periods of history I've lived through, and I'm old enough to remember dancing the Pogo. It was the only dance I was ever any good at--you just jumped up and down. You want to know, the whole decade of the 1980s was seriously weird. But this is weirder. 


Sometimes it feels like we're all playing "tin-like," what little kids call using their imaginations, as in: Tin like the floor is an ocean, and tin like sharks are swimming in it, so we have to hop all around the house without touching the floor until Mama and Daddy go berserk and DFACS comes to take us away.


In this case, we've shut down the schools, voting, public assembly, hugging, shaking hands and for Pete's sake organized religion, all because of a virus which everybody agrees Dade hasn't got a whiff of a suggestion of a hint of yet. It's as if we're playing tin like we'll all die if we touch somebody else, or something somebody else touched, unless we douse ourselves with Purell within 15 seconds.


Not that I'm questioning the necessity of all this. I read an editorial explaining that the idea of all these closures is to slow down the spread of this virus. If the virus sends, say, a million people to the hospital, it's better for those million people to be hospitalized over the course of 18 months rather than 18 weeks so as not to overwhelm the capacities of the health system. And I've read grim reports of what's happening in Italy, where the health system has in fact been overwhelmed, and doctors are having to make horrifying choices about who to treat and who to leave to fate. I don't want that to happen here, and if closing down life as we know it for a while will stop that, heck, I didn't want to go to the water board meeting that bad nohow.


So I won't make light of the peril. I read some cocky male op-ed writer doing that the other day and I found it arrogant and distasteful. This is serious business.


On the other hand, there is no power on earth that can make me take the toilet paper thing seriously. The toilet paper thing is drop-dead funny.


You couldn't make this stuff up! I'd read online that people were buying up toilet paper nationally, but I couldn't imagine anyone here following such a silly trend. Then I went to the Food City on Thursday and found there'd been such a rush on the stuff, management had imposed a two-per-customer limit. I went back again Saturday evening and the shelves were so bare that anybody who hadn't already stocked up was, ahem, s__t out of luck.


I'm not one to worry--that's my mantra, anyway--but if I were to worry about the coronavirus what I would worry about, in roughly this order, is that I'll get it and die, that somebody I care about will get it and die, or that the pandemic will so irreparably rip the fabric of human civilization that all that is good and beautiful in the world will be subsumed in chaos as people surviving in isolated pockets pick each other off one by one. (I read a lot of science fiction.)


But apparently there are people out there, millions of them, whose big fear about the collapse of Western culture is that they'll be stuck in the bathroom singing: 




(By the way, the fact that that song, a childish spoof of a television show theme song, was known by every kid in America in 1960-something is eloquent evidence that there was such a thing as "going viral" well before the internet. But I didn't mean to get sucked into bringing up the virus again. Let's stick to toilet paper.)     


I just thought this might be a good time to remind panicked shoppers that toilet paper is not a necessity of life. No Creationists claim there was a TP tree in the Garden of Eden, and nobody in the evolution corner is fixin' to tell you that our simian ancestors developed tools, fire and the wheel as necessary first steps toward building a Charmin factory. Toilet paper is a modern phenomenon and not everybody uses it now.


I knew that already, but my husband told me something yesterday I didn't know and I bet you didn't, either. On the phone to his ex-boss, who he still does work for freelance, he asked him jokingly if he'd stockpiled enough toilet paper to weather the crisis. The ex-boss said toilet paper wasn't necessarily a staple in his house. His wife, a Bangladeshi  woman, had been trying to talk him out of it for years.


"Muslims don't use toilet paper," he explained.


Instead, his wife and her coreligionists buy special attachments for their toilets, small sprayers on hoses similar to the type attached to your kitchen sink that you use to spray the crap off dishes. You use the sprayer on the toilet to spray the crap off...


I'm going to let that sentence die a natural death but you get the idea. The ex-boss, not a religious person, had officially converted to Islam as a condition of his marriage, though he had warned his wife he was not a believer and would still drink beer. That's fine, she said, it's just for the family. The conversion entailed changing his name in honor of the Prophet, which at the time we bet would make him the only Mohammed McCullough in the phonebook. (This was back when people still used phonebooks.) 


Now with the passage of years the wife had become more religious and I don't believe the ex-Boss gets to drink much beer anymore, but he had clung to toilet paper as the last vestige of his bachelorhood. If Western civilization is to collape, though, he intimated, it wouldn't be that much of a wrench to finally give it up since the toilets at his house were armed and ready.


Well, I just had to pass that story along to you, in the interest of the free and unfettered flow of information toward the betterment of humanity. BTW I Googled it and you can get the butt sprayers at Home Depot or on Amazon. There are different versions as you can see by the photos here.


For the rest of this piece, the toilet paper crisis reminded me of some material I used in a column I wrote back when we had a sewer crisis in Dade and I thought I'd reprise it here. It comes from a book called Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization, by W. Hodding Carter. It was full of interesting research I won't go into and bathroom humor I'm too girly for. What I want to share is Carter’s delving up of the ribald 16th–century musings of François Rabelais’s literary monster Gargantua, concerning his experiments on what to use in place of toilet paper (which wasn't invented yet). Here it is, republished from Flushed, already translated from the French.


“Once I did wipe me with a gentlewoman’s velvet mask, and found it to be good; for the softness of the silk was very voluptuous and pleasant to my fundament,” the monster begins.  “Then a hood, and a neckerchief, then some earpieces of crimson satin, but there was such a number of golden spangles in them .. that it fetched all the skin off my tail with a vengeance.”


(Photo: One of the famous Gustave Doré illustrations of Gargantua.)


Garganuta raves on in this vein, and Carter faithfully follows him, for some pages. He tries out a page’s cap and then a cat, which turns out rather worse than the spangles, and cures himself by next time using his mother’s gloves. 


“After that I wiped me with sage, with fennel, with anet, with marjoram, with roses, with gourd-leaves, with beets, with colewort, with leaves of the vine-tree, with mallows, wool-blade …with lettuce and with spinach leaves.”


I am just excerpting Carter’s excerpts of Rabelais here, mind you. I am leaving out a lot and I expect he was, too. “Then I wiped my tail in the sheets, on the coverlet, in the curtains, with a cushion, with arras hangings, with a green carpet, with a tablecloth, with a napkin, with a handkerchief, with a combing-cloth; in all which I found more pleasure than do the mangy dogs when you rub them.”


And on to the animal world:  “With a hen, with a rooster, with a pullet, with a calf’s skin, with a hare, with a pigeon, with a cormorant, with an attorney’s bag ..” 


Finally, after pages and pages, he settles on the warm neck of a downy goose as being the optimum to his purpose. 


There was more and more of this, all great stuff--“with mercury, with parsley, with nettles, with comfrey…”)--and I kept using it in my piece until I ran out of room. Which is where we are now, too, so I'll stop.


Well! All of this probably comes under the heading of TMI. But it is the business of newspapers to inform, their ambition to educate, their hope to improve. There isn't a damn thing I can do to stop coronavirus but if I can ease the anxiety of one toilet paper hoarder my day has not been wasted.


So fear not, friends! If you run out of TP, you can always get a butt sprayer at Lowe's.

 Or if the stores have succumbed to the general collapse of civilzation, there are always green  carpets, tablecloths and attorney bags--or finally, finally, something practical to do with kale. 


--Robin Ford Wallace

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