As an American I have a right not to run out of anything, dammit. Apparently that's my default. Because the prospect of running out of something as fundamental to our happiness and survival as toilet paper—or as I now call it PHE (personal hygienic equipment)—triggers certain primal instincts. Plus, who can't use another cool acronym right now.
Thus, after my wife come up empty looking for PHE at Costco, Amazon or anywhere else, I decided to take matters into my own gloved and sanitized hands and I set out at the crack of dawn this morning on a quest, (and just know that from now on every word like "crack" will illicit a 9-year-old snicker), first to the local upscale grocery store assuming that anyone who can afford to pay $4.50 for an organic bell pepper probably would have a gold bidet and therefore no use for TP. I miscalculated. This store—where I rarely shop—has lots of everything no one needs but an echoing canyon of disappointment where the PHE once resided in neatly arranged, well-lit galleries.
After buying two organic bell peppers, I continue my quest to the Safeway, over the hill, with my machete on my ammo belt and dragging my canoe behind me. As I approach the one entrance to the store, I immediately spring into situational awareness mode, the first lesson one learns in CIA basic training, according to the brochure that came with my Tactical Spy Pen.
The first thing I observe is that usual three entrances have now been reduced to one and it's being guarded by a masked employee, unarmed as far I can tell, handing out disinfectant-soaked paper towels for wiping down carts. I file this away in case I need to resort to bribing that same employee in order to secure his roll of paper towels and bottle of disinfectant (or worse) if left with no other option. ”Hopefully it won't come to that”, I say to myself beneath my mask, honestly hoping it really...won't come to that. I once had to bribe a security guard in Russia (long story...not as sexy as it sounds). Turns out I'm not good at it.
Second observation. A shopper is leaving the store with a package of what I assess by reading the package label to be a 4-roll package of extra cushy PHE and a 6-pack of paper towels. I know from my Spy Pen training that I'm supposed to maintain my composure at all times but I admit that my heart quickened at the site. The word giddy is appropriate here.
Once in the store, I immediately scan the end cap signs for the Paper Products aisle and once spotted, pick up my pace. I stop momentarily to place two fingers on my neck to check my pulse. It's high, but not as high as it was when I Googled "Historical alternatives to toilet paper". My respirations are also spiking as I turn my cart into the Paper aisle, although that could be due to the mask my wife made out of a super high thread-count bed sheet fabric that's great for keeping out viruses, and oxygen.
Target having been acquired, I do a quick count of the available PHE—I estimate 20-30 packages of both TP and PT. Driven by lizard brain instincts to grab as much as I possibly can, while I can, the sign says "Limit 1 per customer" so I relent. "Fine", I whisper into my mask, and place package one of each PHE type in my cart. Besides, I don't want to be a PA, (Pandemic Asshole), something that's really becoming a thing in the Covid era, joining the ranks of the pre-existing BFA (Black Friday Asshole) and the TOWFPLA (Tesla Owner in the Whole Foods Parking Lot Asshole).
I suddenly feel lighter. So much so that I celebrate by buying two bottles of kombucha and a movie-sized box of Hot Tamales. I'm overcome with a feeling of solidarity with with my fellow Pandemicians. “We're gonna get through this. We're all in this together,” I utter to myself. I suddenly feel like a PR copywriter for AT&T. Another shopper overhears me and I realize in that moment that a lot of annoyance can be conveyed even when half your face is covered up.
I approach the checkout. After the shopper 6 feet in front of me is finished, I place my items on the conveyor belt, still nervous that at the last minute the PHE Police or FEMA will swoop down from the ceiling on bungee cords and confiscate ”my precious”, saying, ”Sorry sir, President Trump's gold bidet is broken and I'll be needing this.”
The checker is wearing an N95. I'm only slightly jealous. I found an N95 in my junk drawer, leftover from a painting project I did around 2003, but I'm pretty sure it's embedded with exotic microbes that could make Covid 19 look like a mild case of having a bad hair day. The checker is smiling, I think, as she asks me for my Safeway card followed by, "Playing Monopoly?". I hand her my card and say in as friendly a tone as I can muster, "No, I'm not playing Monopoly because there are a thousand more important things I need to be doing to help me and my family survive during this global pandemic, including risking life and limb to drive out here to source this very Personal Hygienic Equipment and playing some inane scratch-off game isn't one of them." Did I mention I said all that in my head? I did decline the Monopoly card but again, didn't want be a PA.
As I'm wheeling my cart back to my car, I notice a guy in his 50's, medium build, no mask, baseball cap, also wheeling his grocery cart toward a car near mine, but he's behaving oddly, and my brochure training compels me to go into yellow alert mode...because...situational awareness.
Is he just waiting until I return my cart back to the collection area, and while I'm 30 feet from my car and distracted he'll throw open my hatch and lift the PHE from my Honda SUV? I consider my options in thwarting what I perceive as an impending act of parking lot thievery. I do a pocket inventory;
- A key ring which holds several few very pointy keys, a drum major's whistle which sounds kind of wimpy but will dislodge fillings at 50 yards, a very-small-and-largely-decorative Swiss army knifette.
- The wadded up paper towel courtesy of the Safeway guard.
- A small plastic Olaf the Snowman figurine from the last time my two-year old granddaughter came over.
I eliminate objects 2 and 3 for obvious tactical reasons. That leaves the mini Swiss Army knife but last time I tried to use it, I could only access the scissors. No time to waste, I weigh the prospect of being mugged in a parking lot with the humiliation of trying to defend myself with tiny scissors and I re-consider Olaf.
Where is my damn Tactical Spy Pen when I need it?
Turns out the unmasked stranger is not crazy or threatening, he's just singing, and poorly. I could have sworn I heard Governor Newsom say that singing is only allowed online during the pandemic but assessing the threat to be minimal, albeit way off key, I cancel yellow alert and revert to normal status.
When I get home, I remove the PHE first and immediately take it up the stairs and present it to my wife, like a cat depositing a lizard on the doorstep, like a Neanderthal returning to his cave with a deer slung over his shoulder who then drops it by the fire and grunts proudly as his mate and fur-clad offspring return hearty but higher-pitched grunts in approval. In lieu of grunting, I say to my wife, "Man find TP and PT. Man good." Looking up from her iPad briefly she says, "Oh...cool", which is not exactly the validation I was hoping for.
I still feel as though I have fulfilled a fundamental objective that's been part of the male hominid job description going back millennia—enter the jungle, find something, kill it, bring it back home. Just substitute a 6-roll pack of extra cushy toilet paper for a wild boar.
So I place my "kill" on the stack of existing PHE in the stairwell, which truthfully probably would've lasted until mid-summer, and even after that we've still got months worth of surplus kids' birthday napkins, although there's something about using Sesame Street branded paper products for that purpose that seriously creeps me out.
I return my canoe and machete to their rightly place by the fire pit, open a kombucha, grab my Hot Tamales and turn on a Manchester United vs. Liverpool match from 2019. It's been a good pandemic day in the jungle.