Tough Times and the Quest for Toilet Paper

By Anna Schlecht

Money was tight when I was little so there weren’t many treats. My Dad used to take one stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum and tear it into seven pieces, one for each of us. We didn’t have much, but we savored what we had. And we shared it equally.

I told that story at his funeral a few weeks ago, ending my eulogy by tearing a piece of gum into tiny slivers for each of my brothers and sisters.  That’s how we all learned about sharing.  Us kids knew we were all in this together.

Since the funeral, daily life in our nation has radically changed. We now find ourselves grappling with a pandemic, trying to comprehend what it means to live in a declared state of emergency.  In these days of panic-pillaging, we find that most stores have barren aisles where the beans, rice and toilet paper were once stocked.  I heard from a friend who works at Costco in Tacoma that there were physical altercations in the toilet paper aisle and the police were called to keep the peace. Speaking at a recent White House press conference, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex M. Azar said, “Toilet paper is not an effective way to prevent getting the coronavirus…”, yet strangely, it has become the symbol of the fears stoked by this virus.

The survival instinct is sometimes animated by fear and panic. We all know the feelings, the unthinking impulse to scrambleover other people to get what you need.  But in this age of pandemics, that impulse to buy all the TP, to go into hospitals to steal masks could easily rend the safety net that we all need to remain intact.  

While it remains uncertain how bad this virus will be, the economic impacts are already here. On Monday March 16th, our Governor’s order will close all bars, restaurants (except for take-out or delivery) and athletic facilities. This means that many of their workers will lose their paychecks, and potentially lose theirjobs and businesses.  Schools are closed till late April in this state and parents with small kids may not be able to go to work, even if their workplaces remain open.  And while a stock market dive may seem to be a problem of the well-to-do, it represents jobs lost.  As we are headed into tough times, the fears are real and well-founded.     

Fear can also activate the part of our brains wired for generosity.  When the NBA cancelled the remainder of the 2020 basketball season, thousands of event workers lost their jobs. In response, many of the star players like my personal fav Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks have pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars to support these low-wage employees. The homeless outreach workers I know are risking exposure to help some of the most vulnerable adults by continuing to help street dependent people, in some cases joined by houseless people themselves who distribute the survival goods.  Some of my grandparent-aged friends are plotting ways to support the families with school-aged kids get through the school closures.  Mike and Brenda Fritsch, the owners of Eastside Big Tom’s announced their plans to distribute water and toilet paper.  These folks are the heros/sheros of modern times, taking actions both high profile and small scale to safeguard the people around them.

I may head out to Trader Joe’s to stock up on my favorite cheap wine, but I don’t want to succumb to the impulse to fight for my share of TP. Instead, I’m musing on the equivalent of tearing up a stick of gum to share — maybe I’ll go downtown and hand out rolls of TP. Or head over to our Senior Services and join their Meals on Wheels team. As a community, we each need the supplies of daily living and we need to heed the advice of our public health officials – social distancing and wash our hands. And we need to look to our better angels to find ways to keep our community safe and healthy. Forget sanitizer recipes, kindness is perhaps the best thing we can manufacture at home and share widely in our community.

Truly, we’re all in this together.

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