Yesterday, I ran out of toilet paper.
Fortunately, this momentous event coincided with the last day of my two week coronavirus-dictated mandatory isolation (I had returned to Australia from an overseas trip the day after the border authorities had imposed the requirement for all people entering the country to self-isolate for fourteen days after arrival).
Now of course I had seen all the news reports of people hoarding basic goods: stockpiling toilet paper and dry-goods and hand sanitizers like the apocalypse was finally upon us. But honestly, I had thought it was a bit of a media beat-up. And in any case it had been several weeks since social distancing and lock-down measures had been introduced, so I figured that hoarders by now would have hoarded their hoard, and life “on the outside” (at least insofar as a trip to the supermarket is concerned) would have returned to some degree of normality.
Clearly, I was wrong.
I ventured out to my local supermarket at 6 p.m. Remember, this was the first time I had been to the supermarket in quite some time – I had been away from Australia for four weeks, and on return had gone straight into isolation.
What greeted me was, to be frank, quite disturbing – something I had never expected to see in my lifetime in a modern, western, first-world country. Whole sections of the supermarket had been emptied of their contents: the pasta aisle, empty; the meat fridges, empty; the juice shelves, empty; the soaps aisle, empty; the washing powder aisle, empty, too.
And the aisle where I would normally find more than two dozen toilet paper options was likewise completely, utterly and totally stripped bare. Even the boxes of el-cheapo single-ply stuff I would ordinarily never allow anywhere near my bottom had been ruthlessly ‘wiped clean’.
What the fuck?
I stopped a passing shop assistant: “Excuse me, is there any toilet paper?”
He looked at me like I had lost my mind.
“No sir, there is no toilet paper!” He was almost laughing at my naivety.
“Do you know when you might get some?” I asked.
He didn’t know. So he called over to another shop assistant – a young lady manning one of the check-out counters.
She said: “I think I saw a pallet of toilet paper arrive in the loading bay a few minutes ago. If you hang about, they might have it out in an hour or so.”
“Really?” was all I could manage in reply.
“Or,” the first shop assistant volunteered, “we close in a couple of hours, so if you come back at 7 a.m. when we open, there will probably be some available then.”
Seriously, what the fuck?
Anyway, all of this explains how I wound up setting an alarm for 6.20 a.m. the next day, so I could get out of bed before sunrise and, together with my girlfriend for moral support, head to the local supermarket in pursuit of toilet paper.
But if the previous day’s scenes had been disturbing, this was now downright terrifying.
To start with, by the time we got there at 6.45 a.m., there was already a queue of around 50 people waiting outside the supermarket. Everyone was standing an appropriate 1.5 meters apart; half of everyone was wearing a surgical face mask.
We joined the back of the line, but by the time the supermarket shutters went up at 7.00 a.m. on the dot, we were bizarrely enough near the front – the line had grown and now extended right out of the mall and into the street. There must have been at least 200 people clamoring to get in.
It got worse. As soon as the doors opened, it was like someone had fired the gun at the start of a marathon, and everyone stampeded it as fast as they could, directly to the toilet paper aisle. Where, in some kind of dystopian comedy routine, two burly security guards were stationed at the front of the aisle, controlling entry to a space where two shop assistants were standing alongside piles of toilet paper. And where they were literally handing out the packs to the desperate multitudes, like a pair of drug dealers dispensing crack to addicts in search of a fix.
Being close to the front of the swarm, I was able to indicate a preference for the premium 3-ply brand I normally use. Albeit at 7.02 a.m., the pile of these was already almost depleted, and a third shop assistant had begun cracking open the next set of boxes – of the aforementioned el-cheapo single-ply variety.
“Only one!” the shop assistant admonished as he placed a single 8-pack of toilet paper into my outstretched hand. And before I could say anything further in protest, one of the security guards indicated – rather abruptly – that it was time for me to move on, as I was holding up the queue.
Meanwhile, the crack-dealer-cum-shop-assistant had turned to my girlfriend, who was standing a few feet behind me, and handed her a pack of loo paper too. And then she likewise was hurried along, and the next person in the line – a buff-looking surfer dude with sun-bleached hair – shuffled forward meekly. It was his turn to receive his daily ration of rolls.
‘Flushed’ with a sense of victory, I decided to use the opportunity to do the rest of the weekly shopping. I mean, I had got up at 6.20 a.m. for this, so I may as well make the most of it, right?
It was extraordinary.
At the frozen vegetable aisle, a sign on the fridge door said I was limited to “Only Two Packs”. At the household goods aisle, there was not a mite of dishwasher powder to be found. At the baking goods aisle, there was no flour and only a few packets of sugar. At the pharmaceuticals aisle, there was almost nothing. And at the pasta aisle, there was no spaghetti, and there was no linguini, and there was no penne – but I was able to snaffle for myself the very last, rather forlorn-looking box of elbow pasta.
I could go on, but you get the picture: in my local supermarket I was experiencing what it must have been like living behind the Iron Curtain. Back in the U.S.S.R., in the good-ole days when everything was in short supply, when everyday products were hard to come by, and when food and basic groceries were rationed out.
Only I wasn’t in Communist Russia, circa 1970. No, I was in suburban Sydney, Australia, on an otherwise fine and sunny Saturday morning, in April 2020. Where, for the first time, I was coming face-to-face with the new realities of life in the time of Covid-19.
And honestly, I didn’t like it.
Lining up at the check-out, a security guard approached us. He was eyeing our trolley carefully.
“Are you together?” he asked. I nodded.
“You are only allowed one pack of toilet paper. You have two.”
I looked at him, incredulous. My girlfriend however, was quick to respond – she turned around, grabbed one of the packs of toilet paper, and walked to a different check-out lane.
But the security guard followed her.
“Miss, you CANNOT have two packs of toilet paper if you are together. It is FORBIDDEN!” He was practically shouting.
“Please, we came last night,” she said, trying to look as sweet and innocent as possible. “My boyfriend has had two weeks of isolation and he just really needs toilet paper.”
The guard studied her hard, and relented. “OK,” he sighed. “I will let you go this time. But if I see you do it again, you will be banned.”
And so we paid for our shopping (separately, in different check out lines) and slunk out. We were victorious, in that at least we had got our hands on some precious toilet paper. But also slightly shame-faced – in acquiring 16 rolls of toilet paper in one go, we had basically descended to the cusp of criminality.
I looked back inside, into the supermarket. The guards who had been protecting the toilet paper aisle were no longer there. Because the aisle was now, once more, empty; stripped bare in less than thirty minutes by the hordes of frenzied shoppers, in much the same way a school of blood-crazed piranhas might strip an animal’s carcass down to its bones.
And one final parting shot: as we walked out through the underground garage to my car, we passed by the car-wash bay. Here, normally, you can leave your car while you shop, during which time a your car will be meticulously washed and cleaned. But now, instead, the enterprising owners of the car wash business had set up a row of folding tables. On which were arrayed a sad assortment of goods for sale: packs of rice, white sugar and cooking flour. Oh, and also individual tubes of hand sanitizer, at $24 each.
“This coronavirus shit had better be over soon,” I thought to myself as we left, “or forget the USSR, it is fast going to become like living in Lord of the Flies.”
In life, everything changes – that is the essential nature of human existence.
Usually, that change comes about by degree, slowly and imperceptibly. You don’t notice that you are putting on weight until, after two weeks in isolation, you slip on your favorite jeans and realize they don’t quite close anymore. And you don’t notice that you are aging, until in the boredom of “Isolation Day Nine” you look back at photos of yourself a decades ago, and you see someone completely different looking back at you – someone with shiny skin, and heady dreams, and youthful energy.
Yet this, at least, is the kind of change we are all familiar with. As a species we are programmed to understand the ebb and flow of gradual change, so that we can accommodate it into our lives. When the pace of change is natural, we are naturally adept at dealing with it.
But then sometimes change can descend so abruptly, you barely have time to catch your breath. It arrives unannounced, without warning, and without any time to get ready. And with no innate ability to cope with this type of change, it can completely fuck up your life. Wreaking indescribable havoc in the split-second it takes for a harsh word to be said, or for a heart to stop beating, or for an invisible virus to jump from one fingertip to another.
People: this is happening. Our hitherto comfortable, sheltered and protected way of life has changed forever, and we cannot pretend otherwise. Without notice we are now living through – every one of us – a global catastrophe that’ll define not just the rest of 2020, but like World War II did for our grandparents, reshape the next 50 years of collective human existence.
Here’s hoping that this darkness passes soon. Stay safe, stay calm, take care of your loved ones, be kind to strangers, look after your elders, do your part. And don’t hoard toilet paper! Let’s all choose to meet the challenges heading our way with honor, integrity and humanity.