Ever since I walked El Camino de Santiago, I have had an aversion to buying products in bulk. Stocking up, stockpiling, or hoarding doesn’t make me feel safe or secure. Rather, that behavior makes me feel stifled, crowded and weighed down, as if fear or scarcity is occupying too much space in my nervous system. I’d rather find a way to live with less than to make sure I have room for excess. I prefer to shop the way Europeans do (or did): buying small quantities of what I need or want, when I need or want them. That helps me connect more easily with the present moment and contributes to a feeling of lightness and vitality.
When the COVID-19 crisis began, I tried not to alter my shopping habits too much so as not to trigger more anxiety. Since I don’t have a place to easily store a jumbo package of toilet paper, I continued to buy two rolls at a time. My local food co-op stocked plenty at the outset of the pandemic, so I wasn’t concerned that they would run out. About 10 days ago I biked to Trader Joe’s and noticed they had many rolls of toilet paper for sale, tucked in a corner of the store. I almost bought some except they would have occupied precious room in my pannier that I needed for items I couldn’t find elsewhere. I skipped the chance, figuring I could find some at the co-op later. Alas, their shelves that normally held paper towels, facial tissues and toilet paper, often made by small, ecologically minded producers, remained barren. Still, I had 1.5 rolls left and, if I ran out, I could always use facial tissue temporarily. I wasn’t about to panic.
When my 1.5 rolls dwindled to half a roll, I returned to the co-op. Facial tissues were back in stock, but no toilet paper. I went to CVS, where I’d planned to purchase other things. They, too, lacked toilet paper. I even braved nearby Stop & Shop, a last resort thanks to its poor history of employee relations and harsh lighting, both of which grate on me. Their toilet paper section had been, uh, wiped clean. I considered driving to Trader Joe’s, which would have meant a 40 minute round trip journey. That seemed like a long way to go. As I drove home, I remembered the small country gas station and convenience store not far from the apartment I’m renting. I’ve only been there a few times, once to buy baking soda and another to get a bottle of seltzer while out for a walk. Most of the items they stock are either highly processed, expensive or not to my taste. If they dispensed decaffeinated coffee, I’d probably become a regular. Still, my intuition told me to stop and check their inventory.
Sure enough, three rolls of toilet paper remained on a bottom shelf, along with a sign instructing customers to limit purchases to two. Unlike the paper wrapped single rolls I typically use, these came covered in plastic with narrower sheets, giving it a squat, unfamiliar shape. The brand? Charmin. I recoiled slightly, as if pulled away by some invisible marionette strings, even though I’d stumbled across a rare, sought after possession. What was that about? I haven’t watched TV in a very long time although, when I was growing up, I never cared for the ads where people squeezed the Charmin because it was so soft. I believe my late Hungarian father was the person who originally pointed out to me, in precise anatomical detail, that not all toilet paper performs alike. It’s better to rely on more substantive, absorbing paper than something soft which can break or, worse, become lodged in the crevices or stuck where it doesn’t belong. In my family of origin, where analytical thought trumped affection, the more matter-of-fact and less huggable Scott Tissue ruled. Perhaps my impressionable and dutiful Jewish mind turned my father’s words into The Law of the Loo:
Thou Shalt Only Buy Scott!
I routinely, if not religiously, sought out that brand for years. To even consider buying Charmin, part of the Proctor and Gamble empire, felt like a betrayal of some ancient vow I was unaware I had even made, as if Charmin were the toilet paper equivalent of pork. I took a closer look at the package. These particular rolls were called “Charmin Essentials”. On the wrapper, the word “STRONG” appears next to a family of three cartoon bears. One stretches some toilet paper between her paws. Perhaps this product, unlike its decades-old predecessors, would not disintegrate mid-wipe or end up where it didn’t belong.
As I took two rolls, I had to both laugh and, once again, be astonished, sobered and humbled at the power of memories and unconscious habits which, like small pieces of (indestructible) toilet paper, can stick to us for a lifetime, without our even noticing them. While waiting in line at the cash register, I reminded myself I wasn’t in a position to place ecological principles or childhood loyalties over my increasingly pressing need for toilet paper. I recalled that when I walked the Camino, detached from familiar markers of identity and in a liminal space, I had been blissfully oblivious to the ins and outs of Spanish brands. I learned to be grateful whenever restrooms had any paper available. Often there were no restrooms, just open fields. I carried toilet tissue in my backpack and I didn’t carefully evaluate its performance. On this collective Camino that we are all walking, into an unknown future, I have not one, but two rolls of Charmin. As I use them sparingly, perhaps I can find more friendliness for this brand which, while it may not save my ass, is helping me keep it clean, at least for now.