BY LAURA BERNSTEIN-MACHLAY
Right now, my small family and I are beginning our second week in isolation here in Detroit.
Well, okay. We’re mostly isolated. My husband Steven and I still make the odd grocery store and pharmacy runs for whatever happens to be available on the shelves. To alleviate anyone’s worries, let me assure you that we’re fine for toilet paper. We haven’t hoarded, though, so in a week or two, we might have to scramble. Or, you never know; maybe the buying frenzy will abate by then as we all fold ourselves like origami creatures into the reality of this extraordinary new existence.
Meanwhile, even with my online classes to manage, my panicked students to soothe, the latest coronavirus updates to voraciously consume, I’ve got lots of extra time—useful for organizing crammed-full closets or meditating. Not so swell when I chew my nails and fret about whatever fresh chaos lurks just over the horizon. About the breaking world and rising infection rates and the recession churning through America’s economy; how, if it lasts, my college-student daughter will surely suffer—as she’s already suffering with her own classes relocated online, with being trapped in the same seven rooms with her fussing parents for weeks or maybe months to come, with her friends, even the local ones, utterly untouchable.
“Don’t worry about me,” says Celia as she reads this over my shoulder. “I’m okay. And my generation is resilient. You’ll see.” She shrugs and her pretty hair—only slightly in need of a wash because, really, who cares?—ripples on her shoulders.
I ask Celia if she thinks these coronavirus days will be the defining occasion of her age group. If she and her peers will remember these events with the same diamond-bright clarity as my mother’s generation does Kennedy’s assassination, and my own does the planes striking the World Trade Center (I was in my living room with toddler-Celia and when I changed the channel from Teletubbies to the crumbling second tower, Celia howled).
Celia shrugs as if to say that it’s too early to know yet, which makes sense.
But I’m a dog with a bone. “Any thoughts on how this crisis might impact you guys?”
Celia shrugs again; she can’t guess any more than I could’ve predicted the social changes wrought by 9/11. “But I’ll tell you this,” she says. “Whenever I remember the 2020 pandemic, I bet toilet paper will be somewhere in the picture.”
Celia wanders off to her PlayStation, and while she commences killing monsters and amassing loot, I consider natural and human-made catastrophes in the era of social media and what they’ve left us with by way of images or ideas seared into our collective consciousness.
With 911, it’s obviously the half-shattered towers, the ant-sized humans diving from windows to the ground far below—devastating.
For this coronavirus, I’m sure we’ll remember folks in their masks and gloves. Maybe a photo of an over-full hospital will emerge as the singular image we’ll hold in our memories. However, I think Celia’s also right—that one of our leftover, unifying icons will indeed be toilet paper rolls. At least I kind of hope so. Because that means we came through this crisis with some lightness and a little humor intact. Terrible, terrible humor, but still . . . .
The following are some toilet paper items I’ve recently seen advertised online: earrings in the shape of TP rolls (knitted, beaded, papier-mâché, mother-of-pearl. Note that many of the little rolls actually turn on their tiny spindles). There are necklaces, charm bracelets, cakes in the shape of TP rolls (I’m not kidding), t-shirts and coffee mugs bearing such declarations as TP Apocalypse!, Will Work for TP and I Survived the Supermarket! with, of course, the perky little TP icon boldly displayed. I even discovered a brooch with the memorable proclamation, I survived the great toilet-paper crisis of 2020. For everyone who purchases this item, I really, really hope that statement turns out to be prophetic.
Meanwhile, Insider just ran a story titled: Toilet paper shortage has become a meme during the coronavirus quarantine, with posts about stockpiling or substituting it going viral. This will come as a shock to no one within spitting distance of social media. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram feeds are deluged with photos and artistic renderings of TP rolls, many of them anthropomorphized to contain bubble eyes and human expressions ranging from smirking to shocked, with pithy sayings such as, If You Need 144 Rolls of Toilet Paper for A 14 Day Quarantine, You Probably Should’ve Been Seeing a Doctor Long Before COVID-19, and so on.
Such posts are meant to rile viewers up, to give us a little chuckle at their terrible taste, perhaps to make us feel superior to the nameless hoarders out there, people who panicked in the midst of oncoming social instability and bought out the stores. Who keep doing it over and over, so in a couple of weeks, I might be out of luck when it comes to TP.
But I’m not judging them. Okay, maybe a little, but only because TP hoarders make such easy targets. As for the folks waiting out the shelter-at-home orders by creating pithy posts on the topic of toilet tissue, or crocheting, then marketing, chocolate-chip cookies in the shape of TP rolls (gah!), well, more power to them. It beats pacing the house like a caged animal or chewing your nails to nubs.
And I get it, why people have focused on something so earthy—toilet paper with its natural association to poop and tushies and so on. Because it’s a whole lot easier to chuckle at Cletus the Singing TP Roll than it is to contemplate the horrific reality of a world ravaged by COVID-19. The truth of life in Wuhan or Italy or Iran. Or New York. Places experiencing illness and death on a large scale, desperately ill people overwhelming underequipped hospitals. Deaths in the hundreds, thousands—throughout most of the United States, we’re not there yet, but if nothing changes, we’re on the way.
And so our collective hearts ache as we wait at home—if we’re lucky enough to have a home. We wait by state order or out of common sense; we wait due to layoff. If we’re lucky, we’re working from computers, with our bored kids and thrilled doggies underfoot. We fret about making rent, getting sick, not getting care. About ourselves and our elderly friends, our loved ones with compromised immune systems.
We check Twitter every few minutes for updates. We wander room to room, stopping to count the remaining rolls of TP or look over the five flavors of Pop-Tarts in our kitchen cupboard, the boxes we purchased when we made our most recent, begloved, grocery run, when we saw the new shipment preening on the shelves (no toilet paper, though) and couldn’t resist. How this largess brings us solace.
We hang tight, checking in with friends and family as often as possible, even if it’s just to ask after their stores of Pop-Tarts or TP. We hold our fellow shut-ins close. We remember to be kind to each other.
We wait and wait for what will come, what will—I promise—eventually pass, and for whatever is left behind.
Laura Bernstein-Machlay’s writing has appeared in many magazines and journals, including The American Scholar, Hotel Amerika, Into the Void, Michigan Quarterly Review, New Plains Review, Redivider, and others. She currently has essays appearing in The American Scholar and World Literature Today. Her work is forthcoming in Evening Street Review. Her full-length collection of creative-nonfiction essays, Travelers (2018), was named a finalist in Foreword Review‘s INDIE Book of the Year Awards, and she’s been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in both the essay and poetry categories. Check her out at Facebook.com/Laura-Bernstein-Machlay.