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CONNECTIONS: Life in a time of coronavirus

As shelves empty and everything closes, there is a lot to think about.

It is now upon us. It was in China, Iraq, Iran, Italy, Germany, England, Spain, and now we have it. Everyone is asking the same two unanswerable questions: how bad and how long?

In the meanwhile, America responds. As with any crisis, we go to the grocery store. Hurricane, Nor’easter or pandemic, we empty the shelves. In America today, you can no longer buy hand sanitizer (which I understand) and toilet paper (which I don’t).

Curiosity consumed me. Why toilet paper? How does it relate to a virulent virus? I began to conduct an informal and absolutely unscientific survey. I just asked everyone I saw on the way to and in the grocery store.

No one knew. Everyone was as puzzled as I was — even the woman with toilet paper in her shopping cart.

“Why did you buy toilet paper?”

She stared at it a moment, stared at me, shrugged and walked on.

A store employee hazarded a guess: “Maybe they got the wrong idea about the symptoms of coronavirus and thought, you know, it was upset stomach and diarrhea. Then they’d need extra toilet paper.”

The cleaning supplies aisle at Price Chopper in Great Barrington on March 15. Photo: Carole Owens

A clever friend pointed out: “It doesn’t matter why. If everyone is buying toilet paper, you had better buy it too.”

“Monkey see, monkey do?”

She ignored me. “Eventually you will need it and it will be all gone because others hoarded,” she explained. “So you better get it now.”

Well, all right then. I went down the toilet paper aisle. Empty. However, I am small and persistent. I bent low and looked. Sure enough, there was one package of toilet paper left at the back of the bottom shelf. Not just any package of toilet paper: It was a 20-roll package of my favorite brand. I put it in my cart.

A woman behind me said wistfully, “You must feel like you won the lottery.”

As I exited the store, another woman said, “I hope no one assaults you in the parking lot and grabs your toilet paper.”

No one did.

As shelves empty and everything closes, there is a lot to think about. For example, we have changed our eating habits. As wives and mothers left the kitchen and joined the work force, Americans ate out more. They bought more prepared foods. They didn’t sit down together around the dining room table as often as they once did. What’s more …

The bread aisle at Price Chopper in Great Barrington on March 15. Photo: Carole Owens

Another woman stopped to say hi. I told her, “I feel like an idiot because I seem to go to the grocery store every day.”

Surprisingly, she agreed: “Me, too, I cannot remember the last time I made a list, got a big cart and shopped for the week.”

Evidently, we all buy dinner, whether in a restaurant or store, minutes before we want to eat. Only in an emergency do we stock up. Then it hit me: that’s why toilet paper. Toilet paper is on that special list we make to stock up. So, in this time of contagion, we stock up so we don’t have to go to the grocery store.

Now that is a pity. They are closing everything else. Even if eventually they lock down the country, the grocery store is one of the approved places (along with the doctor’s office and the pharmacy) you are still allowed to go. Soon you may not be able to go anywhere but the grocery store. Do not despair.

Plague or no plague, I seem unable to get well enough organized to make it unnecessary to go to the grocery store every day. I can tell you it matters less that big parties are discouraged, theaters and museums are closed, because everyone you know is in the grocery store. There is a party in the aisles. And well there should be because there are no products in the aisles, or anyway, no toilet paper.

One serious note, restaurants, inns, B&Bs, the whole Berkshire hospitality industry is suffering, so do what a friend of mine was thoughtful enough to do: Go to a restaurant and buy a gift certificate — income for them at a time they need it, and you can use it to celebrate when we finally know how bad and how long because it is over.

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