Amid virus, humble toilet paper is suddenly a hot commodity

Toilet paper moves out from a cutting machine at the Tissue Plus factory, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Bangor, Maine. The new company has been unexpectedly busy because of the shortage of toilet paper brought on by hoarders concerned about the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Joseph Gayetty is not a household name, but from what we’re seeing these days, he may be more important than Jefferson, Edison or Einstein. Gayetty invented modern toilet paper in 1857. Before that, the recommended means of the daily task involved rags, sand, leaves (maybe even a little seaweed), corn cobs, animal furs, sticks or left hands.

I took my first trip to H-E-B the night they canceled the NBA season. While my wife and I shopped, I found myself walking around seeing what was sold out. No bleach or hand sanitizer. No Cheerios, but plenty of Lucky Charms. I was horrified to see the only peanut-butter option was “chunky.” Flour, sugar and bottled water all gone. I saw one man in a longing trance before a section of Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup. He seemed confused because so many options remained.

But the starkest image was what seemed to be a mile-long stretch devoid of toilet paper.

It is perhaps ironic that the Chinese, supposedly responsible for all our current ills, were the first to use paper for the dirty deed in the 6th century AD, which is a pretty long time to stockpile.

As days have gone by, I’ve returned to the store a few more times to pick up things but found myself again looking around to see what people believe they simply cannot live without. I have a vision of people whose garages are filled to the top with toilet paper, which is quite bizarre as the daily need for this product under any rational scenario doesn’t justify it.

On my last trip, a young woman stood by empty shelves where canned goods once beckoned.

“Don’t you wish it was this empty when we had can drives for the poor?” she said.

Pretty observant lady. And it makes you wonder where and what our priorities are, doesn’t it? In times of abundance, so many of our priorities are based on words, not actions. In times of crisis, who we really are becomes abundantly clear.

The weeks and months to come will tell us a lot about who we are as a country and a people. We’ve heard a lot about The Greatest Generation and their sacrifices. Are we still that country? Or have our priorities gone off a cliff?

How can we kill the bacteria of secondary infection from the coronavirus when 90% of our antibiotics now come from China? When we’ve dismantled our manufacturing ability and moved it across our borders, can we make the masks we now need? As a wartime president, FDR envisioned producing 10,000 aircraft in one year, and we ended up producing 100,000 in 1944 under his leadership. Are Americans now really about to die because we won’t have enough ventilators? Have decades of tearing down the institutions of government succeeded in destroying the government we now need?

We’re about to find out.

But as we sit at home, we can begin to change course. Lord Chesterfield was an old Englishman who, from his name, sounds like a pretty stuffy guy. But he happened to write in his diary about reading Horace, Plato and Homer while on the throne. As he completed each page of the great classics, he tore it out and made additional and practical use of it. As we settle into isolation, maybe we would all be better off taking a page from Chesterfield and edifying our minds instead of clearing the aisle at H-E-B and cutting down our national forests. And maybe our national leaders will start clearing out the nonsense and proving America is still what it used to be.

Longtime local attorney Jim Dunnam is a Waco native who served 14 years in the Texas Legislature. He graduated from Baylor Law School in 1987 with a Juris Doctor degree.

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