McKean Minute: Wiped Out – My Checkered History with Toilet Paper

My first day on the job at the now-defunct Fishing & Hunting News was a disaster. I had reported to work at the downtown Seattle office and printing plant expecting the sort of intake procedure most new employees face: paperwork, human resources interviews, and maybe a facilities tour.

Instead, my managing editor handed me galleys of empty pages, pointed to a cubicle with a phone and a computer, and told me to finish a week of work by the end of the day. After three hours of rapid-fire interviews, I suddenly recalled the short-term parking meter I had fed in the morning. I ran to the street to find three tickets under a windshield wiper. Realizing the parking fines would wipe out a couple days of wages, I found a parking garage, and ran back to the office, trying to avoid glares from my editor. Three hours later, I realized two other things: I was starving, and I had to use the bathroom.

A fellow editor gave me directions to the latrine, and I pulled the stall door shut with a deep sigh. Finally, a spot of peace and quiet in a whirlwind of a day. I did my business, reached over for the toilet paper, and… The roll was as bare as my bottom. I looked around the stall. No replacements, not even a stack of paper towels or a copy of our newspaper.

So, I did what any of you would do. I pulled out my knife and cut the pockets out of my first-day-of-work pants.

I recall this memory as America struggles through a national shortage of toilet paper, one of the first and most curious casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also recall that for much of my life, I’ve worked around a lack of TP. As a farm kid, I sometimes found myself in a remote field with a certain urgency. In those times, I normally used leaves or handfuls of grass to take care of myself, but after one particularly unfortunate incident—let’s just say that it taught me how to positively identify poison ivy—I started adapting. My mom once asked why so many of my work shirts had the tails cut off. I mumbled something about shortening them so they wouldn’t get caught in machinery, but I think she knew the real reason.

I’ve used socks, cut off the hems of pants, and have used everything from handfuls of snow to cattail fronds to take care of myself. Once, I even used my tie.

I’m not proud of any of this, but I mention this as a sort of pep talk. This toilet paper shortage will pass, so to speak, and once again we’ll have task-specific paper products back on store shelves. Until then, my best advice: pack a knife.