It was raining hard for SoCal. It was raining hard for NorCal. It was raining hard for Galveston in a tropical storm. It was raining … hard.
The play money exchange had gone down by many hundreds of billions, and parts of the U.S. had begun to wonder if perhaps the coronavirus, contrary to presidential assertions, were more than a seasonal flu. The storm was far from perfect, but looking out the window it was assuredly a well-developed one, with a twinkle in its eye, a curve to its hips, and more than a touch of the “come-hither” on its upturned brow.
It was 11:00 AM, I had a 2:30 PM coffee appointment, and I knew SoCal rain well enough to be assured that by the time I had to saddle up and ride to Torrance the hard rain would be a fine sprinkle or, more likely, a sunny sky. At 2:00 PM I revised my estimate. The rain came down as fiercely as it had for the last several hours, and I could see large rivers swooshing at full speed downhill, swallowing up the curbs.
I put on my cycling tights, an undershirt, arm warmers, a long-sleeve wool jersey, a rain jacket, and a wool cap. Less than thirty seconds into my ride I was completely wet. As I turned onto Esplanade I was met by a 25-mph headwind that blew the rain even harder through my clothing and that fought all forward progress.
At the coffee shop I sat down along with the gallon or so of water I’d brought with me, which discharged onto the floor into a large and shimmering puddle. The barista, as if it happened every day, swooped out from around the counter with three yellow plastic folding signs that said “Danger! Wet Floor!” and carefully marked off the puddle, my table, and me.
An hour later the sky had cleared and I had dried. I rode home and wondered about the Stockalypse. Certainly people were panic buying. But what were they buying? And why?
I stopped at the supermarket. It was filled with shoppers, each of whom pushed a fully laden cart. You could see from the layering of things in the carts, like a geologic record, which aisles they had visited first. Invariably, the beer and wine were on the bottom. Then the water and no toilet paper, because that had all sold out immediately.
But why toilet paper? I went over to a corner and looked it up on my phone. The reason is because “people desire control in times of uncertainty” and “when people panic they buy large quantities of things irrationally, rationalizing that they’ll use it all eventually.”
But why toilet paper? No one on the Internet seemed to know, although everyone recognized that there is no truer sign of the Stockalypse-cum-Coronavirus than runs on toilet paper, so to speak.
I mulled it over. In times of panic, you rush to the store to buy the thing you most fear not having. I quickly stifled an urge to run to the dairy aisle and buy four blocks of Keri butter. But the urge overcame me, which was fortunate, because it was on sale, two for $7.00. I reflected some more. “Why were people so afraid of not having toilet paper?”
I recalled stories of the 1973 oil shock in Japan, the first instance in modern times of a run on toilet paper. Even in 1987 when I first went to Japan, people reminisced with grim humor about the immediate evaporation of all toilet paper from all shelves for an extended period of time.
Buy why toilet paper?
Well, if my theory is correct, that in times of great fear people first secure that which they fear not having, and if people fear more than anything not having toilet paper, it follows that the greatest fear for the average person–not to mention all of Japan in 1973–is being forced to confront the dual processes of elimination without the buffer of paper. That would mean, of course, that you were thrown back onto the early rung of human civilization, which for millennia took care of its business with a wipe of the hand and a dip in water. This is still the norm among approximately 4 billion earthlings who cannot afford TP and/or lack plumbing.
In parts of the world where people can afford both those things, children learn early that there is nothing more dirty, more horrible, and more disgusting than excrement, and that it is the apogee of filth is to come into contact with it. This is where the online pundits are correct: In times of great uncertainty people seek control, and in rich countries control manifests itself at the age of toilet training in conjunction with toilet paper and plumbing. Remove either the TP or the water pipes and people’s brains freeze.
This, of course, is the great irrationality. If the Stockalypse were something other than a cyclical transfer of more more more money from the poor to the rich, which it isn’t, and if it augured End Times, which it doesn’t, about the last thing you’d need to survive would be toilet paper. In the short term, the ultimate resource would be water, followed not by canned goods or frozen food or beer, but by flour, rice, beans, and their cousins. And salt.
“Ah hah!” you may be thinking. “So the run on water actually makes sense!”
Except that it doesn’t. No one has suggested that the Stockalypse or the coronavirus are going to affect the water supply. Water is plentiful, is mostly free, and is no farther away than the taps in your bathroom, kitchen, or garden. In other words, it’s unlike beer. Of all the things you’re not going to run out of in THIS Stockalypse, water might top the list, followed by free Starbucks wi-fi.
So why the run on water? First, although water is plentiful and mostly free, we have been taught not to drink it. “It” meaning the free kind that comes out of the tap. In fact fifteen percent of people drink only bottled water, a silly excess that on its surface doesn’t make any sense until you consider that bottled water marketing emphasizes “clean” and “pure,” with the implication that the stuff from your tap is unclean and impure. In some cases that may be true, and as this article notes, threats to the water supply are numerous and significant. Yet it also points out that in general, the U.S. water supply is one of the cleanest on earth.
And with a little common sense questioning, it turns out that bottled water most often is contaminated with plastic particulates and, at least 45% of the time, is sourced from … tap water. The stuff you are getting into a punch-em-up over at Costco is the same stuff that comes out of your tap, with a 1,000% markup, a huge carbon footprint, plastic poisoning, and no discernible health benefit of any kind. But it sure has a nice label.
The prejudice against tap water, like the fear of not having toilet paper, is based on a fear of the dirty and the unclean. We’ve been led to believe that tap water is nasty, and in the Stockalypse what could be worse than wiping with your hand and further polluting yourself with tap water? Better buy another pallet of Dasani a/k/a tap water to go along with the pallet of toilet paper.
I got home with my four blocks of butter and then, of course, felt a surge of panic. What if I ran out of food?
The (barely) rational part of me pointed to the hundred pounds of wheat and rye flour in my bedroom, my flour mill, and my ability to bake bread as proof that I was already Stockalypse-proof as long as the oven kept working. But humans have shared memory and our strongest and deepest genetic code is the warning of starvation. Hunger has been with us millennia longer than this brief historical blip of plenty, and no amount of calm discussion can erase what your genes know: In times of crisis and war, he who has food lives, and he who does not, dies.
I sighed and made a list that didn’t include toilet paper or water. Instead it looked like this:
- Hamburger meat. If the Stockalypse was really here, I wanted to make a tray full of yummy hamburgers.
- Onions. You can’t flavor anything without onions. Would I rather die than eat chicken soup without onions? Yes.
- Chicken. A whole chicken taken home and butchered gives you the makings for delicious chicken soup, and the feeling of chopping up a dead animal, sawing off the limbs and ripping out the entrails, gives you the feeling that you really are surviving. “See this dead chicken? I just killed it some more.”
- Carrots and celery. These all-purpose vegetables will season your soups and stews and also make a tasty salad.
- Olive oil. Yes you can pile your cart high with frozen and canned food. But how are you going to cook anything without oil? Answer: Americans don’t cook. The cooking oil shelves were untouched and the house brand of extra virgin was still only seven bucks.
- Sausage. You’re going to make beans, right? Better have sausage.
- Beans. See above.
- Fresno, jalapeno, and serrano peppers. Do you want to swirl down the drain of the Stockalypse on oatmeal and canned corn? Or do you want some kick and bite in your last meals? More kicks and bites, please.
- Oatmeal. Breakfast in an apocalypse without oatmeal is sad unless you’ve run out of cinnamon and nutmeg.
- Garlic. You are going to cook anything, especially eggs, without fresh garlic? No, not here, you aren’t.
- Chocolate chips. A lot of people think about the horror of living without TP and water, but I think about the horror of being quarantined on a rainy day and not being able to bake cookies. So I got two bags of chips to be safe.
- Sugar. My hummingbirds drink about 2 pounds of sugar a day dissolved in water. In times of great need, we must never forget the smallest among us.
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