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First person experience: Buying toilet paper in a pandemic

By Will Hadley

I thought I was experiencing the apocalypse. I stood in a store watching strangers scratch and claw through every aisle. There was one goal in everyone’s mind. One thing would make everything better for the people of Orlando during the COVID-19 pandemic. One thing would wipe away all suffering. A roll of toilet paper. 

A day I will never forget, a blistering hot Tuesday in Orlando, FL. My father and I had gone out to run a couple of errands. The errands finished very quickly, but one statement led us to extend our quarantine for a bit longer: “I wonder where we could find toilet paper?” 

After seeing the constant videos and memes on social media about the hunt for toilet paper, we figured we may as well check it out in person and see what the hype was about. It could not be that bad, right? Dad had been scanning the Walmart app all morning to see what store had toilet paper until he finally landed one. We decided to drive across town to this Walmart to press our luck and see if there was still some in stock. 

We were feeling very confident. So confident that you could even call us cocky. We were not prepared. Once we made our way to the paper goods aisle we were hit with a shocking realization. I had never seen an entire aisle at a superstore completely empty before. Twenty yards and three shelves of nothing but metal. This would not completely put us down though; we had a couple of tricks up our sleeves to try still. 

We immediately walked to the Office Max store adjacent to the Walmart as my dad had recalled seeing toilet paper in an Office Max before. After searching all over the store before finally finding the empty shelves where the paper goods once sat. “Who buys TP at Office Max?” I said to my dad, leading to some chuckles from nearby employees. Office Max crushed us. We knew that if there was no toilet paper at Office Max then there would not be toilet paper anywhere. 

We were ready to go home, until the lightbulb above my head went off, leading us to a fool-proof plan. 

Asian supermarkets. 

It seems xenophobia is at an all-time high in the United States, and going through a pandemic from a virus started in another country does not help the case. While Orlando is a generally progressive and open-minded community, my idea was to bank on the implicit bias of the average white American—regardless of political view—and hope a Chinese supermarket would have the supplies we were looking for. 

We rolled into the newly developed Chinatown of Orlando, and our eyes were immediately set on the prize: a massive grocery store with letters reading “Oriental Supermarket.” This was it, our time to finally get our toilet paper while fighting racism at the same time. If you thought we were cocky at Walmart, you should have seen us now. 

We walked into the store and were immediately hit with the smell of fish. The fish market was directly adjacent to the doors, so we knew we just had to make it towards the back of the store and we would escape the odor. We did that, and the smell eventually faded away. 

After escaping the initial shock from the smell, we were left with a scary realization. It was us and about five other people in the entire store. While every other store we went to had had every square inch covered with people, this store seemed like a desert wasteland. 

We searched through every aisle looking for toilet paper, which we soon realized the store did not even sell. However, the toilet paper was gone from our minds at that point. 

If there were only five people in the entire store on a day where the entire country is stocking up for a pandemic, I could not imagine what it would be like on a normal day. This store had a lot of space and a lot of workers. Five people in the store on the best day will not keep the store afloat. 

After vowing to each other to visit the store again soon, we ended up buying a couple of things before giving up and heading home without toilet paper. If we could not find toilet paper at Office Max or Oriental Supermarket, there was no way we were finding any TP. We figured we would just have to use the toilet paper we had at home sparingly for as long as we could until we could find some more on another day. 

The next day I woke up to find that my dad still knows much more than I do as I walked downstairs and saw two 12 packs of Quilted Northern sitting on the stairs. It turns out, all it takes to get some toilet paper in a pandemic is a 5 a.m. wake-up and a little bit of luck. 

This first-person article was completed as an assignment in an Oklahoma Christian journalism course. It was edited by Talon staff and approved for publication.

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