A long time ago (beginning of March), in a galaxy far away (across town), I made a run to Costco (Ground Zero). This is usually Hubby’s job but my super efficient self had to get gas anyway. I pulled into a front row parking spot that sunny morning, congratulating myself on arriving before opening hour and turned on the radio for a rare five minutes of relaxation. I thought it was odd to see a crowd gathered near the warehouse doors on a Tuesday, but with Costco you never know. I shrugged a couple of minutes later, gathered my shopping list and headed over to stand with the happy campers and stare at the rollup doors the way my cat stares down a can of tuna.
The woman closest to me gave me funny look. Not a happy one. Like maybe my fly was down or I had mustard on my face. I looked around and realized that she was the line leader for everyone there. Behind her stretched a trail of people gripping empty shopping carts down the entire length of the building. Huh? Since when does everyone get in line? Costco is famous for the wide open cattle range that it is. Every man for himself. It works.
Not on her watch.
I glanced to my left and a gentleman stood there with an amused smirk and crossed arms and I copied him and got myself comfortable. People are weird.
“I’m not getting in line,” I told him. “There’s enough stuff for an army in there, what’s the rush?”
At opening time, another amazing thing happened. From the exit door, three employees walked out and, facing the line of customers, held up their cell phones and began to shoot video. They shook their heads in disbelief as the line began to move into the bowels of the store. The employee who opened the door began calling out to the passing people, “Take your time, folks, there’s plenty for everyone. Be polite, please. Thank you for staying calm.”
What in the world? It must be quite a sale. Too bad whatever it was wasn’t on my list.
With one raised eyebrow, I followed the last of the line into the store. No. That’s not true. I waited for the end of the line to show up and it didn’t. The whole parking lot was migrating towards me now, so I just waved my card and conducted business as usual. All aboard.
I zipped up the sidelines where no shoppers ever linger. I’m no amateur. Tossed the goods into my cart without skipping a beat, which is how I always shop. Get in. Get out. Tea time.
I came skidding around a corner five minutes later, halfway done, and darned if the line was still in formation and stretched in the opposite direction, the length of the warehouse. Perfectly serious faces, perfectly empty carts.
“Excuse me,” I mumbled at the line. I was monitored from all directions as they let me through.
“Get some more troopers back there,” an employee hissed into his walkie, scuttling by.
I craned my neck in a brief attempt to understand when Karen plowed triumphantly by, her cart full to overflowing with…toilet paper. If you are unfamiliar with a Costco-sized package of toilet paper, just know that it takes only two to prevent all further items going into your cart. These tissue towers won’t even fit under the cart. Karen had three and the front basket where the babies go was stacked with sanitizing hand wipes. The look on her face implied she was only warming up, but where was she going to put her groceries? Down her bra?
The next man went by with a Jenga-worthy stack in his cart and I heard him say, to no one in particular, “I own a business.” His tone was defensive.
Then a little old lady passed me and saw my shocked face. She only had a single plushie in her cart but said apologetically, “Well, I don’t really need any but if this is the way things are going, I may as well get me some now.”
I had no clue what was going on. I did not get this memo. I was a little freaked out.
I flung the rest of my groceries into the cart and dashed to the check-out where I had the place to myself. That alone is a creepy experience. The clerk behind the beep beep machine wore a resigned look. One braced for the inevitable. Long suffering and just a bit in shock.
“What?” she said, scanning items, “no toilet paper?” I gripped my cart in an effort to remain calm. Was I making a terrible mistake?
“What’s happening?” I asked her under my breath, not sure I wanted to know.
She stopped scanning and just stared at me. There was no one else in line. She leaned forward and said, “Well, I’ll tell you. Last week, three of our trucks were stalled out east due to bad weather. Happens all the time. These just happened to contain our toilet paper. So, for a couple of days, there was a big empty space where it goes.” She stood taller. “It’s not like we weren’t going to get it any minute, we had to keep the space open.”
I thought for a beat. Costco never has empty spaces. Product is continually shifted to maximize sales.
“Anyway,” she continued, as she swiped my items from left to right, “A rumor went around that there was a shortage. So when the trucks finally arrived, there was a run on it.” She paused. “I get it if people were out but I mean, you can buy the stuff anywhere. We all decided they must just love our brand or whatever, but it’s happened every single day since. Cleaned out faster than we can put more on the pallets. No reason why. We have plenty. We won’t run out.”
She looked towards the cattle drive and shook her head. “Do you need boxes today?”
I declined her offer, thanked her, and bolted.
I was almost to my car and a lady went by and laughed, “What? Where’s your toilet paper?”
I was prevented from replying because three different cars were inches from my body, poised to take my spot as soon as I pulled out. The parking lot resembled Disneyland on a get-in-free day. A steady surge of humanity kept flowing into the warehouse, trapped in the toilet paper tractor beam.
At this point, you have to know some things. One, I did not in any way need toilet paper. And two, I was contemplating unloading my groceries into my car and going back for some because I didn’t want to get left behind. I felt deprived, anxious, needy, and fearful of the future.
“What if? What if?” asked my mother’s voice.
“Well,“ I answered, “if we need some, we’ll buy it at the 7-11 on the corner. If the planet runs out, squirt bottles for everybody.” It was time to go home.
“Ewww,” said the voice.
“The Europeans are way ahead of us as it is. Hush.” I sat in the car and took a nice deep breath. “And if we didn’t need any, then everyone here is going to feel a bit silly a month from now.”