Customers arrive early to shop and still must wait in huge lines before getting inside. | Credit: Courtesy

It’s come to this: toilet paper, guns, and cannabis, the building blocks of the apocalypse. Who knew? I must have missed the memo. But even if I got it, I still wouldn’t get it.

I showed up at Smart & Final Sunday morning, 15 minutes before it opened at 8 a.m. I figured I was nice and early. Not remotely. There was already a huge line. One overachieving early bird arrived at 6 a.m. sharp, and those waiting — armed with Smart & Final’s Kremlin-grade shopping carts — wound from the store’s front entrance all the way to Santa Barbara Street, where they curled up toward Haley. It was longer even than the usual line of urban backpackers, bike campers, and other residentially challenged people who typically claim this area as their portable living room. As usual, I was impressed by the congeniality with which most Santa Barbarans — myself excluded — vent their panic. There was no pushing and shoving when the doors opened; it was all “After you, Alphonse.”

Once inside, however, all bets were off. Imagine a demolition derby of carts packed to the sky with toilet paper. And that was with the store’s strict two-per-customer limit. Smart & Final sells product on an industrial scale; toilet paper there comes in packs of 48. A guy I knew grinned sheepishly about the 96 rolls of fluffy whiteness he was navigating to the checkout line. In the military, that would be enough to last one person eight years. “I don’t even know why I do this,” he exclaimed. Later, he answered his own riddle: “I’m going to give some to neighbors.”

Everyone has their theories about toilet paper hoarding. One — as usual — starts in China, as did the virus now known as COVID-19. Because respirator masks are allegedly made with the same pulpy paper product used to manufacture toilet tissues, the Chinese freaked about a possible toilet paper shortage. That freak-out, the theory goes, crossed borders and then continents. I prefer the explanation given by a local physician who remembers the bad old days when HIV and AIDS were still so deadly and misunderstood that hospital food care workers refused to bring food trays into the rooms of the afflicted for fear they might somehow inhale the disease by osmosis. As for the run on TP, he said, “When one person sneezes these days, 50 people crap their pants.” 

Also topping the list of panic purchasing are guns and ammo. I’m not sure what difference all those hollow-point bullets are going to make when up against a virus that laughs in the face of all antibiotics. I understand no one wants to go gently into anyone else’s long, good night, so better go — I suppose — locked and loaded.

And that brings me to the stampede in cannabis sales triggered by the virus. Home delivery drivers are working 36 hours a day, I am told, and price gouging is rampant. Having spent $15 to buy just one joint — excessively wrapped, boxed, and packaged, I might add — I had surmised price gouging was the foundation upon which the new cannabis industry rests. Even so, the chance of spontaneous combustion seems significantly lower if the gun toters are hunkering in their bunkers, loaded up on cannabis rather than liquor. 

In the meantime, I would respectfully ask all you pot heads to please shut the hell up about your theories that your stoner products are going to help ward off COVID-19. During the bubonic plague, people also thought sniffing flowers kept them safe.

In case you missed it, the Santa Barbara City Council just voted to give City Administrator Paul Casey unprecedented dictatorial powers to declare martial law and dispatch city police officers to chase senior citizens off city lawn-bowling courts; it’s true that most lawn bowlers are elderly. It’s also true that older people tend to die more when infected with the virus. But they’ll also be coming for the millennial hipsters on the bocce-ball courts. Unlike the elderly, millennial hipsters aren’t susceptible to pretty much anything, which is exactly why they need to be hauled off. It’s not fair.

Extreme times, I understand, call for extreme measures. No one has seen anything remotely like this. As we stumble down the road, I would suggest some serious attention needs to be paid to supermarkets and grocery stores. Workers in this industry — about the only sector in which social gathering is still allowed — are exposed to a Pandora’s box of germs on an hourly basis. They are the front line. So too are the people who shop there. The situation is what the public health experts call a “vector.” It’s also a vital function that can’t be shut down. 

A lot more creative fretting needs to be spent on more protective safety precautions. Trader Joe’s has taken to “metering” the number of customers allowed inside at any given time. This minimizes social contact and allows every other register to lie fallow, which in turn helps maintain greater social distances. Every cash register has hand sanitizers. Gelson’s has set up early-bird hours for elderly shoppers. All this is good. But more needs to be done. Maybe we need to start phoning in shopping lists and picking up our grub at the curb, where we could pay mobile clerks. 

It’s scary. It’s sad. It’s unprecedented. None of us have been here before, unless you happened to be alive in 1918 when the Spanish flu took 50 million people on a one-way ride to Nowheresville. The experts say don’t panic. I’m not remotely an expert, and I say don’t panic, too. Guns, toilet paper, and cannabis, indeed. Be kind. 


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