Revisited: In search of the perfect toilet paper

Life used to be so simple. 

You’d get a call at the office from the wife, asking you to stop at the store and pick up some milk and bread on the way home. The milk was offered in two, maybe three, varieties: regular, skim and, possibly, expired. Bread was just bread, not whole wheat, not ciabatta, not hemp, not gluten-free. You’d get your two items, maybe sneak a quick peek at the babe on the cover of Good Housekeeping, and pay the cashier. With something called cash.  

You’d leave the store, climb into the driver’s seat of your giant Chevy without worrying about sissy seatbelts, light up a Pall Mall, and harbor a deep prejudice toward races other than yours. It was that simple.  

When I got a call from my wife the other day asking me to pick up some toilet paper after work, I practically had an anxiety attack. Even though she was very specific about the kind of toilet paper we wanted – Cottonelle Ultra double pack, the purple label, NOT the blue – I’ve been in the bathroom tissue aisle of the grocery store recently, and it’s a very imposing corner of the universe. The options are tremendous, as you can see from the photo below.   

TP as far as the eye can see

Choice is a great thing but it’s increasingly obvious that we in America have taken it too far. From ketchup to dog food to beer to right-wing lunatics, there are now so many options available in the modern marketplace as to be overwhelming to the uninformed consumer. Even though I had clear instructions – don’t forget: purple label, not blue – I thought I could better prepare myself for the assignment with a little online self-education. 

“Toilet paper is a soft paper product used to maintain personal hygiene after human defecation or urination,” Wikipedia tells us. “However, it can also be used for other purposes such as absorbing spillages or craft projects.” (Note to Wikipedia: This article may need to be edited to meet your quality standards. Not clear that these are three separate and distinct uses, and that TP does a poor job of “absorbing … craft projects.”) 

I learn that toilet paper products can vary immensely in the technical factors that distinguish them, including size, weight, softness, chemical residue and some frightening feature called “finger-breakthrough resistance.” I learn that a light coating of aloe or lotion or wax (!) may be worked into the paper to reduce roughness. I learn that so-called luxury papers may be rippled, embossed, perfumed, colored, patterned, medicated or imprinted with cartoon animals. 

Thus prepared, I enter the local Bi-Lo and find my way to aisle 11. Any confidence I may have gleaned from my studies is soon dashed. The huge expanse of options on display reminds me of the sea of faces I saw upon exiting the Mumbai airport baggage claim, each face either searching for a passenger, offering their porter services or looking for a handout. Except the Indians were less quilted. 

I found some paper called “Aloe and E,” which I assume contains both lotion and vitamin E, or else the user says “eee!” when they use it. I found Angel Soft, Supreme Softness and Charmin Sensitive, all for the touchy bum. I found a bargain label called Clear Value, another brand aimed at the Hispanic market called Paseo (which I think means “pass” in Spanish), and a store brand named Southern Home, with equally unsavory connotations. One product promised the feature of “tuggable huggable softness.” 

As you can see from the photo above, I also saw Spic and Span cleaning wipes, Ziploc storage bags and rubber gloves. I want very much to believe these were in the neighborhood by coincidence. 

I found an Ultra Plush, which is not the same as the Ultra I was looking for. I mentally cordoned off the aisle into four sectors, to better zero in on the specific label for which I was searching. I felt like the field archeologist exploring for the one femur bone that would confirm the existence of a previously unknown subspecies of early man. Only by being methodical and patient might I eventually succeed. 

Still, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I knew my fate if I failed to succeed. Like the ancient hunter/gatherer returning to the home cave with an antelope carcass when his wife specifically told him she wanted zebra for dinner, I would be vehemently chastised. “Don’t you listen to me anymore?” I’d be asked. “And I suppose you got the wrong tree lichen too.” 

I could call my wife and ask if there were any acceptable substitutes, but I hate those people who wander about the contemporary supermarket, cell phone to their ear and listening to a recited list that should’ve been written down. They’re always running over my foot with their shopping carts. I didn’t want to be one of these people. I’d rather buy a half dozen items that might be close — including Ultra brand razors and Ultra brand saltines — and hope to luck into the right purchase. I’d prefer to return the others later rather than come home empty-handed. 

Just as I was about to give up, there it was, in all its purple-packaged glory. The label said it was “new – even more cushiony comfort” and there was a picture of a napping puppy lying under what looked like a thick blanket, right below the Cottonelle name. (I assume it was a blanket; it looked about two inches too thick to be toilet paper). No wonder I had trouble locating the right stuff. My wife should’ve mentioned the puppy. 

I threw my prize into the cart and headed for the checkout. A sense of triumph coursed through me, as did the satisfaction of knowing that I was providing for my family. 

I headed for home, my stomach gurgling with the accumulated tension of the hunt. Within moments, I’d be happy I had found the right stuff.

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