Simon Longhi, M1, Class of 2025
Wow, they really did it. Literally zero toilet paper.
Trudging into Publix Super Market on a beautiful, yet too-early morning in late March of 2020, I unrolled and tied my wrinkled black apron behind me as I looked over to the bathroom accessories aisle across Register Six. Barren. Edges and crannies of the aisle shelves I had never even seen before, now completely exposed. The coronavirus pandemic had just begun to settle upon a panicking Orlando, and it seemed that folks were convinced that this thing akin to a Walking Dead zombie apocalypse would confine them to their homes for weeks or months at a time (I guess?), so stocking up on toiletries was a scrambling priority. Brilliant.
The spectacle of that empty aisle amused me in the moment, sure. But what it meant was I’d really have to earn my handsome wage as a cashier today.
“So when are you guys gonna have toilet paper?”
“You’ve been out of hand sanitizer for over a week, when can I get some?”
“Hey, c’mon, when does the next shipment come in? Just tell me.”
“My grandmother lives alone and has a condition, please just tell me how I can get some toilet paper as soon as possible, she needs help, please!”
I had the canned answers for all these ready, more or less, but I scrambled through my social skills to keep up with whatever other desperate pleadings and frustrations my customers threw at me. In my head, I could not help but judge the more whiny customers as ungrateful, rude, or ignorant. But even more toxic, in there, I judged myself for even standing here and wearing that fucking apron, combatting shame for living with the reality that this job was the best I could do.
The all-quiet, do-nothing moments standing in front of Register Six or Two or wherever, staring into the polished concrete or at the deli in the distance, those were the hardest. Sure, it meant that I had no customer. I could just chill and daydream. But, look—I was thirty-one years old. I had a law degree, wasted. My parents gave me everything I could ever need “to succeed”. During my waffling years in higher education, I did feel like I tried, I really did, but from where I stand now—staring at this unforgiving Publix floor—there’s nothing I could look back on there but failure. Missed connections. Unseized opportunities. How could that guy, that skinny little man almost swallowed up whole by that apron, ever daydream and enjoy it?
Cheetos Puffs were where the Gummy Lifesavers should’ve been. And the price tag for Sour Patch Kids was under a section of Cooler Ranch Doritos. My old-ass knees creaked as I squatted down at the end cap of Register Six to rearrange all this disorder more neatly. Just grabbing the Cheetos bag and feeling the air inflated within it, the crackling noise the bag material made as I gripped it, I momentarily transported myself back to my usual table at the high school cafeteria, popping this same bag open with a chocolate milk carton and chicken fried steak alongside. A few of us were talking about our college applications on one side, and I along with a couple friends were prepping some sick rap battle lyrics on the other. Fuck, I hate nostalgia right now. It meant that I had my whole life ahead of me back then, that I was happy, and what do I have now? This Cheetos bag in my hand, which absolutely must be put in the correct shelf, just six inches lower. There, that’s better.
Barb, my fellow opening cashier, quick-walked up to her register beside me, having arrived a bit late. Barb was a sixteen-year Publix veteran, with two kids and a husband also in the Publix family as a meat cutter. She was tall and slightly heavy-set, had short red hair with touches of gray, and usually wore a kind but tired smile behind large glasses. This was the face I saw as I turned around to return the greeting.
“You ready for this today, Barb?” I pointed at the glaring emptiness that was the toilet paper aisle.
“Oh, Lord….” She looked over and the smile faded into concern. She exhaled deeply. “Well, I guess we’ll have to be, right?”
“You got any tricks on what to say, y’know, if someone really pushes us?”
“Oh, Simon, I really don’t know, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this, other than for a big hurricane maybe. I mean, I guess, say that you understand their frustration, but that we as cashiers don’t know anything about stocking or shipment schedules,”—we kind of did, but we’re instructed not to freely give out that information—“so to please just speak to our store manager or check in with customer service.”
“I mean, yeah sure, but I think they’ll still get mad with that. I bet they’ll keep asking. This sucks.”
“Is your family doing okay with all this?” She was very kind to ask this, sweet Barb.
“Oh yeah, we’re okay, no worries, still got a good supply of toilet paper,” I laughed, “You guys good too?”
“Yup, yup, good so far. We’re just praying all this craziness blows over in a few months. I heard on the news that—”
“Hello?! Are you open?”
First customer, a serious-looking woman in a pants suit with an energy drink and some random snacks in hand to purchase. A pseudo-regular in early mornings before the typical workday. She also had a package of off-brand dinner napkins that we’d usually struggle to sell, too.
“Oh yeah, sorry about that, just chatting with Barb a bit here! How are you doing, is plastic okay?”
“Yes, I’m good, yes….”
“And did you find everyth—”
“Hey, so when do you think you’ll have toilet paper coming in? I can’t believe you guys are totally out, I really thought Publix would be better about all this.”
“Oh ma’am, I’m so sorry I really just don’t know, they don’t tell us cashiers about when shipments come in. I do know our stock guys have been absolutely slammed this week, they’re just doing everything they can.”
She spoke to me lower now. “Are you just telling me that? Do they really not let you guys get first priority on stuff when it comes in?”
Oh great, now I really have to lie. “No ma’am, with how hard things are now, we’re all sacrificing a bit and just trying to make things work. Customers first.” Shit, I’m laying it on a little thick here. Do I sound fake?
“Can you really just not tell me, this one time? I’m buying these damn napkins of all things ‘cause our office is almost out of toilet paper, can you imagine if we actually have to wipe—”
“Ma’am, I know, I know, trust me, we’re trying so hard to get back stocked up as soon possible. But there’s nothing else I can really tell you here.”
“Oh I don’t know, what’s your name…?” She squinted down at my nametag. “Simon? Simon, I do think you could help me, but you just won’t, or can’t.”
Heat flushed under my skin at that jab.
“And don’t tell me I should speak to a manager because I don’t have time for that and I’m sure they won’t help me either.”
The receipt hurried on out of its machine, whirring so gloriously. “Well ma’am, again, we’re trying the best we can, and we would be more than happy to hear you out at customer service, but—”
“I know, I know, you don’t need to say any more, Simon, just get me my receipt here and you tell your manager that Publix needs to shape up or else you’re gonna get a lot more pissed off people, much worse than me. Good luck.”
Such a dismissive, almost mocking tone on that “good luck.” She took her receipt and her phone out, broke eye contact and quick-walked away herself. That wasn’t fun, but man, she actually had a point—she had to have been pretty damn calm compared to what we were going to face.
Barb called out to me after the exchange, “Manager! Make them deal with it!”
I know, I know. This was me being stubborn, bitter. Because I wanted to be able to handle these customers myself. I wanted to take pride in how I dealt with people. I was the most overqualified Publix cashier in the city, a twelve-dollars-per-hour worker with a doctoral degree. Who the fuck was I if I couldn’t even handle this shit?
No customer waiting behind, but one came through Barb’s line. Another painfully free moment. I posted myself at the front of Register Six and crossed my arms over my dusty apron, staring again into that barren toilet paper aisle. The BEEPs from Barb’s register grounded me as I drifted into hollow, numbing thoughts. Hearing Tom Petty rasp his way through “I Won’t Back Down” for the three-million-five-hundred-ninety-eight-thousand-two-hundred-sixty-fourth time only made the self-vacuuming of my mind even more soul-sucking.
Another customer approached, snapping me out of this, sort of. I sauntered on back to my register keyboard, but gave myself a moment before asking hi-how-you-doing-is-plastic-okay. I tightly gripped the edge of the countertop with both hands, putting my head down in between my scrawny arms, facing my feet and the all-purpose cleaner and paper towel in an alcove underneath. I was pressing upon a figurative glass door, able to see the despair on the other side so clearly, but absolutely not going through it. If I could ever actually face myself, tears would have come. But there was too much fear to meet there. I would not meet it.
Instead, I hard-exhaled, clenched my hand into a fist, hit myself once in the leg, and asked this customer how they were doing in my most caring-sounding cadence.
That’s great. Is plastic okay…?
Did you find everything you needed today…?
Yeah I know, things are really crazy right now….
Hey guess what, I’m gonna put my fucking life back together….
Yeah, I mean it, maybe, I think….
You think I’m bullshitting, just you wait….