Bessie Levin waited to see the manager.
“How may I help you Ma’am,” he said. He was well-groomed, polite, and had Bernard Sopotnick stitched on the pocket of his red Costco vest.
There are nine Costco stores within a one-hundred-mile radius of Bessie’s apartment in Bensonhurst. She has spoken in-person, face-to-face, with the store manager of eight of them. She got nowhere with any of them. You name them: Sunset Park, Elmhurst, Staten Island, Bayonne. Nothing.
The last one on her list, and the one in which Bernard Sopotnick is standing before her, is on Krocks Road in Allentown, PA.
She arrived at 7:30AM. The line at the entrance was meager. Things looked promising here, she thought, 97.3 miles from her home in the epicenter of big-box high-stakes competition consumerism.
The congenial woman ahead of her in line shared that she was just here for eggs, lactose-free milk, Double Stuff Oreos (for her three little Biederman’s), Purell, and a sixteen-pack of Charmin. “What are you here for,” she asked Bessie.
“Oh, you know, milk, eggs, bread, the basics.”
Bessie abjured lying, even to complete strangers. Today was different. Today was like the last lightning round of Supermarket Sweep meets Final Jeopardy.
She had memorized the floor plan of every Costco in the Northeast. The doors opened at 10:00.
Not stopping for a cart or the free samples of radish Kimchee or vegan bacon Mac ‘n’ cheese, Bessie darted to aisle D 13, bypassing the milk, eggs, and bread (only a ploy), as fast as her Hush Puppies Power Walkers could take her.
A small crowd had formed in the aisle. Women milling around with surgical masks on, men holding masks in their hands. All are staring at a six-inch high block-lettered sign, “We are sold out of water, bath tissue, and paper towels. We are sorry for any inconvenience.”
Inconvenience? Are you goddamn kidding me? Inconvenience? she thinks. Inconvenience is when you miss your bus. Inconvenience is forgetting to pack your Dentu-Crème. This is no inconvenience. This is the outer limit of habitable life. This is the end of the line for Bess.
“Sir,” she said sweetly. “Would you be a dear and get me a package of toilet paper?”
“I know,” she said. “I read the sign, but could you just check again for me?”
“Trust me, Ma’am, we sold the last 96-Pack last night.”
“Sir,” she said, showing him her card, “I have been a member since 1996. Please check just one more time for me. I’ll wait.”
She’d already run the list of BJ’s, Best Buy, Walmart, and Target. All ‘temporarily out of stock.’
What does ‘temporarily’ mean to a woman on the edge?
How long is ‘temporarily’ when you’ve blown through every roll of Scott’s and Cottonelle? Every dinner napkin, Kleenex, brown take-out order napkin and even thin strips of the take-out bags and the little receipts, in the apartment. When you’ve filched every roll from Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Arby’s. When your cheeks are raw from using every last dry page of the New York Times and the New Yorker in sight. And even when it went against every shred of urbane civility she thought she had, and she used torn pages of People, US, and The National Inquirer from her neighbors’ recycling bins, what, she wondered, is the utilitarian meaning of ‘temporarily’?
She had searched online, Googling toilet paper, bath tissue, baby wipes. Sure, she could find ‘in-stock’ plenty of Tyco toy Skid-Shot Toilet Paper Blaster Guns and free shipping deals on the Rapid-Fire Sheet Storm Toilet Paper Blaster Guns (along with a free starter roll) which, according to Amazon, ‘other customers like her’ also searched for.
But, just plain, no-frills, unquilted, 2-ply toilet paper? Sold out. Single ply? Sold out.
“Listen to me, boychik,” Bessie says. “I am not known to be an angry person, and I am asking you politely, one human being to another, forget that I am a loyal customer and you’re a store manager, forget that I am old enough to be your grandmother, or I could be a distant 23 and Me cousin of your own grandmother, but forget all that. Forget everything except that you are a good person and I am a good person, and I am in need, and you have what I need, and good things happen to people like you who do good things for people like me. And, like the Bible says, do unto others… you know, so I am asking you, one last time, in the abundant goodness of your heart, that while you go get a footlong dog and a Big Gulp, with this twenty, I am slipping into your managers’ jacket pocket, you let me into the employee storeroom and I’ll slit open the glacier-size stack of Kirkland ass wipes we both know is in there somewhere with a box cutter I will borrow from the first person I see, and grab two rolls, two rolls only, and make my way out the ‘No Exit’ exit before Lothar in security, who is probably right now sitting on the crapper himself because he has run out of ‘bath tissue’ at home, is any the wiser, and I will be on my way. No harm done. Not a single word spoken. You will have done your civic duty for the fast-vanishing proverbial Common Good, and one day, God willing, I will meet you in heaven and I’ll save a good table for you, and we will talk about all of this and laugh out loud. So, how about it, Bernard?”
“Don’t Ma’am me, Bernie. Let’s you and me walk over to Employees Only right now and if there are no rolls in there I will go quietly. If there are, then you give me two, you keep the twenty, and I am out of here. But, if you refuse, I’ll know why, and I head over to Toys and Games and hand out an armload of those Rapid-Fire Toilet-Paper Sheet-Storm Blaster Guns and we start a little goddamn toilet paper revolution. Capiche?