An explanation for TP hoarding: the howling skitters

I can’t drive through Salinas California without thinking of John Steinbeck and how hated he was in his own home town.  It’s something all writers deal with if they are truthful. For those of you unfamiliar with Steinbeck, Salinas is a medium sized town at the northern end of the one of the most agriculturally rich valleys in the world. We drive through it often on our way from the SF Bay Area to Southern California where my daughter lives.  For most of the year it’s an incomparable drive. Mile after mile of farmland growing up the fog-ridged hills that separate the inland from the coast.  Just off the highway are small towns where you can stop and get authentic Mexican tacos or a bag of fruit and vegetables fresh from the farm.

 But Steinbeck did not write a pastoral.  No, he wrote about how, in cramped and desperate conditions, using more than your fair share of toilet paper could bring your family shame.  Let me explain.

Just before Christmas I found a well-used copy of Grapes of Wrath while collecting books to donate to the library.  I’d just read Travels with Charlie and hungered for more Steinbeck, an author whom I hadn’t read since high school.  Travels is an easy and relaxing read; apropos for a long plane ride.  Grapes has now taken me three months and I’m not yet finished.  Each chapter deserves a second, sometimes third reading.  It’s that good.

If you’ve never read the book or seen the movie, it’s set at the end of the Great Depression.  The Joad family are hardworking, proud though simple farmers forced from their land in Oklahoma by crop failures and the greed of large agricultural interests. They set out for California just hoping for a fair chance to earn a decent living.

Once in the Salinas Valley, they’re treated as sub-humans which is probably why Steinbeck couldn’t set foot in that town again.  They are forced to live in labor camps where the rules are made by the occupants.  Many of the rules involve sanitation huts which must service a number of families.    

Jessie (“big committee lady”) to Ma Joad:

“We got our trouble with toilet paper.  Rule says you can’t take none away from here.” She clicked her tongue sharply “Whole camp chips in for toilet paper.”  For a moment she was silent, and then she confessed. “Number Four is usin’ more than any other.  Somebody’s a-stealin’ it.” 

Later the “confessor” explains why her family’s been using more than their fair share:

“Skitters.  All five of ‘em [her daughters]. We been low on money. They et the green grapes.They all five got the howling skitters.”

I’m not saying that the TP hoarders all read The Grapes of Wrath and are now afraid of facing the apocalypse having to share a toilet with strangers, particularly if food runs out and they’re forced to eat green grapes and get the “howling skitters.”  I think it comes from a deeper fear of being shamed for your toilet habits. If you’ve got a mountain of TP you can use as much as you want without “big committee lady” casting shame on you.

But then, I’m always full of it!

45 thoughts on “An explanation for TP hoarding: the howling skitters

  1. Hi Jan,

    I know that IBS might be important to this post, but I need to think about it. Of course, I do my best thinking on the toilet. It’s the sound effects that inspire me. Thanks. Duke

    1. I have a friend who redesigned a bathroom so that he could sit on the pot and look out at the Golden Gate bridge! It was the only room in his house that had that view and he wanted to take full advantage of it.

  2. Steinbeck, Grapes and Fonda. That’s a pretty impressive post. I always enjoyed Fonda as an actor. There was just something about his performances.

  3. Excellent post, as always, Jan. I was supposed to read The Grapes of Wrath in high school, but believe I bought the Cliffs Notes instead. Then, when my first child was born, I read TGOW slowly, over many, many hours of nursing, day and night. An astonishingly great book, and wait ’til you read the final chapter. Quite upsetting for me as a new mom. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there. Be well, Jan.

      1. Couldn’t agree more, Jan. It’s a rare hs student who’ll read Steinbeck’s masterpieces from the intended perspective. I know some of these kids exist, but everyone I knew in hs (myself included) were too immature to handle that stuff.

  4. Couldn’t resist adding this video of Springsteen singing The Ghost of Tom Joad on The Tonight Show in 1995. IMO, the entire video’s worth watching, but if you’re not a Bruce fan, the part most relevant to this post starts at 2:45.

  5. Great, thoughtful post, Jan! I really need to revisit Steinbeck now that I’m older; in high school, I did not have the life experience to be able to relate to TGoW. It was just a book I had to read for an assignment. Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony were more my speed then. As an Asheville (NC) native, I also concur with your statement about how if an author writes truthfully, s/he is not often well-received by the hometown or native community; this backlash also happened to Ashevillian Thomas Wolfe, particularly with Look Homeward, Angel.

    1. Thanks Leigh. I’d like to reread all of Steinbeck’s work. I remember reading about Thomas Wolfe’s troubles in his home town. Course, I don’t think his wild personality did much to help!

  6. I didn’t know that about Steinbeck and Salinas, so that’s good info. I liked Grapes, but I didn’t love it. I wonder if reading it now would elicit a different response. SO many books do. Food for my thoughts.

    1. I love the writing and the chances he took with the structure of the novel. The story is one of greed mixed in with the hypocrisy of religion and the prejudice of people towards outsiders. I think that’s why I can only handle a chapter at a time. Hope you feel better soon!

      1. Jan, I was about to leave a separate comment when I read your response to Joey. So, basically, the book is reflective of current attitudes. I read it in HS, but can’t recall much of the story. I do remember it being depressing, in a haunting kind of way that stayed with you for a while.

        Love your TP analogy. My daughter and her boyfriend are staying with us and she is so happy to have her own bathroom. Malcolm asked me yesterday why the TP is dwindling – my response, ‘check her bathroom.’ She had a full package stashed under the counter. If this lasts much longer, we will have to impose a use tax on our guests. Thanks for the smile today.

  7. Things never change which is the hard part of reading a book written so long ago. It’s primarily the “haves” versus the “have nots.”

    Oh my – let the TP wars begin in your household! I think children (no matter how old) believe their parents have some kind of secret source. We can just magically provide whatever they need! But I would change places with you in a sec – would love to have my kids under my roof.

  8. I’ve read all of Steinbeck – he’s is my favorite author and Grapes of Wrath might be my favorite book. I would have loved to have coffee with him or just shake his hand. I didn’t realize he wasn’t loved in Salinas because now, of course they claim him as does Monterey’s Cannery Row.

    1. There’s not too much else Salinas can claim credit for! Over the years, the town has lost a lot of its original charm.

      I can see why he would be your favorite author. In his books, the people are tied to the earth and the environment has a voice of its own. Greed is an enemy to both.

  9. I read “The Grapes of Wrath” many years ago, but I remember it vividly. It’s one of those stories that stays with you. As someone who is running out of TP, I can’t help but be a tad resentful of all the hoarders out there.

    1. Well, it looks like a lot of people who hoarded TP and other things are now trying to sell them and make a profit. I do think it was important for the people forced off family farms and onto communal work camps to hang on to some self-dignity. Don’t know about those folks trying to make money off other people’s suffering. No words!

  10. Hi. I read Grapes years ago. I consider it one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read. A few years later I read East Of Eden, which many think is a great one too. I didn’t like East very much. One or two of the characters seemed ridiculous to me.

    Anyway, take care. Bye till next time.

    1. I think Steinbeck considered it his best one. It does sound a little dense and overrun with biblical themes. Hope things are going well for you and yours.

  11. Hi JT
    Enjoyed this post for so many reasons
    First – the closing video touched me today! Thanks
    Second, I was excited to hear how you found the well used copy and then dove in! However – I couldn’t make it thru travels with Charlie – but maybe it was a different r season in my life when I tried to enjoy it – that busy season might not have allowed me to feel it – but a plane ride might be a good place for such a book?
    Third, enjoyed your fun connection of the toilet paper topic from the book and how it really connected to recent current events
    Fourth, the green grapes added that touch of humor while also was sobering – the entire mention of grapes of wrath is sobering and can ground us (to appreciate what we have
    Fifth, not sure if you know we loved o Los Gatos in 2002 and I started writing on the remodeled attic of our rental house (inspired to be in a neighborhood where Steinbeck was) but there were roof rats that made scary noises and writing was halted – oh and I had two little kiddos and worked PT so it was a joke to think any real writing would get done! But fun to think back
    Lastly – we considered buying a condo in salinas – went to East coast instead – but I know that drive from San Jose/Los Gatos to Lon Beach – your photo shows the beauty encountered – truly a great drive

    Now I need some Steinbeck

    1. I think Travels with Charlie is good for a plane or train trip because it’s basically a set of travel stories. Not much of a plot or character development. Los Gatos is a beautiful place – very expensive to live there now. To me, Salinas has really gone downhill. We used to stop there for lunch on our way south but now we don’t even like to get off the freeway. Sad.

      1. That is sad that salinas has gone downhill and as more and more people likely skip the stopping there – it adds to it ….
        But maybe it can rebound …

        And yes – Los Gatos is one of the most expensive zip codes in the US
        And we got a great deal on the rental from a friend – and they were shocked when we moved out a few months later – because most folks would want the status but JT – I am so happy that we never fell into that trap – we loved to San Jose – it cost us a little more but it was just hat we needed – whew

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