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!