The hoarders are in Margaretville, my little village in upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains, 140 miles north of the viral epicenter.
Suddenly shelves were bare in the supermarket (yes, there’s just one). The place had a raided look to it, as if locusts had fed, and the manager, Leo, shook his head at what was happening. “I just don’t get it,” he said.
Leo, whose job involves working with supply chains, knew well there was no shortage of food or cleaning supplies but the mere perception of one as the supply chain failed to keep up with the surge in demand. And that perception transformed people—or at least many newly arrived and particularly entitled ones—into hoarders, in a scene repeated across the country.
Week after week in March and April, the trucked shipments of supplies came in, and a day later the pasta and rice, canned tomato sauce and canned beans were gone, the fresh produce was stripped out, and the supply of milk, eggs and cheese was running low.
And, of course, there were runs on toilet paper, with people filling carts with Charmin and Angel Soft as though they expected the defecation rate to rise with the pandemic. It seemed the hoarders were already shitting themselves over COVID-19.
I started asking around about who was doing the hoarding. “It’s not me,” said Donna, one of the check-out clerks who works with Leo. “It’s, well, I think it’s city people.”
City people? I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and spent most of my adult life there until moving to the Catskills three years ago, and might have taken offense in other circumstances. “Yeah, they’re coming up here, they’re freaking out, and they want to get as much for themselves as they can.”
So you’re not hoarding? “Fuck no!” said Donna. “I’m not scared. Jesus Christ, we get blizzards here. We know what’s what. We’re ready. That’s country living.”
One day I stood behind a woman in Donna’s line who was spending $800, her cart teeming, her eyes worried and worn behind her mask.
Donna said she’d never seen this person before in the store. As Leo put it to me, “There are a lot of strange faces.” Leo and Donna apparently have the ability (and I believe they do) to recognize their customers behind their masks.
I went next door to the CVS store and asked one of the workers there about the hoarders, still trying to figure out who they were–because it seemed no one who I knew in town, no one who lived full-time in our mountain community, was hoarding.
“I’ve been in Margaretville for more than 20 years,” said a CVS employee who I’ll call Annie (she didn’t want me using her real name), “and I’m seeing a lot of new faces. I think they’re Airbnb owners who are now using their Airbnbs themselves. They’ve got money, credit cards, and it’s just swipe. While a lot of people here are living paycheck to paycheck and can’t make these big purchases.”
Anne echoed other locals I’d spoken with who’d concluded that the hoarders were mostly not full-time residents of Margaretville. They were second home-owners, vacation rental operators, Airbnb property managers, and the like.
“And why, for goodness sake,” asked Annie, “the run on toilet paper?” She laughed.
Mostly the hoarding of toilet paper is about shame. We want to be clean of our shit, to be sanitary members of society, and having toilet paper freely available is part of our expression of sanitary membership. A pandemic is a time of uncertainty, and uncertainty causes fear—fear transmuted into irrational behaviors in individuals now frantically seeking the comfort of the familiar. And one of those familiar comforts is soft toilet paper.
Still, the panic at the supermarket strikes me fundamentally as a noxious expression of class. On one side, there are upper-class urbanites who can afford $800-a-pop food purchases and a temporary second home outside of the city.
And on the other, there are the residents in Margaretville who want to shop for groceries as usual and who recognize the ties that bind: not necessarily familial, but just a sense that we're all in this together and have obligations one to the other.
After all, when the nightmare of the COVID-19 pandemic is over, you might be seeing your neighbor at the store or on the street and you don't want her to remember that you were a selfish brute during the shutdown.