James Lileks
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If you've been wondering how COVID has affected our expectations of the paper towel, I'm here to answer your questions. If you haven't been wondering that, it is because you are a busy person involved with the world who does not ponder useless, infinitesimally irrelevant things.

But because that's my job description, I must bring some key facts to your attention.

First, to all the people who say that civilization has stalled out, unable to muster any new innovations, I say: Consider the select-a-sheet paper towel. Those are the paper towels that are perforated differently, allowing you to select half a sheet, an entire sheet, or the status-quo-shattering 1 ½ sheets.

It solves so many problems. In the olden days, you had no choice. One sheet. For bigger jobs, two or three. If you just needed to mop up a small spill, you either wasted an entire sheet or tore off a jagged portion. But no more! You look at the counter, perform some mental calculations, say, "This looks like a two-point-five job" and tear off precisely what you need.

The problem, of course, is that the half-sheet is now, by the definitions laid down by the new perforation paradigm, a single sheet, but most of us still accept the two half-sheets as the definition of a single sheet.

Anyway. For a while I've tried to decide if the select-a-sheet idea makes me more profligate with the paper, or less. When cleaning the counters, I use 1 ½ sheets, or three new sheets. Before, I used to rip off two old sheets. So I'm using less paper. But because three new sheets is the standard, does that mean I take an extra new sheet, or half an old sheet, just out of habit?

Don't think the paper-industrial complex hasn't studied this. If their research had showed that people would use less paper, the idea would have been stuffed in a vault and dropped in the ocean. Something tells me they knew we'd use more paper. They came up with the idea 10 years ago and planted the trees they knew they'd need.

Why, you might ask, has this idea not been applied to other paper products? Do you really need an entire facial tissue for one blow? It's like using a big dinner napkin to daub the corner of your mouth. But if they made teeny tissues good for one honk, that's all we'd buy. So that's not going to happen.

What of bathroom tissue? Why not half-squares? Simple: Most people, in that situation, are content with the old squares, and aren't in the mood to calculate whether they've unrolled an extra three square inches. Unless there is a pandemic.

That changed everything. Everyone in the household was instructed that we were now living in a completely changed world in which the availability of bathroom tissue was suddenly, horribly called into question, and unless someone from the household wanted to go queue up at Target at 7 a.m. like it was Meat Day in Soviet Russia, and perhaps get caught up in a riot when the last bale of Charmin was sold, everyone would have to be frugal with the squares.

Otherwise, they'd be reduced to kitchen squares, and then — well, in the old days people used the Sears catalog, but they don't make those anymore, so perhaps we'll have to go online and call up some PDFs of vintage Sears catalogs and print out those.

So no, sheet size is not an issue here.

But I promised to reveal the impact COVID had on kitchen paper towels. Remember all the shortages that followed after the lockdowns began? There was a shortage of paper bags. There wasn't enough hand sanitizer. Coins were scant. The supply of aluminum cans, for a while, was so constricted that some brands of soda were temporarily discontinued, and you stood a good chance of not finding Coke Diet Zero Caffeine-Free Ginger Blood Orange for a week or two. Sheer hell.

Now? We're good. Paper bags are plentiful, no one cares about coins, cans are abundant and hand sanitizer is available in a dazzling array of brands and sizes. I paid 70 cents for a bottle of hand sanitizer the other day; in March, you would've had to apply for monthly payments to get one.

But paper towels no longer come with printed designs.

"What was it like before the germs came, Grandfather?" The children will ask someday.

"Oh, I've told this story before."

"Again! Again! Tell us the part about the seasonal patterns!"

"I swear I thought you'd be tired of the tale! All right, all right, sit down. Well. It was the second decade of the 21st century, and paper towels came in a variety of lively patterns."

"Winter Fun!"

"That's right, Tony, that was one of them. It had snowflakes and snowmen. In the spring, they'd have flowers printed on the sheets. And do you know what some companies did if they also made napkins?"

(All the kids together) "They made the towels and napkins the same design!"

"That's right. So you could have aesthetic consistency in your paper goods."

"Grandpa, what's — iss, iss, issfectic consistency?"

(Chuckling) "It just means things looked nice together. But we took if for granted. We were so happy to see paper come back that we didn't care if the paper didn't have seasonal patterns, and the companies realized we'd buy 'em no matter what, so that was the end of that."

"Do you think they'll ever come back?"

(Grandpa stares into the distance) "We can only hope, my child. I'll probably be desperate for a column idea that week, too."

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks