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toilet Paper Crisis

The news of spreading Coronavirus in China, South Korea, and Italy sent Americans--elderly and young, rich and poor, men and women, white and colored--to stores to buy toilet paper.

Two days ago, a few minutes before 8 AM, I stood before the metal door of the Target store in Ward Parkway Shopping Center in Kansas City, Mo., with a single goal--to buy toilet paper. At age 79, I normally don't get out of my home this early but I had to, not because I had run out of toilet paper, but because the global toilet paper crises in the news alerted me that someday soon, I might be in a sickbed with COVID-19, in desperate need of toilet paper.

My several attempts to buy toilet paper had been fruitless, even though I visited several stores. But the previous afternoon, here at Target, I had a glimmer of hope when I overheard a store employee telling someone to come at 8 am when the store opens and new merchandise is restocked. And I got here the first thing in the morning to beat my rivals.

The Starbucks at the entrance to the building is closed, its glass door dark, with a note saying that the coffeeshop is temporarily out of business due to COVID-19. Only a couple days earlier, this coffee shop bustled with customers buying coffee or sitting at tables, reading newspaper or staring at their laptop screens, while sipping coffee. Most stores that don't open until 9 AM are usually brightly lit, but not today.

       Finally, the metal door rolled upward, and a young male employee in red shirt invited us in. This was when I realized that two dozen shoppers, including me, were marching into the store and heading in the same direction—the aisle where toilet paper is. Reaching the destination, everyone moved fast, each grabbing one or two packs of toilet paper.

I wasn't sure if I wanted an 18-roll pack or a 30-roll pack. A male employee who was stacking boxes onto a shelf warned: "Please take only one pack, folks, to be considerate for others." No one argued. I saw some shoppers removing a pack from their carts and returning it to the shelf.

Finding a 30-roll pack, I loaded it onto my cart and looked for facial tissues. Buying facial tissues had no restrictions, I learned, so I took two 6-packs. Five minutes later, after I grabbed a few other things, I learned at the checkout that toilet paper was sold out. The young woman before asked when the next shipment would be coming in, and he said, "Tomorrow morning. When you get here at eight in the morning, you'll get it."

How glad I was, going home with 30 rolls of toilet paper and 12 boxes of facial tissues!

The whole scenario was familiar to me, a Korean-American who lived here in the United States for more than a half-century. In the spring of 1953, a few months before the war ended with an armistice on July 27, 1953, the Korean currency "won" was changed to "hwan," making the value of "won" to crash all of a sudden. In those uncertain days in Korea, people kept currency at home, rather than trusting banks. On the day the "Change of Currency" was announced, our neighborhood market became impenetrable as people rushed in and grabbed whatever they could get their hands on. Nonperishable food such as rice, wheat, corn, barley, and rye vanished quickly, like toilet-paper here in the U.S. today. Some greedy vendors charged more than the original price and worse, some refused to sell, knowing their items might be worth more in "hwan" than in "won" and they didn't have to deal with the trouble of exchanging the old currency with the new one.

At such a chaotic time as this when the future is unfathomable, the poor and sick are most vulnerable whether in Korea or in the US. Not finding food anywhere, many starved to death seven decades ago. I saw a few corpses lying on the street with my own eyes, in their filthy clothes, attracting flies.

I know this "COVID-19 crisis" will be history one day. But I won't say "Let's not worry"; I rather worry, and I know "worries" will make us search options, hope for a better day, and be stronger in dealing with obstacles we face in this journey of life whether we like it or not.