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As I do several times a week, the other day I drove past the new construction on the site of the former St. Mary’s Church in Pittston. The portable toilet, either by strong winds or pranksters, had been tipped over. The door was open and I could not help but notice a full roll of toilet paper inside.

There wasn’t a soul around …

“Nah,” I said to myself, and drove on.

It might seem I am making light of a serious situation — and to a degree, I suppose I am — but by telling this story, which really happened, I also want to underscore how crazy are these times we now find ourselves in. That I actually took note of that toilet paper says plenty. That for a split second I was tempted says even more.

As is my wont, I am writing this early Tuesday morning. But not as early as usual. That’s because I made it my business to be at Wal-Mart when they opened at 6 a.m. The mission was not toilet paper but a water filter. Still, while my wife and I are pretty well heeled with TP, I could not help adding a spin down the paper products aisle. It obviously had taken a major hit, but much to my surprise, there were a few packages here and there. Then I realized they were paper towels. We are not that desperate. Yet.

As I said, we really did not need toilet paper, so I was surprised at my sense of disappointment at finding none. The feeling of failure transported me back more than 25 years to a search for a Christmas toy which, come to think of it, had something in common with toilet paper: the color. My son had asked Santa for an action figure called the White Ranger. I passed up church and waited two hours in the cold outside a King’s department store one Sunday morning only to be beaten out for the last White Ranger by an old grandma who turned out to be a lot faster than she looked.

It’s taken a few days, and a ton of stern text warnings from my son out in LA, but I am finally getting serious about all the precautions. That was not the case the week before last when I attended a couple of events and, full disclosure, shook a lot of hands. What are you supposed to do when an old friend instinctively extends a hand? Run away like he’s Typhoid Mary? No. You shake. And even joke about it.

“I’ll bet you’re the kind of guy who’s still shaking,” one friend said and it became a matter of pride.

“You bet I am,” I answered, grabbing his hand and squeezing it a little longer than normal. It was macho all right. And stupid.

“We’re not shaking in Pittston,” another guy said. “We’re kissing.”

Ha. Ha. Ha. It takes a lot more than a little virus to scare us Pittstonians.

But I wasn’t laughing inside. I went home and scrubbed like crazy. A couple of nights later, however, I was right back at it. Another occasion. Another group of old friends. There were more elbow bumps this time around but still plenty of handshakes. Cringe-worthy handshakes.

I mentioned to a friend and his wife I heard some folks are toe-tapping instead of shaking or doing the elbow thing. “Not me,” the wife said. “Nobody’s touching my shoes.”

We settled for an “air hug.”

Another old friend said she was going for hip bumps and promptly gave me one. Hoping I didn’t sound creepy in these sensitive times, I asked for one more for the other side. She was happy to oblige.

The night ended with handshakes all around. Guys proving they were still guys.

I dashed in the men’s room and scrubbed furiously before heading home. And scrubbed again when I got there.

I tend to look for the purpose in every negative situation and now that I have become dead serious about heeding the warnings, about staying home, about social distancing, about wanting to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, one word comes to mind: appreciation. So often we don’t appreciate something until it’s gone.

Ben Franklin put it this way: “When the well’s dry, they know the worth of water.”

Stuck in our homes, worried about our jobs and financial futures, seeing things we looked forward to cancelled, concerned over elderly loved ones, afraid to shake a hand, we now know the worth of water for sure. And fresh food. And dining out. And meeting friends over coffee or cocktails. And getting to the gym. And going to a movie. And when all is said and done, freedom in general.

And, yes, we’ve been reduced to even knowing the worth of toilet paper.

I hope in a week or so I am not regretting passing up that roll in the Job Johnny.

Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at