That restroom paper towel: what do you do with it? I’ve been tracking trash. Since the flu scare last year, I try to put either glove or paper towel between my hand and a public door handle. Thus, after drying my hands at a public restroom, bathroom, lavatory (lava in Italian means wash), I hold onto the paper towel and open the public door with it. Thus it leaves the restroom (no rest) with me. What then? Stuffed into my pocket or purse, it travels home where I leave it on a counter to dry (if it’s not dry already). Then comes the fun part. Well, not exactly fun, but money-saving, proud-of-my-ingenuity, etc: Under a sink, upstairs or down, I keep a fancy paper bag stuffed with used paper towels. When I need a clean-up towel, I grab one lightly used, and proceed with the cat upchuck or food spill.
Fran, my husband, is finicky about such things. He insists on a pristine towel, fresh from the fat paper roll. Beside the stove, he’s installed a lovely home-making icon, circa 1990–a silver wand with a fat roll of white paper towels impaled upon it. Something his parents, the poor missionaries from Virginia, North Dakota, and earlier the walled city of China, could never have afforded. I venture to guess that paper towels weren’t available for purchase until after World War II. Fran and I operate two systems of home management in our household: mine, which leans toward economy and reuse; his, which glories in the beauty of one-time use, followed by a vigorous toss in the trash. When the city of Saint Paul instituted home recycling, I had to fight his resistance. Argue, raise my voice, undo his insistent toss in the trash. We both won: he now takes out the recycling.
What is it about Americans, post World War II? I often ponder this shift. Not that I remember before the war, but I have my mother, the economizer, reuser par excellence, as a model. We were a poor professor’s family in Charleston during the 1950s and 60s. I remember cloth napkins which she washed, along with my father’s uniforms, in the kitchen sink. No washing machine until they moved across the Cooper River Bridge to the tiny town (now a huge suburb) of Mt. Pleasant in the mid-1950s. She kept a rag bag under the sink. Yes, she opened cans–that gift to American home-making after the war (heaven help us)–and threw them in the trash because there was no other choice. But she saved one to use as a grease can.
We rarely ate at restaurants–couldn’t afford it, nor were there many choices. If our day included bus rides around town for various errands, she packed a lunch of peanut butter sandwiches, apples, and cookies. We sipped water at drinking fountains, labeled “Colored” and “White.” Charleston was poor after the war but still could afford to operate two fountains at every location such things existed–inside department stores, at gas stations. Perhaps in city parks. Did we ever encounter African-Americans in the city parks? At Hampton Park where we hung over little curved bridges to watch ducks preen? Or downtown at the Battery with its band shell and guns left over from the “War Between the States?” I think not.
Now I like to think I’ve achieved a minor accord with throw-away culture. I’m not interested anymore in one-time, pristine use. Yes, cleanliness, but I try not to be obsessive about it. I refuse to believe there’s any reason not to reuse something with continued life in it. The paper towels, for instance. Or plastic containers for cottage cheese. First I reuse these to freeze leftovers, and when too many stack up, I take them to the cat litter boxes and scoop what has to be scooped into these containers. After all, at this point, we cannot recycle them. I hate the fact that I haven’t found a way to make my own cottage cheese, and hope several resuses will quiet my guilt and disgust at the mountain of plastic growing steadily under our landfills and swirling in the Pacific.