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Please Don't Steal the Charmin

[whitespace] TP
Christopher Gardner

New age of TP rollers dispense with common courtesy

By Will Harper

Never mind The Club, detachable car stereos and safety-sealed Tylenol bottles. These are sensible protections--if sad commentaries on the realities of modern urban life--against theft and tampering in a crazy world.

No, the true illustration of the decline of Western civilization can be found in public restrooms throughout the nation, the business parks of Santa Clara Valley and even the coziest local diner of your very own hometown.

Locked toilet paper dispensers in public restrooms.

That's right. Toilet-paper housings that require keys to access the backup rolls of hidden two-ply (if we're lucky) treasures within. Is nothing sacred?

What next? Toilet-paper rolls with a magnetic security strip that triggers an alarm as a would-be thief dashes off with his ill-gotten booty? Or better yet, security guards hauling the scofflaw away while Mr. Whipple emerges from the crowd and lectures, "Don't steal the Charmin."

Pacific Janitorial Supply Co. in Santa Clara, which services more than 1,000 companies throughout the West, has a load of commentary to make on the subject.

Sales reps Kimberly Duran and Mary Jane Morrison, both of whom have worked in the janitorial supply biz for at least five years, pull out the "1998 Janitorial & Maintenance Catalog." There are a dozen different types of dispensers to choose from--and all but one of today's modern gems boasts a locking device.

"And what if there's no lock?" I ask naively.

"People steal them [toilet paper rolls]," Mary Jane replies matter-of-factly. It turns out that in this day of $60,000 family cars and two-dollar cups of coffee, toilet paper is nearly as coveted as hotel towels. And apparently, both rich and poor people are not beyond suspicion when it comes to TP theft.

Not only does the central library--where the homeless often use the restrooms to wash--protect its sanitary investment, but even San Jose's swanky Fairmont Hotel has locked boxes holding the holy rolls in the restroom near the banquet halls. Imagine a diamond-clad guest stuffing her Fendi bag with an extra roll, or the high-tech conventioneer padding his Tommy Hilfiger jacket with double-quilted delight.

By now, I am fascinated with this restroom underworld, so once again I consult the experts, Mary Jane and Kimberly, and ask them to reveal the dirty details of the toilet paper trade.

"It's really involved," Kimberly warns.

"You've asked a really loaded question," Mary Jane concurs.

First of all, the industry is constantly trying to build a better toilet-paper dispenser. There are dozens of them, either promising to cut costs or withstand vandalism and generally regulate (and sometimes complicate) human toilet behavior.

Take the popular stainless steel dispensers with tension springs, which both cut costs and discourage the occasional restroom-goer who gets the sudden urge to do some interior decorating with streams of toilet paper. The springs prevent "free rolling of tissue," meaning the dispenser only dispenses a few squares at a time before snapping.

Companies care about this kind of stuff, Kimberly and Mary Jane assure me.

In one case, Mary Jane recalls a bean-counter from a company with 50 to 60 employees who determined the average hand size and used a measuring tape to calculate how much paper to buy and what dispenser to use. True story.

Another classic cost-saver is the dreaded jumbo-roll dispenser with the accompanying nine-inch rolls that, if spread flat, would extend over three football fields. (The ones advertised in Pacific's catalog boast of their "break- and chemical-resistant, flame-retardant, rigid vinyl material" and, of course, they have "key-lock mechanisms to prevent theft.")

High-volume business like bars, resturants, theaters and theme parks love the jumbo roll, because it requires less maintenance (i.e. replacement) than the usual single- or double-roll combination. Never mind that these things weren't designed with the consumer in mind.

First of all, the jumbo rolls aren't perforated, so the usual pull-and-tug technique doesn't work. Instead, the roll rotates wildly and releases a yard of paper, half of which lands on the scuzzy floor below. Secondly, some dyslexic janitor is always putting the jumbo in backwards, forcing toilet-occupants to reach into the dark recesses of the dispenser to retrieve the paper.

As I'm going on my tirade about jumbo rolls, Kimberly and Mary Jane nod politely. They understand. Toilet paper is a very personal thing. "People can be really neurotic about it," Kimberly says.

OK, so maybe I have some tissue issues. But at least I'm not smuggling toilet paper out of public bathrooms.

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From the July 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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