There are things you are unlikely to discuss with strangers. Toilet tissue is one of them. But, if it’s handled euphemistically, you and I can evaluate most anything.

Have you noticed that toilet paper doesn’t last like it used to? Do you find that you are replacing the roll every other day, or doesn’t your maid bring these mundane things to your attention?

Know it or not, you are buying more toilet paper today than you ever did because toilet paper is getting thicker and softer. There’s not as much toilet paper on today’s big fluffy roll as there used to be back when it resembled a thin, flexible strip of plastic. Toilet paper got thicker, and you probably didn’t even notice it.

Nowadays when you buy most anything in a package or jar, you can read how much you are paying per pound or per quart and compare products and prices. Toilet paper is sold by the roll so, unless you can read very fine print, you don’t really know what you are paying per square inch. And you really don’t want to be seen in the store squinting and muttering over a 12-pack of tissue.

The profit on toilet paper has soared because most of what you are buying is air. Its producers, therefore, have the ideal business model.

The practice of purveying air is not new, however, and throughout history entire countries have been ruled by men who had perfected the art. You can think of dozens of your own friends or acquaintances who owe their very fortunes to their ability to generate seemingly endless columns of hot air.

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Fifty or more years ago there was a Maine man who converted air directly into cash. He owed his fortune to a store on a main street near Rockland Harbor and one of the many things you could buy there was a lobster. If you asked him for two lobsters, he’d reach down under the counter and pull out a thick brown paper bag lined with wax. Then he’d roll up his sleeve and stick his hand into the lobster tank and lift out a lobster – upside-down. The upside-down lobster served as a first-class cup, so he was able to pour half a cup of water into the bag. If you’ve ever bailed out a skiff you can easily visualize what we’re talking about here. He’d repeat the operation with the second lobster and then he’d throw that big open bag, lobsters and all, up on a scale.

Anyone who traded there will remember that over that scale there was a whirling ceiling fan that pressed the open bag down onto the scale with a driving 40 mile-an-hour wind. So you’d end up paying for two cups of salt water and a thick paper bag, all being pressed onto a scale by a squall that could flip a canoe.

We’re not talking here about something that was good or bad or right or wrong. That’s just the way it was. Few among us would think of questioning a Maine man’s right to sell air.

This entrepreneur boasted that he bought his Cadillac with water he’d dipped out of Rockland Harbor. He did not discriminate, and natives paid as much for their air and water as did people from away. Admired by one and all for his financial acumen, any Maine community might well have voted him Businessman of the Year.

It has been two generations since any lobster-seller in Maine has tried to charge someone for wind and water.

But the next time you squeeze a roll of toilet paper, ask yourself how much of what you bought was nitrogen molecules.

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How do I know about this air business and why should it be etched in my memory? Over 40 years ago I went in that market to buy two lobsters. I can’t remember why.

Perhaps I’d promised a home-cooked meal to some young lovely I’d met through the Maine Times personal column. That would make sense, because although I can’t fry eggs, boiling a lobster comes naturally to real Maine men.

The boss was not there and when his clerk gave me the price on two lobsters, I lifted them out of the bag and asked him to weigh them again – I’d carry them out of the store in my hands – without the bag, wind and water. He said the boss wasn’t going to like it, because when he put those two lobsters back on the scale I saved 90 cents.

The humble Farmer can be heard Friday nights at 7 on WHPW (97.3 FM) and visited at:

www.thehumblefarmer.com/MainePrivateRadio.html


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