For a few short months in the summer of 1980, in-between moves, I rented a room in a group house in Fields Corner, Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston. I didn’t know my housemates very well, though some of them were closer friends than others. At that time Dorchester was very segregated, and Fields Corner seemed to be one of the few sections that was racially mixed. Going a few blocks in one direction it became all-Irish, in another, all-Black. (In fact, even now, 35 years later, while the Greater Boston area is more racially diverse, it’s at least as racially segregated, if not more.) In any case, at that time Dorchester wasn’t a very comfortable place to live, and neither was the house where I was living. I remember very little about that household, except for the antique toaster that I lost there and the empty toilet paper rolls.
I’m fully aware that toilet paper isn’t generally considered a topic of polite conversation, so I won’t dwell on it here, even though I think that its modern advent is sociologically fascinating, ecologically wasteful, and even barbaric, at least from the point of view of many people around the world who prefer to use water. But back to that summer, in which I was leading a rather alienated existence; the toilet-paper roll issue became emblematic of that alienation.
There was little cooperation or community spirit in the household. There wasn’t even a cleaning rota as there often is in group houses, where people take it in turn to clean the common areas such as the kitchens, bathrooms, and toilets. I must take as much responsibility for that lack of community as everyone else, for I don’t remember ever lifting a finger to do anything that extended beyond my own personal needs. It was quite early on when I noticed that nobody was disposing of the empty toilet paper rolls; they were simply left lying on the floor. As each week gave way to the next, I noticed, with what now seems to me to be an alarming detachment, that the number of cardboard tubes strewn about on the floor was increasing, but still no one, including me, disposed of them, even by depositing them in a waste-paper basket. Come to think of it, I don’t know if there was a waste-paper basket in the bathroom. And to be honest, I have no recollection of either buying toilet paper for the house or contributing to the cost of it.
Week after week, as the empty tubes continued to proliferate, I continued to curl my lip at them as typical of that household. There was no awareness on my part that this state of affairs had anything to do with me. I never brought up the subject to any of my housemates, and left at the end of the summer without looking back. But ever since, especially once we moved from group living to a nuclear-family setting (another subject for another day), it fell to me to replace the empty rolls, and that memory of mounting piles of cardboard tubes has been a source of wonder to me, representing a low point of communal responsibility.
I have never been a great believer in the Reagan-era doctrine of individual responsibility. By shifting the responsibility for the ills of society onto the individual, a corporate-controlled government can abdicate social responsibility and do away with government regulation. A case in point is the 1970s campaign against littering. While the environmental movement was trying to call corporate polluters to account for poisoning the air and water, the Reagan administration cleverly shifted the focus to the individual with the Keep America Beautiful Campaign (started by American businesses), as if the solution to environmental pollution consisted in everyone picking up after themselves. The now-famous crying Indian commercial exemplified this approach, with its slogan: “People start pollution. People can stop it.” This was brought home to me powerfully by Heather Rogers and her documentary and book of the same name, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, in which “the focus on litter, and indeed construction of the modern concept of litter, is seen as an attempt to divert responsibility from industries that rely on disposable products to the consumer that improperly disposes of them” (Hyde, qtd. in Conrad).
But back to the toilet paper rolls and my own role, or lack thereof, in dealing with them. Ironically, we were all anti-nuclear activists, committed to fighting irresponsible corporate polluters and to living low on the food chain ourselves. Yet we were unable or unwilling, it seemed, to take responsibility for even the smallest communal tasks that could have made our living environment more homelike. Perhaps we thought we were too busy saving the planet to pay attention to creating a house beautiful. More likely, we didn’t think about it at all. After all, we were in our twenties, and it was to be a few years yet before we started setting up homes fit to raise children in. Still, it’s astonishing to me now that while I took note of the TP-roll phenomenon, I utterly failed to connect it to myself.
Or perhaps I did, and consciously chose not to act. After all, it is generally assumed that such maintenance tasks, endlessly repeated jobs that keep the family running, are women’s work. No one in a typical nuclear family will notice that the toilet paper roll needs changing regularly, because the woman of the household—or the servant, in wealthy households—will quietly take care of it. It’s quite likely that, watching those rolls piling up, the twenty-something me thought to herself, “I’m damned if I’m the one who is going to take care of that.” Quite right, too, as a starting point. But did I take the next step and raise the subject to the group when we were all making our separate breakfasts together in the kitchen? No, I didn’t. Still more damning, I haven’t raised it at any time since. After we moved to a nuclear-family setting, nearly twenty-five years ago now, I was consistently the one to replace the toilet paper rolls, and never once made an issue of it. Neither did I resent it; at least, not very much. I wonder why, and why not? Perhaps it was just my perception that I was the only one changing the roll, while other members of the family were changing it just as often. Here too, I didn’t take the trouble to contribute to a sense of community in the household by talking about it or making it a consciously shared responsibility. And although it seems like a petty issue, it is emblematic of a larger problem, in individual homes and in society at large. I do believe in taking personal responsibility, but personal responsibility to build community in order to make both personal and social change.
Dear friends of mine are living and working in Dorchester now, contributing by their personal example and community involvement to a racially integrated, collectively controlled neighborhood. Whether they change the toilet-paper rolls in their own homes I don’t know and don’t much care, but I realize now that, in the words of Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo, everything counts.