One Liability with the Otherwise Practical Paper Napkin

Was my generation the last to receive boxes of elegant white handkerchiefs for Christmas? I was raised with the expectation that I'd carry one. When I was about 8, I was taught how to fold them and tuck them into a jacket pocket.

It looked fine, and I admired the way detectives used them in the movies, whipping them out to pick up a murder weapon. But carrying a visible handkerchief was one of those practices that can seem manly only if you also carry a .38.

I also had a more personal difficulty with handkerchiefs in practice, especially with the prospect of their reusability. Even as a child, I preferred not to walk around in the company of my own mucus. The great majority of nasal excretions, I have found, are best dispensed with without delay. They're perhaps better not carried with you as part of your ensemble, as you go about your day, to the office and the restaurant or the symphony. Then carried home to put in the laundry, where your day's worth of phlegm will mix around with your other clothes. If washing machines were that effective, we could save money on appliances and use them as urinals.

I'm just explaining to those who might have given them to me over the years why almost all the fine white handkerchiefs I've ever received since childhood are still factory clean, neatly folded in the original flat plastic boxes they came in.

For more practical purposes, I have developed a useful habit. A typical day, I find myself with at least one paper napkin in my hand that doesn't get wholly used. It's always troubled my Scottish soul to throw wads of clean paper napkins away. So I tuck them in my front pocket, and use them more or less as I was once taught to use handkerchiefs. As each finds use, I throw it away. Sometimes, when I'm between sinus infections, clean napkins accumulate in my pockets.

A few months ago, I went to the City County building to attend a Historic Zoning Commission meeting. I've walked into the City County Building probably once or twice a month, on average, since about 1982. I've been on every floor of the place, in each of the courtrooms and in some of the judges chambers. I have spent many hours in the Register of Deeds office and the MPC library. I even go once a year to pay my city and county taxes in person. Paying taxes doesn't hurt as much, I've found, when I hand it to a human who depends on them.

I long ago accepted the metal detector at the Main Street entrance with patriotic submission. Usually it's quick, no big deal. But this one particular time, when I was going in to attend a Historic Zoning Commission meeting, a new officer I didn't recognize was in charge of assessing my threat potential.

I put the usual things in the plastic basket: keys, cellphone, change, and, just to be thorough, wallet, just in case the magnetic strips might trip something.

But this time I set the machine off.

"Empty your pockets," she said. Okay, I said, and reached into my pockets and found another nickel and a mostly plastic ballpoint pen. I put them into the basket, too, and started to walk through.

"You still have something in your pockets," she barked, in the tone cops use with malefactors who are under arrest. There was a lump in my right pocket and a corner of paper peeking out the top.

"All that is is paper napkins," I said.

"I said empty your pockets," she said, and moved toward me.

And I pulled them out, at least half a dozen of them, a couple tumbling to the carpeted floor, and thus she had a good look at my paper napkins, which were frankly a little the worse for wear. She turned away without apology or farewell, but what I thought was a sniff of disgust at this middle-aged man who, can you believe it, carries paper napkins in his pockets.

O Brave New World, I thought. That post-9/11 democracy has come to this. Maybe there's new terrorist technology, a napkin bomb or something that I'm naive about, that doesn't set off metal detectors, and that al-Qaeda means to test it in Knoxville's public buildings.

It's a funny thing, though. Just after that, I had the opportunity to spend some time in our nation's capital. I was in the Rayburn House Office Building, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and four of the Smithsonian museums. Thanks to the graciousness of our congressman, I got to see parts of the Capitol I'd never seen before.

I ate in the Congressional Dining Room. For a while I was in the same room with Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank. I stepped into Henry Waxman's lobby.

Later I was in the same room with Lincoln's hat and the Hope Diamond and the Wright flyer and the original Star Spangled Banner and the Declaration of Independence. On the off season, I was the only one in the world looking at each of them.

They have security in Washington, as you might expect. Just nothing like what we have in Knoxville. During my time there I passed through at least a dozen metal detectors, pulling out only my keys and cellphone. I was given the once-over by hundreds of cops and security guards.

But it's a funny thing. None of them ever expressed interest in the wad of tissues in my front pocket. Some guards told me I didn't even have to pull out my wallet or pens. One chuckled at my naivete for my assuming he'd be concerned about such things.

Tennesseans have an embarrassment of superlatives. We're used to hearing we're among the fattest, dumbest, and sickest of all Americans. But of this we can be proud: the lobby of Knoxville's City County Building has higher security than our nation's capital can boast.