Bathroom talk is often socially taboo, unless you have a toddler in the house, but at the Amherst, Mass., home of Rich and Flo Newman, the first thing we do when I arrive for a visit is head straight for the bathroom.
On the way various collections and artifacts are strategically set up: assorted vintage instruments hanging at unique angles from the ceiling; figurines from the Addams Family have their own wooden doll houses in the kitchen. Also in the kitchen, a bear garbage can is built in to the counter. And a headless mannequin wearing a white dress is near the stairs, but before I can ask about it, we arrive at our destination. Flo points to the sink.
“This [is made out of ] a piano we found at the Amherst dump,” she says. “We reused the wood.”
Slate blackboards from a school where Flo used to teach were used for the side boards. She points to the shower door and says nonchalantly, “These are Volkswagen windows.”
Rich is a carpenter. To some extent so is Flo. Their house is filled with unique construction, much of it from recycled material. They are also part time musicians, and as apparent as could be, they were also at one point antique collectors. Until one day, they said to each other, enough.
“Collecting [was] over the top,” says Flo.
“Everything had value,” Rich added. “You found yourself going in to someone’s house and turning over their china, and that was kind of creepy. And we thought, we don’t really want to look at it that way, so we thought what could we collect that has no value?”
Valueless unless you really need it, it was an idea whose time had come, sparked by friends heading off to Europe.
“One of our friends was going to Germany and Denmark,” Flo says. “She said what can we bring you back? And i said, how about some toilet paper from Germany?”
And so began Rich and Flo’s toilet paper collection, which has also resulted in an online museum of toilet paper. Flo says she never dreamed it would get this big. It went viral, years before Facebook, thanks to a network of friends, family, and a revolving door of tenants who rent rooms from the Newmans and who work in various industries, including film and music.
What began as a joke three decades ago is now 1500 sheets of international, single and double ply, mostly autographed, toilet paper. And to Flo’s delight, much of it from musicians. She pulls out a a piece autographed by Joan Jett.
“It says ‘To Flo, rock til you drop.’ ”
She shows me another from Leon Russell. There are autographed sheets from the Talking Heads, John Sebastian, Dar Williams, Melissa Ethridge, Laurie Anderson. There is the known, the unknown, also the non musical. Someone who knew someone who traveled to the South Pole brought back a sheet from Antarctica. Actress Lily Tomlin signed two sheets. Woody Allen wrote on his sheet, “Why this?”
Among the toilet paper filled boxes and envelopes stashed around the dining room, Flo pulls out one framed sheet of TP –it’s from the home of illustrator and writer Edward Gorey, a real coup for Flo who loves the Addams’ family. Flo says she heard an artist friend was about to visit Gorey and she said to her, “Get me something from his house! So she asked to use the bathroom.”
Other great gets, Barbara Walters signed a piece, Harrison Ford, wrote a note — “To two good [bathroom expletive]!”
“That was really good because, says Flo, “because it’s actually signed by him, from his bathroom.”
Toilet paper accessories are also coming in, welcome or not. Miniature toilets that light up and sing. Toilet paper lip gloss. And someone recently brought back from Japan a gummy poop, a piece of candy that looks like, well, poop.
Flo and Rich love the stories that come with every sheet. She says toilet paper is allowing people to connect, and have a good time.
“I think it’s like a social service in a way, in a weird way, because people never have the opportunity to talk about toilet paper and bathroom issues. I mean they have some,” but she says they just can’t wait to tell them the stories behind the get.
Even with so much toilet paper already in the house, still unsorted, Flo and Rich are not done collecting. Not by a long shot. One of the challenges ahead, if anyone wants to take them up on it: Bob Dylan. Flo says nobody seems to be able to get him, though everybody’s tried. Then she takes out her wish list, written on a regular piece of paper. It’s filled with musicians — Joe Walsh, Ringo Starr, Chrissie Hynde, Paul Simon Joan Armatrading. And then she adds, the Dalai Lama.
“A friend got close to [getting something from the Dalai Lama],” but Flo adds, haltingly, “he didn’t want to disturb the moment.”
The friend brought them back toilet paper from the monastery instead.
I ask if they have a favorite piece. It’s a tough call. Rich says it’s like asking who their favorite child is. And then Flo says decisively: “Robert Plant.”
But it’s not just the musician, it’s how it happened and what he wrote. One of the Newman’s housemates was working at a record company. Plant came in, and she went up and asked him to sign some toilet paper.
“He wrote…. [the word] , ” Flo starts to sing the opening vocals of Led Zepplin’s Immigrant Song, which is not actually a word but a sort of open throated siren yell.
[That's ] ‘a-r-a-r-a-r,” she says. Rich adds, “[The letters] ascending and descending.”
(You, dear reader, can hear this by listening to the piece!)
And then I ask them if they ever run out of toilet paper at home. Flo laughs. She says yes. Rich corrects her, “No. We run low.” And when I ask them if they’ve ever been forced to use toilet paper that’s been sent to them?
Rich says quickly “No. never!”
Flo then says confessionally, “Actually… ” And Rich suddenly seems to remember and agrees.
The truth of the matter: sometimes an enthusiastic contributor will send an entire roll of toilet paper. Flo says they preserve the part of the roll that’s signed and then, she admits, she has used the rest of the roll.
I get ready to say goodbye. I haven’t seen even seen one-tenth of the collection. As I leave, I glance back over my shoulder at that headless mannequin. Turns out, she’s dressed in what is actually a hand made toilet paper wedding gown. Flo wore it, at least once.