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Hand Sanitizer: The New Bottled Water

MitchThe news anchor shakes my hand. "So glad you could make it," he says.

Then he turns, still talking, and presses the nozzle on the hand sanitizer.

This is the new American greeting. Howdy, neighbor -- let me wipe you off. The current hysteria over the H1N1 flu virus has people so spooked, they don't even wait until you leave the room. They touch you, then untouch you. Connect-disconnect.

"So, have you done many cities?" the news anchor says, vigorously rubbing his hands.

I have done many cities. I am traveling the country on a book tour. And I've been astounded to learn that the thing that most unifies America is not patriotism, faith, or even Jon and Kate.

It's Purell.

If I could have bought stock in this stuff a year ago, I would have emptied the bank account. Everywhere I go, there is a jar or a bottle. A plastic spout. A little squirt. Hands wringing back and forth.

Suddenly, everyone is a surgeon. Scrub up.

When did we get so paranoid? There have been flus before. There have been viruses before. We didn't turn into a nation of palm rubbers.

But we sure have now. We see germs the way that kid from "The Sixth Sense" saw dead people.

People disinfect in banks. At the office. Remember when Mom used to tell us to "wash our hands." Now we do it even BEFORE we eat. Heck, we're stealing the Purell out of Mom's protective hands. What's worse, all this worrying has got me worried.

I used to shake hands without hesitation. Hundreds a night sometimes, if I was giving a talk somewhere.

Now, suddenly, I see every hand as a glowing green wad of kryptonite. Every sink handle is a germ repository. I see a door and try to open it with my feet. And let's not even talk about the toilet handle. I never trusted that BEFORE the flu.

In St. Louis, I go to a radio station for an interview. The host sits across from me. Between us are two microphones, two cups of water, and a pump-top bottle of sanitizer.

Suddenly, I can't stop looking at it. The interviewer and I had shaken hands and now I can feel those germs seeping into my bloodstream. I stare at that Purell bottle wondering if he's thinking what I'm thinking: "I better get it first, or he'll have his pumping-finger germs all over the spout."

I begin to sweat. My sweat makes him suspicious. And sweat has germs! We are locked in a stare down over that white plastic spout. If he makes a move, I'll move faster. If he dives, I'll pounce. It's me or him, survival of the fittest, slime or be slimed.

Or maybe it's my imagination.

But this isn't. Hand sanitizer is the new bottled water. It's the new, expensive version of something we used to get for free, namely, soap and water, or a good wipe on the seat of your pants.

Now, nothing counts unless it reads "kills 99.9 percent of germs." Sales of Purell are three times as great as they were last year at this time.

I see dispensers in airports. I see dispensers in hotels. It's like the new ATM machine. Spritz, spritz. Squirt, squirt.

Soon they will hit you up for a "service charge" for every hit on the bottle. Soon soap will be passe. We will shower in Purell. Use Purell instead of cologne. Shampoo with Purell. Condition with it, too.

"Well great seeing you," the anchor says.

Nice seeing you, I say.

I rise. I turn. My hand twitches. His hand twitches. For a moment, that old urge to shake, to make contact, flickers inside us. But the new world takes over. The old ways are gone.

We nod at each other.

And I wonder, as I walk away, if a nod requires a hit on that Purell bottle...

(C) 2009 BY THE DETROIT FREE PRESS DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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