Tim Austen, owner of Austen’s Body Shop, has a sense of humor. And the way he sees it, a little laughter is not only OK when times are hard — it’s actually when you might need it the most.
“If you spend all your time just living in fear, from this pandemic and everything else that’s going on, the next thing you know, nobody feels safe or comfortable,” Austen said. “So, if you can find a way in all that to try and put a smile on somebody’s face, that’s what I’m all about.”
He developed this philosophy in the wake of 9/11 — obviously a very different catastrophe, but also a once-in-a-generation cultural to which the Covid-19 crisis has often been compared.
“Back then, you know, it was a completely different situation, but it was also much the same — it affected everybody,” he recalled. “It affected all the way back here to Canby. It shut this world down.”
Locally, Austen was even more affected than most, though a big part of that was an unfortunate coincidence.
“My office down here at the body shop — which belonged to my father at the time — it burned down the next day,” he said. “I remember driving down here because I was on the call list for when the alarm went off, and I didn’t know if we had terrorists attacking or what. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Austen remembers the first episode of Saturday Night Live that aired after the terrorist attacks, which opened with a tribute to then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New York City first responders.
At the end, SNL creator and longtime producer Lorne Michaels asked the mayor, almost innocently, if they had permission to be funny. (Giuliani’s deadpan reply was perfect New York: “Why start now?”)
“I’ll never forget that,” Austen said. “I think, watching that show, it reminded people that it’s OK to laugh. It’s OK to step outside of what’s going on around you, and try to enjoy yourself a little bit. That’s where it started for me.”
So, fast-forward to today. Invisible enemy. Schools closed. Major events canceled. No graduation for high school seniors. No sports. Record unemployment. People in danger of losing their homes, their businesses, their livelihoods. Residents at care homes isolated in their rooms, unable to see their families and loved ones in person.
Where, exactly, does one find the humor in this situation? Obviously, with our nation’s newly discovered toilet paper obsession as the — ahem — butt of the joke.
“I just don’t understand it,” Austen said, echoing the sentiments of millions of Americans. “I could understand walking down the aisle of Thriftway and not having any cleaning supplies, because everybody’s trying to keep clean. But I don’t understand the toilet paper. I just don’t get it.”
The result was something Austen calls “Covid Took My TP” candy bars — a limited edition creation by Puddin’ River Chocolates. The bars are not for sale; they’re thank-you gifts for Austen’s customers, as well as anybody who stops by for an estimate, or just looks like they could use some chocolate and a chuckle.
The “Canby” bars have proved popular, though — unlike the product they’re based on — Austen has not run out of his supply. Not yet, anyway. He says everyone think they’re “awesome,” and he appreciates the chance to have brightened some people’s days in the midst of a dark time.
“I’m a firm believer that mental health is equally as important as physical health,” Austen said. “You can’t go into the future all bummed out. You’ll never survive. You’ll never get through it. So, I’m just trying to do my part, even if it’s making fun of toilet paper.”
Hear more from Tim Austen on Episode 164 of the Canby Now Podcast, “Doctor’s Orders”: