As a matter of pure investigative journalism, I went looking for facemasks. We know we're supposed to wash our hands every 20 minutes, singing "Happy Birthday" twice -- including "How Old Are You" if you've said the word "Mexico" recently or spoken Pig Latin -- but all the reminders to cover your coughs make you realize there must be lots of people who just blast out their sneezes without blocking them. So a mask would be helpful. Surely they're easy to get, right? Let's go shopping.

My first stop was a large red-themed retailer. I went to Health and Beauty, which is named as such to distinguish it from the Sickness and Disfigurement section a few aisles over, and looked for masks. I wasn't sure where they might be; I half-expected the end-cap to have boxes and boxes, with a sign that says HERE'S THE FACEMASKS, IN CASE YOU'RE SPAZZING OUT, AND YES, WE DOUBLED THE PRICE, but no.

"Can I help you find something?" asked a helpful clerk, and I said no. I remember the great Rice Panic of '08, how silly it seemed for people to assume that the Rice Crisis was now Officially Over, and I didn't want to be that person.

I went to a drug store. They also have innumerable sundries that make it easier to conceal your embarrassing purchase. Uh, I'll take some condoms, a pack of Marlboros, a Playboy. Oh, and toss in some facemasks. I mean, anyone who's buying facemasks at this point is jumping the gun. Or uses one to make a living, maybe. Makes you wonder if we'll have interesting masks should H1N1 turn into something bad; I recall the SARS epidemic led some Japanese to customize their masks. If you don't think the end of the world is bad enough, wait until everyone's walking around with Hello Kitty over their mouths.

The drugstore was out.

I went to another red-themed retailer. Since I didn't know where to look, I thought I'd ask the Friendly Neighborhood Pharmacist. She was talking to the man at the counter, and I heard:

"We are out of them, and we have ordered more. We also carry masks that are kept on the shelves, but we are out of those as well."

Answered that.

As it happened, I needed ice cream, so I stopped by a grocery store that coincidentally had a large health and beauty section. I wondered what I would do if I did find some. Buy them? Really? This began as investigative journalism; wouldn't I be crossing a line if I bought the last box? Why, yes; I better put on my special comfortable line-jumping sneakers, because IT'S EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF.

Oh, be reasonable. I still think la porcine grippe, as the French so charmingly call it, will not lead to men dragging carts through the streets shouting BRING OUT YER DEAD, but, well, you know, what if?

I hit two other grocery stores. Sold out. They didn't have my favorite ice-cream, either. No, it's not Tamiflu Crunch. Come to think of it, though, Hamiflu might be a good name for the drug. (Or, as local wag Max Sparber suggested, Spamiflu.) Tamiflu Smoothies might be a good treat; Caribou Coffee could look into a Tamiflu BLAST, with crushed ice. There are marketing opportunities galore here, people.

I didn't have to stop at another drugstore on the way home, but I did. Needed, uh, some, er, paper clips. This time, I asked the clerk where they were, but I said "you know, the masks you wear when you're doing sanding, or painting, or asbestos removal." She took me to the proper aisle. Sold out. "Lots of people removing asbestos," I said.

So there you have it. It's probably bad to relate this news, since it'll make people buy out the next shipment. Not me. This was just investigative journalism. No panic here. I don't need facemasks.

I still have six boxes in the basement from the bird flu panic. • 612-673-7858 More daily at