Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Five Filthy Bathrooms

#5– An interstate rest stop somewhere south of Lexington,

When I was growing up, my family used to take long road
trips to obscure parts of the country. We were on our way
to Columbia, South Carolina when I decided that my bladder
could be ignored no longer. As my father is of the “must
make good time at all costs” breed, my only recourse was to
whine as obnoxiously as possible. He held out for a few dozen
miles, but eventually my keening wails got the better of his
conscience and he agreed to let me out at the next wayside
rest. This turned out to be a scrubby patch of land with an
unpainted hut-like building sitting in the center of it. By this
time, however, I was in such a state of need that its sinister
appearance caused me no chagrin. I raced in and promptly
upset approximately a hundred thousand flies. The swirling
tornado of them blinded me and I very nearly stumbled
straight into the hole in the floor that led straight down to a
fetid, gurgling pit containing years and years of Southern
excretions. I stood teetering at its edge, more than a little
baffled. Where was the toilet? I was a sheltered child: I had
never done my business this way before. Even though I was
fit to burst, it took me awhile to feel comfortable enough to
do so. While I was waiting for the flood to come, the mass of
flies parted for a moment and I could see, on the other side
of the room, a perfectly-bored hole in the wall. Through it,
I could see the ladies’ side of the building. A prurient thrill
shot through the seven year old me. If my parents weren’t
outside waiting for me and if I could stand the smell, I could
wait in there and peep on peeing Appalachian girls. The idea
only appealed to me for a moment, but it appealed to me
nonetheless. I am not proud of this. I zipped up and dashed
back to my father’s idling van, blushing a bit and feeling that
the world had more in it than I was capable of discerning.
It was quite a few years later that I learned about gloryholes
and the sordid goings-on at certain rural rest-stops. Think-
ing back on it now, I can hardly believe that anyone would
put up with the flies.

#4– A falafel joint slightly east of Times Square, New York

In the summertime, the city used to show movies in the park
by the big, old library. I can remember going to them with the
dapper, gentlemanly Mr. Greg and the lovely, charming Miss
Andrea. It was a pleasant way to pass an evening, except for
the one time I had too much soda and could no longer hold it.
Manhattan can be murder on people who need to take a piss.
I took a gracious leave of my friends and went scampering
around the streets like a whipped ocelot. The McDonald’s
and the Ray’s Pizza were mobbed: I ducked in and ducked
out without satisfaction. It seemed better to keep moving
than to suffer standing still. The con-job electronic shops
offered me no solace, nor did the intimidating boutiques. I
dashed down a long block where every storefront was hid-
den by metal shutters. At the end of the street, however,
light poured onto the sidewalk. I fought my way towards it,
coming at last to a grimy window where a cone of sweating
lamb-meat spun on an electric skewer. The place was empty
and so I charged inside, rushed up to the counter, and im-
mediately began pleading with a tall Mediterranean man
holding a long knife. I don’t remember what I said, but my
crotch-clutching, hopping-up-and-down act must have gar-
nered his sympathy. “Down there, my friend,” he said, using
the tip of his blade to point at a dark stairwell. I thanked him
and stumbled down there, flailing along the rickety, uneven
steps to a concrete hallway with puddles on the floor and
mold on the walls. Bare light bulbs hanging from a ceiling of
dripping pipes and frayed cords led me along a path that got
narrower and darker the further and further I went. It was
like something from a cheap horror film. All around me I
could hear the whooshes and whispers of people in the build-
ings above, muffled and distorted to the point they became
frightening. The way curved and angled so many times it
felt surreal. It felt like I had walked for miles. Before it was
over, my urge to piss had been largely supplanted by an
urge to find out just where the hell I was going. Soon the
passage straightened out and I was walking towards a
closed door partially blocked by an olive-skin man smoking
a slender cigarette. He looked up from the floor and asked,
“Bathroom?”. I nodded and he pushed open the door, “It
is bad. I am warning you,” he told me as I brushed past him
to go in. And he wasn’t lying. It was bad. The sink was full
of brownish foam and the toilet was tilted forward and drool-
ing its cloudy contents onto the floor beneath it. The room
looked like the kind of place a legendary, unappreciated
punk rocker would go to die. A thousand layers of graffiti
on the walls, a hundred varieties of filth on the floor. I took
care of my business with a distant sense of unease burgeon-
ing within me.. “You see what I am telling you?” the man
asked as I went out. I could only agree with him, smile
politely, and walk on. The way back to above ground seem-
ed a whole lot shorter than my trip to the depths. Up in
the real world again, I bought a gyro and devoured it as I
went strolling, calmly now, to where I had left my friends.
It was a delicious thing. The meat was spiced just right and
there wasn’t too much of that yogurt sauce I don’t like.

#3– A public outhouse in the South Campground of Inter-
state State Park, Polk County, Wisc.

If I am to be perfectly honest, I have to admit that there
wasn’t anything extravagantly disgusting about this toilet.
Yes, it stunk mightily and yes, the sloppy heaps of woodsman
dung visible down the rusty hatch rose up to heights that
were, it must be admitted, uncomfortably close to the toilet
seat. This is repulsive, of course, but it is not unusual, es-
pecially where Wisconsin State Parks are concerned. In
Wisconsin, they take larger, fouler dumps than are generally
seen in civilized parts of the nation. It would be wrong to
hold this against them. You see, it has to do with their un-
quenchable hunger for cheese curds. They can’t help it.
But I didn’t come here to write about Wisconsin, I came
here to write about nauseating toilets. What made this one
a notable ordeal was the context in which it was used:
during a weekend-long bachelor party amid the glory of
nature. Despite the splendor of its setting, this bachelor
party had all the standard elements in place: massive amounts
of alcohol, lewd banter, and awkward moments at sleazy small
town strip clubs. “Whoooooo!” was also said, repeatedly. I
am a lightweight, though, and manful drinking turns me into
a queasy, dirty-minded babbler who has to micturate every
third minute. This is problematic when your only place to
do so is a lightless, noisome room without running water.
All through the night I was feeling my way back and forth
to that horrid little chamber, each time just a tiny bit more
in the bag. You would think that the booze would fortify me
some, but it actually had the opposite effect: the more intox-
icated I got, the more of a dainty daffodil I became. It also
didn’t help that I was well into the process of making myself
physically ill: my gorge rose higher and higher with each visit
I made and somewhere far into the night I decided that, upon
further trips to the loo, I would hold my breath. This was a
bad call on my part, however, since this only made my light-
headed and prone to smacking into the gruesome, bug-
flecked walls of the place. What’s more, I could never keep
from breathing long enough and I always inadvertently
wound up taking a big, huge gasp of poo-flavored air as I
was fumbling with my fly. Once or twice, I almost passed
out. Even in my deficient state, I realized that falling un-
conscious in such a place–while it might serve as an amusing
story later–was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in
the open air, around the campfire with the guys, going
“Whoooooo!” with abandon and tittering like a five year old at
the word “vagina”. It took all I had to stay upright and fight
my way back to them, only to swill down more rum and hurry
right back. Oh, the travails I have faced in the name of male
bonding! The fires I have been forged by! A small price to
pay for the masculinity I now can call my own...

#2– A men’s room on the second floor of the Goodwin-Kirk
dormitory, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa

Back in my college days, they used to take all the first-year
students and squeeze them into the rattiest dormitory on
campus. This place, packed to the gills with drunken eighteen
year olds, was so wretched that I can hardly believe I “lived”
there for a nine-months. The rooms were the size of a kitten’s
nipple and the architecture was the sort that even Stalin would
deride as too cold and too inhuman. But what made my par-
ticular floor even worse was that all the jocks lived there.
All night I could hear them in the corridor as they hollered
their moron banter at each other, through the walls I could
listen as they grunted their way through the impregnation
of yet another moaning, cow-eyed cheerleader. When they
fought, the whole building shook with the sound of it: one
meathead smacking another until the Residence Advisor
came by and suggested that they stop. They were beefy
boys from puny, small-minded towns who didn’t cotton to
anyone who failed to worship them. And, it goes without
saying, they were hard on the bathroom. By this I mean
that they absolutely demolished it by about five in the
afternoon every Friday which, since the cleaning lady
wouldn’t return until Monday afternoon, meant that the
facilities would remain a Boschian vision of sin and misery
all through every weekend. They would tear out pictures
from porn magazines and put them in the bottoms of the
urinals. To these beefy dimwits, it was edgy and sophis-
ticated humor to them to pee on glossy naked girls, but
those of us with even the barest sense of decency would
either fish them out or use one of the toilet stalls instead.
The only problem was that they were even harder on
these. I’d wake up on Saturday and pad out into the wreck-
age to make my morning ablutions, only to be faced with an
evil dilemma. The first stall, typically, would be filled with
vomit. I am not the sort of man who can make water into
another man’s vomit. This meant I would have to move on
to the next stall, yet this one would be overflowing because
of all the condoms caught in its drain. The third stall held
no relief, either, because this was where they kept the
Monster Shit. The Monster Shit?, I hear you asking, what’s
the Monster Shit? Well, let me tell you about the Monster
Shit. The Monster Shit turned up every few weeks, when-
ever one of those corn-fed dullards excreted something they
felt especially proud of. Those boys took dumps like Dick
Cheney tells lies: tremendous, sickening, and–more often
than not–dangerous. They would post up signs all over the
dorm, telling people to come and gaze upon the grandest
turd ever released. So not only was the morning visit to
the bathroom complicated by absolute squalor, it was also
made difficult by the fact that there were dozens of people–
of all genders, majors, and subcultures–milling around,
straining for a glimpse of the Monster Shit. There was
little a bookish, shy boy could do besides scurry off to the
less-devastated facilities on some other floor.

#1– Tompkins Square Park, Alphabet City, Lower

It is wise to avoid the restrooms in New York City’s parks.
When I first moved there, I was vaguely aware of this rule,
but still it had no real resonance to me. By the end of my third
day in the city, however, I learned to trust the sort of folk
wisdom that somehow passes from the urban jungle all the
way to the bucolic midwest. You see, I was scouring the East
Village for a job and the hours of outright rejection had start-
ed to make my bladder tingle. I was left with an unpleasant
choice. I could either (a) throw myself on the mercy of those
who had just gotten through denying me gainful employment,
(b) catch a subway back to my Brooklyn walk-up and hope
that I could hold it that long, or (c) use the men’s room in
Tompkins Square Park. My pride wouldn’t allow for (a) and
my courage wasn’t enough for me to attempt (b), so I made
a beeline for (c). Even at the time, I knew I’d regret it. An
aching groin has made many a person tread heavily on ground
they’d otherwise avoid, and I’m no different. Now, a word
about Tompkins Square Park on weekday afternoons in those
years: it was full of drug dealers, derelicts, and weirdos of a
sort you just don’t see in cities with fewer than five million
people. Weirdos biting their own ankles, weirdos chasing
pigeons with knitting needles, weirdos who will set fire to
their own eyebrows for half a dollar. The big league for
street psychos, in other words, and these are just the folks
relaxing on the park benches. The bathrooms are another
story entirely. I stepped in and the first thing I saw was a
smiling man who, as far as I could tell, had no legitimate
business in there. He was just sort of lurking. He had
gleaming yellow teeth and a scabby face; his hands were
deep in the pockets of his dirty pants, pants that stopped
a full half-foot before his feet began. I gave him my pitiful
version of an intimidating glare, and went off towards the
toilets. With the lurking man grinning at my back, I decided
that it would be prudent to avoid the urinals. The only
problem was that neither of the stalls had doors. At least
this made it easy to tell that the first of them was occupied.
On that stained and battered bowl sat an enormous fat man
with his jeans bunched at his ankles, his head was thrown
far back and his mouth gaped up at the ceiling. He quivered
when he breathed. I remember how hairy his legs were and
how they horrified me. I moved on to the next stall over,
vacant except for a couple of spiders, and thought soothing
thoughts until I was able to pee. What helped me accomplish
this, interestingly enough, was the steady trickle of water
falling into the sink. A bearded, haggard dude was there
with his shopping cart parked under the paper towel dis-
penser, assiduously cleaning his hypodermic needles under
the faucet. So here I am, this guileless Minnesota kid, be-
tween a smirking freak, a snoring, half-naked giant, and an
obsessive-compulsive heroin addict. It was a vulnerable
position to be in. I stood there, begging my miserably slow
leak to stop, expecting every second to be stabbed, groped,
or worse. It didn’t happen, though. I finished and beat a
retreat without even bothering to shake it off. This was,
and will always remain, the least relieving piss I have ever
taken. And, to top it off, I didn’t even wash my hands after-