Toilet Tales, Training – Pt. 1 – 3 of 9: Accustomed Usage
I’ve encountered some strange things in my time, but few have made impressions as indelible as those I shall recount here. “Toilet Tales” will be meted out in four parts over the next few weeks, beginning here with “Accustomed Usage.”
The varied world of restroom experiences I’ve encountered begins in the mid-seventies. My comfort zone was rattled, bound as it was by a myopic view of facility-sharing as something only families did, and of public facilities that always entailed being separated by gender.
Call me naïve if you want, but I grew up poor and had never gotten out much before, and on those one or two occasions when my parents took us to visit family in Kentucky or Miami, we slept in the car and “went in the woods” or in tall grass on the side of the road.
In 1975 Dick and I and our children were in one of California’s national parks where, for the comfort of its visitors, the park service provided “port-a-potties,” as they were then known, for use as “comfort facilities.” Glorified outhouses is all they really were, but far better than the kind I’d been accustomed to as a child. But instead of being labeled separately for “Men” and “Women,” they sported the label of “Unisex,” indicating one size now fitting all.
What took some getting used to was standing in a line with men and women waiting to use the same one. It felt like a forbidden zone. Like a misunderstanding of the protocol involved here. And I’ve simply never become fully acclimated to that – my traveling on planes, notwithstanding.
And with regard to plane “facilities,” I am reminded of an interview with Matt Lauer I saw a few years ago where he recounted an incident he’d recently experienced on a plane. The person who’d used the toilet before he did (and Lauer said he did not know who that had been or he would have confronted that person directly) had left urine splashed all over but failed to clean up after him/herself. He didn’t know which, but we all know it could have been either. That’s an experience I’m sure every one of us has had, and probably more than once in all kinds of public restrooms. The interviewer asked Lauer, “What did you do?” “Well,” Lauer admitted, “What could I do?” He cleaned up the mess not just so he could use it, but so whoever came in after him “wouldn’t think I was the one who’d left it that way.”
Been there. Done that.
Toilet Tales, Pt. 2: Tijuana: Hiding In Plain Sight
Bill and I passed through customs and approached the cement walkway, a pedestrian bridge, leading to the town of Tijuana. This bridge was peopled with women sitting cross-legged on the cement. Some had small children; others were leaning against the cement wall in some world of their own. A few had placed colorful blankets in front of them where bits of change had been tossed by tourists. A few men coming from, and others headed toward, the town were urinating along the edges of the walkway in plain view of any and all passersby. It was so commonplace, no one paid them any mind or even seemed to care.
It was much the same when we reached the town itself but more concentrated in the alleys and behind some of the small stores and cafes. The odor that prevailed, however, was unmistakable. If Tijuana (at least at that time) could be described by its smell, it was not the smell of food people were eating at outdoor cafes. It was urine, making it impossible to enjoy eating a nice lunch.
Some years ago, Laura and I spent a week in Playa del Carmen – some 40 miles from Cancun. Playa del Carmen was just getting started in the tourist industry and had only one Hacienda-style hotel – actually, one hotel, period, but it was magnificent. It’s bathroom had a walk-in, sit down, and take a load off your feet kind of shower that was beautiful. And clean. Normal. But the area surrounding the hotel was depressed and reminiscent of Tijuana. We were cautioned not to venture more than two blocks in either direction from the hotel as safety was an issue at this time. The other issue was suspect, involving the quaint souvenir-oriented establishments and “cafes” that elicited the memory, and almost the scent, of urine. The only restroom we used that trip was the one in our hotel room.
Hence, our initiation to the larger world of restrooms and the habits of those who use them. That initiation reached greater heights – or lows, given your point of view – once we began traveling in Europe.
Toilet Tales, Pt. 3: Heidelberg There Must Be Some Mistake
It was a bit of a trek getting to the castle on top of the steep hill that overlooked the Neckar River Valley in Germany. Ancient castle, fabulous view. The tour would be a long one, so before we began, we made a pit stop at the restrooms.
The restroom was quite large and modernized enough to make it more acceptable to visitors. It was one of the few places that took the enormity of the visiting crowds into consideration. Walking in through an ancient set of immense wooden doors, I entered this bare-bones room with numerous individual stalls lined up along the walls on either side and was heading for one when I heard a voice yell “Kommt Sie hier!” (Come here!) The voice was quite gruff, almost scary in a way, and turning in its direction, I saw a small booth with a glass window, like that you’d find at the movie theater. Behind the glass was a man, sitting there, pointing at me. With his arm extended, he motioned toward the booth.
I was stunned. Hadn’t the sign said “Damen”? Now I wasn’t sure. What was a man doing sitting in the middle of the restroom? I must have walked into the one marked “Herren” by mistake! I uttered an embarrassed “Entschuldigen Sie, Bitte!” (I’m sorry) and turned to get out the door as fast as I could, but he yelled after me, “Nein! Kommt Sie zuruck!” (No, Come back here) so bruskly, I wondered what German handcuffs were going to feel like on my wrists. He was sitting where, were I in the right place, I’d expect a woman to hand me a hot towel. But this man wanted money – in return for which he would unlock a stall door of his choosing for me to use.
I wondered if the men’s room had a woman performing that same function, but Bill said no, which made the whole thing even worse in some perverted kind of way.
The Problem? In this instance the doors did not go from ceiling to floor. He could see my feet; he could watch me. I was so unmoored by then, I couldn’t even go.