Water Closets

by Jeff Oaks

My usual men’s room has those long old-fashioned urinals that run halfway down the wall and end in a small ornamental drain. Peeing in one of these allows you to watch the way water moves down a long decline, the way pee spreads out and contracts as it moves down toward the drain. Toward your feet. In the smaller urinals downstairs, the larger public bathrooms the tourists and students use, there are smaller urinals, like the kind Duchamp used to make a statement about art. The chance for backsplash is greater with them, but I suspect they can more easily be replaced and certainly cost a lot less than the more elegant urinals on the 6th floor where I am now standing. No one else is here. I can breathe. I walk up to the urinal farthest from the door.

It took me until nearly 35 to figure out how to pee in public, to pee beside other men. My father never taught me (does one get taught how to use them?), and it was something we didn’t talk about among my friends. It was too weird. Until I was thirty-five or so, I simply went into a stall and either peed upright in there, or sat. I knew it was probably weird. Which is to say that I tried to pee upright and in public all that time, but I just couldn’t figure out first the mechanics of how, by unzipping my zipper, then (worse) finding a way to pull the head of my penis out that tiny teethed window, to relax enough to pee among strangers. Other men seemed to do it so confidently, with a motion so practiced it looked like one smooth motion followed by the sound of water on porcelain. They stood there, some standing quietly, some moving back and forth slightly. No one looked around. No one spoke. But no one looked anxious to do either of things. They came, they peed, they conquered. Some even remembered to wash their hands.

I couldn’t get my bladder to let go, though. Sometimes I’d stand there for a bit until enough time had passed, because I was sure someone was keeping records . Once I hissed quietly through my teeth to try to duplicate the sound of water. Sometimes I just sighed and turned and went into the stall. I closed the door behind me.

There do seem to be some rules:
1) don’t talk
2) don’t look up
3) don’t shake hands
4) don’t laugh.

Usually I try to avoid using public bathrooms. Who doesn’t, I suppose? One’s own bathroom is the easiest to relax in. Large public bathrooms are probably next best in my developing scale because you usually have enough space between you and others.

It’s not that peeing next to a stranger is too sexual; it’s too intimate for me. My natural inclination when I’m this close to anyone is to shake hands, find out how he’s doing, what’s going on, engage somehow. But that is forbidden and impractical. We just stand there, holding our penises while we pee, looking at the tiles in front of us, studying the grout, the cracks in the tiles, any tiny messages written in the tiny white spaces in the grout:

Hi there.
Here I stand, dick in hand…

I’m surprised frankly that more advertisers have not made more of this space. There are times when I’d appreciate a little reading material there to read, even an ad for insurance. Having a little ticker for news would I suppose be a bad thing, since it might lead, as it does with a number of men I know, inevitably to snorts of derision and then conversation. “What is up with that Lindsay Lohan? Jesus, who actually votes for Michelle Bachmann? Why is anyone listening to that Bieber kid?” These kinds of questions of course would lead to conversation, which by the rules I’ve intuited, are only allowed between men who are already washing and/or drying off their hands.

Then one day I heard on the radio that pee-shyness can often be overcome by simply doing mathematical work in your head, and so distracting one’s over-anxious social censor. I tried it at home at first and found that it worked very well indeed. Lo and behold, the next time I had to use a public urinal, I started running the times tables for 6s and 7s (always the hardest for me to recall) in my head and before I got to 6 x 7 I was off and peeing. I was suddenly free.

But those years before of fear and anxiety left an indelible mark. For years I wondered who is it who first thought to himself men won’t mind peeing next to each other?

Funny on one hand
A phenomenology of water on the other

Water and closet in other words.

A closet full of water? That sounds suspiciously British in both its surreality and its brand of repression.

When one walks into a water closet what does one expect? To get wet? When one walks into a rest room? Or wash room? Or powder room? Or the John? The crapper seems truest. Or the pissoir. Why not the elimination room? The movement room? The shitshed? There is the Latrine, a word that means bath. The little boys room or little girls room? Because only little children can be connected to shitting and pissing, it infantilizes what goes on in there, what comes out, which is raw adulthood in all its dripping, squirting, projectile, groaning, aching, bloody, acrid, earthy forms. One of the great shocks of my childhood was in a campground bathroom. I walked into a stall in the men’s room and saw an enormous turd floating in the toilet. It was the first time I’d seen an adult man’s output, and I honestly could not believe that it could come out of a human being. Or that it was in my own future, that it was my fate to some day produce that kind of thing. It was like being told I was going to grow up to be a tyrannosaurus rex or a werewolf. I fled for my life.

Children, like dogs, will shit in front of you and jump up to be held. They have to be taught to keep out of one another’s business. And I can’t possibly say that I have never quietly leaned into the smell of a stranger’s fart if it has a certain kind of warmth, a certain kind of richness. I remember when, in our early teens, my group of friends would take a kind of ridiculous delight in farting around each other, half out of joy at flouting the laws of propriety we’d been taught, half out of a joy of making each other squirm from the smell, of having to endure the smell.

I haven’t yet had a real relationship in which there hasn’t been a couple of farting in bed competitions, which ended in a laughter that was sometimes more intimate than sex.

I check catholiconline.com and search under bathroom –0 results. Then toilet–0 results. The bathroom has no saint. The place in no man’s land. There’s no patron, no protector. There are saints for bowel trouble (Saint Benjamin who had a wooden stake twisted in his intestines, and for some reason Saint Simeon of Stylites who famously fasted for the whole of Lent while standing on a column) but not for the place where the bowels discharge.

Who, I wonder, did the Victorian “mud larks” pray to while they poked through the Thames sewage/mud? Any one they could, I suppose. From the Discovery Channel’s “worst job in history”:

“In Victorian London, the sewers emptied into the Thames and mud larks would have no choice but to wade through excrement while scavenging. They couldn’t afford shoes and wore nothing but rags, even in freezing conditions. Nails and glass would stick in their feet and disease and infection was all around them. But if a mud lark didn’t collect enough coal, metal or anything else they could sell before the tide rose, they would starve until they could begin hunting through the excrement again when the tide had subsided.”

How many movie deaths have happened in the bathroom? Where does Al Pacino in The Godfather get the gun he shoots his first men with but the bathroom? Where does the hit happen that begins all the trouble for the young Amish kid in Witness? How is it that killing the Irishman in the bathroom in Austin Powers sounds exactly like taking a crap to Tom Arnold in the next stall? Chthonic forces swirl and surprise, gag the unsuspecting, the guilty, the naive. We’re all guilty in there, victim and murderer, witness and participant. We all wash our hands after and act like nothing’s happened. Everything’s fine. It’s all natural.

And it is. Everybody poops. But if it were that natural, would we need the fantastic engineering we’ve invented to tame water, to shape water and clay and metal into the bathroom?

The other day I went into the bathroom on the sixth floor and there was a strange man standing over a sink, brushing his teeth with some vigor. I felt myself rolling my eyes as I headed toward the urinals. It disturbed me. While I tried to relax, I ran through the possible reasons for my reaction:

Because it’s a room for elimination. Because he should have done that at home. Because it meant he was probably one of those people who actually flosses his teeth after every meal, obsessed with cleanliness. Being obsessed with cleanliness in a public bathroom of course seems self-defeating.

Why would anyone clean out his mouth in here otherwise, unless he’s turning tricks? He was dressed nicely enough, was balding, of average height and weight. A man who could just disappear into a bathroom and not be missed or recognized.

And then I remembered that once, when I was about four, I went into the bathroom in our house to find my father and my older brother in there, hogging up the one sink. We must have been going out that night. My father was shaving in the mirror and my brother was wrapped in a towel, which meant he was in the process of getting ready. I asked them if I could wash my hands in the sink, and when they didn’t answer or didn’t answer in a way that gave me what I wanted, I went over to the open toilet and put my hands in the toilet water. My brother said, Oh, dad! And my father ran over and grabbed my hands and shook me slightly by them, saying, what the hell are you doing? And I answered back, Well, if I’d had been allowed to use the sink when I asked, I wouldn’t have to! I was so angry; it was the first time I remember talking back. I couldn’t believe they’d be so selfish and hog up the bathroom sink. I had no patience or sense that there was any difference in types of water.

I once had a relationship with a guy I didn’t realize was homeless. He hung around the maze of university offices during the day, took showers in the ground level showers, read books in the library, and had sex with strangers in more than a few university bathrooms. He washed his hair in bathroom sinks. He kept a set of toiletries in a basement locker. He brushed his teeth. He kept up the charade for a while. He was smart, seemed kind, was handsome, but once I realized he was hustling in and around the university, I broke it off. Every so often I used to see him, still trying to blend in to the groups of students. I have wondered if he’s going to end up dead in some public bathroom.

The bathroom’s often the only place all day I see myself. The mirrors line one whole wall, above the white sinks with their movement-triggered faucets. Sometimes I find myself surprised at what I look like, how wild my hair has turned while I’ve been running my hand through it during grading or responding to emails. Sometimes it’s the only time I see and really register what I’m actually wearing.

And it seems true to the bathroom’s mission to have so many mirrors. The bathroom is the place for reflection, for going inward, into the deepest place in the building, the place where if there where an earthquake or tornado, you’d be safest: sitting on the john behind the closed doors of a stall which is behind the closed doors of the bathroom. In such a place you can think. Sometimes too I tell a needy student I need to go to the bathroom as a way to break off a talk that’s going on too long; no one waits too long for someone to come out of the bathroom. I need to breathe and be alone, which is what the bathroom allows. I can stare at myself sometimes for a long time before someone comes in. I wash my hands, slick back my hair or at least spritz some water on it to break up the dry hair frizz I can get in the winter especially. I adjust my belt. I check my zipper and I’m out again.

Archie Bunker and Al Bundy from Married with Children. A certain type of man loves to go to the bathroom, proudly announces it and his productivity in there. They take reading material. They want to be alone with themselves. These are men who are often homophobic, and would not see any ironies between their own exclamations of joy at stretching their sphincter muscles in elimination and their abhorrence of anal sex. As if all doors only opened out. As if bathrooms were only places of degradation.

And speaking of doors, the way into bathrooms has completely changed. You now walk into really large ones via a bent hallway; there are no doors. The reason is apparently to eliminate the germs that gather on doorknobs. I understand the need, but I still feel uneasy going into those bathrooms. I want to know there’s a door shut behind me. I like to feel as if I’m in a safe space.

Last year we had a number of bomb scares at the University of Pittsburgh. In the twenty-five years I’ve been here, it was the first time I’d ever been evacuated because of that particular threat, which frankly seems strange. The first two bomb scares took place before 11 am on a Wednesday and then the following Monday, so most of us assumed that it was the work of a student who didn’t want to go to his 11 am MW classes. But then the next scare came on a Thursday around 11, which threw that theory off.

Where had the bomb scare threats come from? Men’s rooms apparently on the ground floor. Which means the threatener had to write it and post it on the door or wall of the bathroom, then trust that someone else would see the threat and call it in. It seems to have worked. By the third bomb scare, the campus police took the doors off all the men’s stalls; they weren’t taking any chances. Men were posted in all the public bathrooms to patrol, to watch, to catch a perpetrator. The perpetrators, who might well simply be copy cats, moved to another building in the upper building, and then when that building was being evacuated, all the campus police up there, the perpetrators left yet another bomb scare in the original building. As if to say fuck you to the campus police.

Am I surprised that men’s rooms were the sites for this threat? No. The little closed stalls are places where men have always contemplated the world, their lives. It’s a space made for the concentration of angry and shameful feelings. From the perpetrators’ view, it might be seen as a site of resistance to the police state we seem increasingly to find ourselves in. The bathroom stall, like Superman’s telephone booth, like Doctor Who’s Tardis, is a space of transformation, for costume changes. A man goes into one with the express notion of releasing discomfort from his own body, of finding relief. One comes out a new man.

I know, though, that I could never use those stalls on the ground floor once they became doorless. It’s too shameful. My being invisible to others is important to my relaxing enough to get the job done. This is also true of the spy, the saboteur, the terrorist, those whose job is to sow terror, destruction, and distraction. The man who goes into a bathroom stall is always a loner, is being cut off from the rest of us, free to think his own thoughts, read whatever he wants to read. The stall was turned into a radical space by the bomb scares, a space where explosions are threatened, where evacuation turns inside out.