It all started with the urinal at the zoo.
I remember my father leading me by the hand so he could unload the used-up portion of a 64 ounce mug of Dr. Pepper he had consumed in preparation for taking his three children to the zoo on a hot summer’s day. I dutifully went with him, though I realized that I did not really need to use the facilities, except to maybe wash my hands. I wasn’t obsessive about keeping my hands clean, but I was a very astute little boy who understood how bacteria was bred from animal poop and sickly children, both of which were prevalent at the zoo at any given time. So I felt the need to wash my hands while my father told me to stay put as he shut the door to the toilet. Looking around the restroom, I saw an unusual sink that was spread across the back wall with several faucets that let water cascade along the ivory interior and down into one of a few drain holes in the bottom basin. Though it did not seem quite practical, I was open-minded. After all, it was the 80s and who was I to judge this new wave of architectural interior design. I pulled the lever and began scrubbing my hands with a small pink wafer of soap and whatever water I could pool into my hands at the time. Two men stood at opposite ends of the long sink and stared at me as I performed my cleansing. Apparently, they were newcomers to this device as well. Just as I was set to splash some cooling water on my face to cool off from the warm summer air, my father grabbed me by the hand and carried me suspended in the air to the spider monkey cage before he finally bent down and informed me of my indiscreet folly. “Son, you were washing you hands in the urinal,” and, after receiving a blank, confused stare, “...the place where other people pee.”
Since that fateful day, I have developed a serious, but wholly understandable fear of public restrooms. I doubt that there is anybody out there who really enjoys the mysteriously sticky floors of the public restroom. Few people live for the opportunity to discuss the weather next to their office superior whilst having their genitals protruding from an otherwise normal ensemble. The underlying concept of a public restroom should be repulsive to most people, and yet it is a fact of life that we deal with on a daily basis. We scoff when we read about the ancient Turkish baths, where citizens bore their all to their neighbors for the sake of cleansing. All that I know is that when it comes to being in a steamy bathtub with the shortstop on my company’s softball team or sitting mere inches away from him as he loudly expels the remains of a digested breakfast burrito into the toilet next to mine, I think I would opt for nudity.
In elementary school, bathroom situations were disturbing to say the least. In kindergarten, there were those bathrooms built into the back of the classrooms with the half doors. In many ways, they were like the typical adult restroom stall, except for the fact that they were not in an enclosed bathroom, but shared the same air as an entire classroom full of children just learning in the worst possible way what their senses were. Graduating to the upper grades of elementary school, the miniature versions of the adult restrooms were all but non-functional, and not just for the revolving, damp, blue cloth paper towel that every sick little child was meant to wipe his grubby hands on for the whole of the school year. I cannot remember a time visiting these facilities when there was not a firm pile of excrement, fresh or otherwise, in the middle of the tiled floor, as if it were ready to offer me a hot towel and a mint in exchange for a nominal tip.
Junior high and high school introduced unspeakable and often illegal acts to the lavatory scene. Luckily, since my ill-fated experience at the zoo, I had spent years training my body and my bodily functions so that I could last an exorbitant period of time without visiting a public restroom. I could hold my pee for an entire day, if need be. I could lock my bowels for a period of three occasionally excruciating days. I liked to think of myself like a camel, the majestic creature of the Sahara, who can hold water in his hump for months. The only problem was that hump would never get a urinary tract infection or die from impacted fecal matter in its intestines. These were among the horror stories that my mother would tell me on my Gandhi-esque abstentions from the toilet. “John Wayne died because he had 40 lbs of crap in his stomach.” “Beethoven died because his bladder exploded from not going to the bathroom.” (Neither of which are true, but both of which are effectively frightening.) I was convinced that, with the proper training, I could avoid uncomfortable public restroom situations for the rest of my life.
My travel to foreign countries has put this training to the test. Though I should remember them for their differing cuisines or historical monuments, I instead remember them for the experience I had with their style of public restrooms. Flying was never an option for relieving myself. Even though airplane lavatories are somewhat discreet, my phobia of public restrooms combined with my claustrophobia from being in a room the size of an amputee’s coffin made these strictly verboten. In Paris, they have public restrooms on the streets which function as space-age port-a-potties. For the cost of five francs, you could enter this plastic cubicle and go about your business. Upon your exit, the entire pod; walls floor, toilet, mini sink; is subjected to a rush of anti-bacterial water, meant to cleanse the “jean valjean” for the next attendant. As I had just experienced 10 hours of flight and a few hours of tourism without any kind of restroom break, it seemed like a great idea and a perfect way for me to get rid of the Wayne and Beethoven I had been storing for so long. But, as I closed the door and sat on the damp seat, I was overcome with a feeling that at any moment, the French toilet would sense that I was American and reverse the flushing process, forcing me to swim through the sewage to the top of the plastic structure as my only escape.
In China, the diet of fresh fish and steamed rice had me B.M.ing like a rockstar throughout my sojourn. Even though I had to deal with sloshing as we slowly made our way through the streets of Hong Kong, I never felt better. My wife, on the other hand, who’s bladder is roughly the size of a Triaminic cup, was often looking for a restroom in any public place we were traveled. In Tiananmen Square, Miranda found a restroom that was outside of the main entryway under the dominating glare of Chairman Mao. The line that formed eventually turned into a crowd and one angry shriveled Chinese woman after another began to violently scramble for an available position in the bathroom. By position, I mean a hole in the ground; A literal hole in the ground, with small wood slats that jutted out of the walls as the only means of privacy. The feisty half-Chinese American girl fought her way to a hole and squatted as hundreds of women anxiously watched her stream of urine, ready to throw her and her capitalist ideals out as soon as it had ended. This to me is the very hell that I am sure is reserved for murderers, rapists, and those who strike up a conversation about sports to those discreetly trying to pee in the urinal beside theirs.
As is the case with most things, the Netherlands really has got public restrooms figured out. They tolerate the use of marijuana, leaving their populace in a consistent state of mellow. They ride bikes everywhere which leaves their air clean and fresh and their bodies thin. And they have public restrooms which should qualify their designer as a saint in whatever church it is the Dutch frequent. The restrooms are actually rooms, with a door that closes the room off from sharing any air with the outside world. In the ceiling is a high-powered fan which not only cools the perspiration from my naturally nervous head, but actually sucks up all the stink that its patrons can produce. The room is carpeted and wallpapered as if by Vermeer himself. As I relieved myself in this utopian bathroom, I seriously considered how long it would take me to learn Dutch and eventually call Holland my home. I liked tulips and I could live in wooden shoes, and my deeply-rooted fear would eventually be excreted from me, or wiped clean if you will.
I never did move to the Netherlands, but have held on to that singular dream ever since. When I walk through my local IKEA and see the euro-chic design of the bathrooms, I long for the restroom experience I once enjoyed. This last week, as we made our entrance into the den of all things Swedish, I led my three-year-old son into one of the family restrooms. The spaciousness was incredible and they had thought of all of the conveniences from free diapers to an automatic hand dryer. We rolled the stroller and the rest of us into this room and encouraged my son to go pee-pee. He did so, to great adulation from his parents, and we then proceeded to flush the toilet which made the sound of a shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral. My son is easily frightened by many things, but this set him over the edge. Now he refuses to use the restroom in any public place that we attend, being convinced that the rush of water will suck him in and curse him to a subterranean life with the mole people. This includes a recent outburst at the local zoo which was only calmed with me kneeling down by him, right next to the spider monkey cage, and giving him a big fatherly hug. “I know Zach, I know,” I said, sympathetically consoling him. “One day you’ll learn to avoid public restrooms all together, and I will teach you how. You might want to start learning Dutch.”