Rite of Passage

[The last guest post of the week is by Jim Griffioen, one half of the blog Sweet Juniper. I fell in love with his writing a few years ago, and when he and his family moved from San Francisco to Detroit they spent an afternoon at our house in Salt Lake City (where Leta introduced their daughter, Juniper, to childhood obesity). The legal advice he and his wife gave to us in those couple of hours helped us save our house, so I pretty much owe these guys both of my kidneys.]

Rarely am I more ashamed to be a man than when I step into a public restroom. I would rather stand before a class of sophomore women’s studies majors berating me for everything men have ever done wrong than take a dump next to a stranger. Seriously guys, I can almost forgive the clammy aroma of unflushed turds or the wet farts or the polychromatic pubes on all the urinal lips. Those things, I suppose, are to be expected. But what I cannot forgive is the heavy breathing while you strain: all your cloistered grunting and satisfied exhalations. A performance like that is one thing on your private throne, but another entirely when you know I’m in there with you (I even coughed a little, for a heads up). And then there’s the sound of newspaper pages turning inside your stall. Who gets comfortable enough in a public restroom to follow that story to 11C? Don’t think you can get away with reading your iPhone, either. I hear you tapping.

There was a time when I didn’t know it could be any other way. But then one night in June 1994, when I was sixteen, the manager of the diner where I bussed tables handed me a mop and told me to clean the women’s restroom. After knocking several times I opened the door to a softly-lit Rococo antechamber filled with fresh flowers and upholstered armchairs and a countertop display of lavender-scented hand lotions and glass spraybottles of eau de toilette. The stalls weren’t littered with excrement or crude drawings of hairy genitals or phone numbers for that “bitch named Tonya” who “sucks it for free.” True, it did smell sort of like someone had farted into a bowl of potpourri, and those metal boxes full of used “sanitary napkins” made me gag, but compared to the men’s room I thought I’d stumbled into a recently-evacuated harem of Kublai Khan’s pleasure dome.

The conditions in most men’s rooms make me sad that closeted homophobic senators from Idaho have to cruise them for handjobs (and I don’t just mean the dearth of free lotion). I had a friend in San Francisco who would cruise the disgusting public men’s room on the ground floor of the building where he worked. Not once, but twice, he had his wallet stolen by whatever gutterpunk had pulled his pants down to his ankles. “Dude, you need to get a wallet chain,” someone suggested. Dude, I thought: You need stop accepting blowjobs from guys who’ll get down on their knees in a public men’s room.

And then, hardly a year later, I found myself down on my knees in public men’s rooms all the time.

It’s one of the hardest parts about being a father to a little girl: you have no choice but to drag your precious, uncorrupted little daisy into some of the foulest palaces of filth and putrefaction known to man, while women bring their daughters with them into perfumed Xanadus. My daughter gave up diapers about a year ago, and as a stay-at-home dad who tries to stay at home as little as possible, I became one of the only parents on earth who has actively discouraged pottytraining. “Are you sure you don’t want to just pee in your diaper?” I’d ask. Using public facilities usually involved mummifying her in toilet paper and positioning her against the stall door while I scrupulously wiped down the seat crescent and that little divot of porcelain where pubes and piss love to linger. Only then would I lift her up on the seat and let her do her thing. Honestly, though, it’s gotten past the point where I worry too much about the filth or her confusion over urinal pucks and hastily-carved glory holes. Lately I’ve started worrying about the long-term effect of exposing her to the bathroom behavior of my fellow American males. With a grunter in the next stall, she once screamed, “Is that the WARTHOG from the zoo? Not the WARTHOG!”

(She’s terrified of that damn warthog)

But even worse, now it seems like she’s getting used to it all. She just giggles at the guy with the ass trumpet emptying his bladder at the urinal. One of her recent Crayola scribblings was a little too phallic for my comfort, and I’m pretty sure it had hairy balls. She’s started telling off-color limericks while slicking her hair back in front of the mirror. When we can’t find a men’s room, she even offers to pee in the bushes like a drunk Japanese salaryman.

Our sorties into public restrooms have been further complicated by the presence of my infant son—usually strapped to me in one of those Swedish chest saddles—so I can no longer comfortably get down on my knees and plead with my daughter to PLEASE GO PEE PEE BEFORE THAT RASH CRAWLING ACROSS THE TOILET SEAT GETS TOO BIG TO KILL WITH MY SPRAY BOTTLE OF CLOROX. She’s now old enough to climb up on the toilet, get her own paper and even flush. She’s also going through a “girly” phase that’s somewhat inconsistent with her expressed desire to pee standing up. Her daily uniform has more restrictions than that of a Singapore Girl: no pants, only dresses or skirts, and everything must be pink. All possible steps must be taken to avoid appearing “boy-ee.” One day last week she noticed that the pictogram on the men’s room at the museum was dressed in pants, whereas the one on the other door was wearing a lovely skirt. Then several troops of Cub Scouts converged on the men’s room, lining up to pee all over the toilet seats and floor.

She refused to line up behind the scouts. Everything had come to a head.

No one had gone in or out of the women’s lavatory for quite some time. “See that door?” I said softly. “When you go inside, you’re not going to realize it’s a bathroom, but it is: I promise you. I need you to go inside, find a toilet, and close the door. Then I want you to go potty like a big girl. And wash your hands, okay?”

“Okay, Pops,” she replied.

“I love you,” I said, holding the door for her, watching as she disappeared beyond the gilded vanities into a fog of myrrh, lost to me now in a land of rainbows and sparkling porcelain where flatulence is as delicate as the fluttering of fairy wings and only the faint sound of a unicorn braying hints that someone inside might be struggling to empty her colon.

A few minutes later she emerged intact. “Smell my finger,” she said with one outstretched. I did so tentatively, concerned still that the men’s room had corrupted her completely. To my relief, it smelled like lavender. “Girly,” she said smugly, and I kept a tight grip on that tiny finger while we walked away.