It was Paris and we were sitting outside a café, blissfully sipping wine and studying the backside of Notre Dame de Paris. A friend had just returned from the bathroom. “Ah,” she sighed, settling into her chair. “The French are soooo civilized.” One or two of us twitched an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Unisex bathrooms, of course.”
Of course? Not wine? Not cheese? Not even diplomacy, art, or haute couture, but unisex bathrooms as the foundation of French civilization?
Perhaps it’s because most of my childhood was spent in a one-bath-without-a-lock-on-the-door house. Perhaps it’s that old ‘50s repression—I don’t know what it is, but I really like (read: need!) my very own bathroom. As a woman, I feel it’s our one (and probably last) place to be off by ourselves. It’s where we can make rude noises, where we can legitimately pass pungent odors, where we can even readjust uncomfortable body parts without apprehension that the guy in the next stall is going to make our necessary habits the highlight of his next global tweet. Let’s face it, men find bodily functions amusing, whereas most women adhere to the Victorian standard that there are just some things one does not notice or talk about.
Okay, I have a thing about all bathrooms; I admit it. They are my ultimate criteria for hotels or restaurants, always. The hell with the view, show me the freaking bathroom.
I recall in my travels some really wonderful bathrooms: The Ritz Madrid had a bathroom with a view—the best of all worlds. It was living-room-sized, lined in marble, and through its French doors, you could gaze upon the Prado without leaving the Olympic-sized tub!
Then there was the ever so romantic black marble bath in the Hong Kong Peninsula Hotel, where you could imagine yourself rich and pampered, perhaps wearing white satin clinging to your arched Garbo silhouette, while admiring yourself in the floor to ceiling mirrors.
Of course, there were other bathrooms. Not so romantic. Germany comes to mind. Their bathrooms always seem to insist on providing an interesting vantage point of one’s own waste products—up close and personal, as it were.
But the bathroom that really started it all was in Manhattan. One of my mother’s shopping treks. I had to go, I wailed! So badly, that by the time my mother reluctantly dragged me into the ladies’ room, I didn’t pay much attention to the position of the seat cover. It was down, and in my haste at age four or five, I peed on top of rather than into, and my mother had to purchase new undies and socks for me. She never let me forget it and the story became one of those legends that are repeated at every family gathering and makes you grow up determined to move to another country.
I became more aware of bathroom details after that.
It was in a restaurant in Taipei where I was introduced to my first unisex bathroom. Initially, I thought I’d done my usual blunder when I’d walked in to see one of my fellow dinner guests at a urinal. Naturally, I assumed I was in the wrong place and went outside to check the door. On the left side of the door was printed “Women,” on the right, “Men.” I re-entered and heading to a stall, I couldn’t help but wonder about the motion going on at the urinal… one shake, two shakes, up on the tiptoes, rock left, rock right… what on earth was he doing?
Later, in the art school at my university, there was, on the third floor, a unisex bathroom. We all thought it was so very avant-garde, soooooo arty. We climbed the stairs to use it whenever possible, but mostly to make a statement about how very liberal and egalitarian we were—but only to pee. Anything else was done strictly among women, waiting until we had the chance to get to a real bathroom.
And waiting was easy for me. My training for waiting began as a child during my family’s penchant for road trips.
Since we had already read every historic marker within a thousand miles of the Jersey shore, we started traveling back and forth across the entire country. These trips commenced when I was about five, just after the Macy’s Incident, as I began to think of it. Our vacations became marathons from New Jersey to California and back to New Jersey. We traveled in a Nash, of all things, because you could tilt the seats back and sleep in the car if you couldn’t find a properly priced motel. In case you don’t recall what exactly a Nash is, it looked like an oversized, upside-down bathtub. Ours was propelled across the country by either my father or my grandfather; it doesn’t matter which, because the goal for each day was five hundred miles, no matter who was at the wheel. This was only a three-week vacation, damn it, and we had to SEE EVERYTHING!
Bathrooms were not high on the tour priority list. “I gotta go, Dad,” was pointedly ignored. The fifth time I insisted “I gotta go NOW, Dad” produced mutters and a screech to the side of the road. The front and rear passenger doors were thrown open, and I had to squat between them while cars whizzed by and at least one smart ass laid on his horn while I tried to pee. Three round trips by the time I was seven. You tend to develop, not only a certain attitude, but also a very substantial bladder and a definite preference for space, cleanliness, and, most of all, privacy.
I eventually came to appreciate my ability to “Hold it until the next gas station, will ya?” But cross-country gas stations paled in significance beside the ones I discovered as an adult in third-world countries.
And then… Laos
I’m not sure what the actual name of the nightclub was, but every American in Vientiane, Laos called it the Green Latrine. It was the place you took new arrivals to vet them into the ways of local nightlife and weed out the weaker of the species. The Green Latrine was a bar, a dance hall, and a restaurant (although I never remember ever eating anything there). In itself, and as desperate as we were for entertainment, it may very well have been très chic, but its bathrooms were très medieval French in design and bouquet.
The Ladies’ Room (the ultimate misnomer) measured about 5 by 10 feet, and its ceiling was at least 12 feet high. It was lighted by one bare bulb that was so dim, it couldn’t attract the flying termites. The bulb dangled a foot below the ceiling on a mangled cord and was controlled by a switch next to the solid teak door. The walls of the bathroom had been painted, oh, about fifty years before. Mold and wear and tear had produced a patina that was… well, it was pretty dank. The sink was an in-progress work of art—the overall color of rust on ancient and cracked porcelain was complemented by the variegation of blue-green encrustations on the antique copper handles. There was a Lilliputian flow of adobe-tinted water. No soap. No towel. No toilet tissue.
And the floor was—oh, gawd—moving? No, wait, those were the cockroaches. Eons before, when the floor had first been put down and buffed, these creatures were probably able to skimmmmmmmm across its surface, but years of unidentified buildup made the progress of the roaches slow and ponderous—not unlike those tall attack vehicles in Star Wars—this leg, then that leg, plodding, plodding along….
And then there was the commode itself—perhaps known somewhere and in a certain vernacular, as a throne, but not the one in the Green Latrine. No imagination, not even a gin-infused one, could ever remotely conceive of that gaping abyss … as a throne. It was worn concrete and as redolent as a badly managed Iowa pig farm.
On the positive side, it was at floor level, so you didn’t have to climb up onto it and sort of teeter over it while doing your business as, believe it or not, some actually required. It really was just a hole in the floor; there’s no better way to describe it. A hole in the floor, about a foot in diameter. It was surrounded by a slightly raised 4-inch wide rim that had shallow indentations on either side where you were supposed to place your feet.
You went in there because you were desperate after drinking and dancing most of the night. It was at least 104 degrees and a minimum of 98 percent humidity.
It was deathly dim, and…
The floor was moving.
You put your feet in the appointed location on either side of that hole, you dropped your knickers, you lowered your backside, and you peed. I know what you’re thinking: so much for the $800 alligator loafers. Ah, my dears, it was more like sandals and wet feet. The bush outside would have been an attractive alternative if it hadn’t been for the cobras and vipers.
If you were silly or brave enough to look down into the commode before you used it (actually, you would have needed a flashlight considering the effect of the overhead light), you would not have been able to see bottom—just as well—it was definitely a whatever-you-do-don’t-drop-anything sort of place.
Did I mention the French philosophy about room lighting? They obviously have a very perverse cultural interest in conserving energy. They seem to feel it necessary to put timers on only the most essential lights, such as those illuminating staircases, elevators, operating rooms, and/or bathrooms. These lights are programmed to shut off in exactly half the amount of time it takes to get to wherever you want to go or do whatever you need to do.
It is the ultimate Gaelic shrug.
Such was the light in the Ladies’ Bathroom at the Green Latrine.
However, thanks to my father’s and grandfather’s superb cross-country training, I was able to walk into this bathroom, take one long, horrified look, shudder and walk out and hold it for hours! Or at least, until we finally staggered home. But for those women who had a bladder the size of a small lime, that hole in the floor at the Green Latrine was their only option.
Such was Mrs. McLarney. She was a dear person: a devoted mother, a beloved wife, and a good sport with a wonderful sense of humor. But Mrs. McLarney, unfortunately, had not had my father as her mentor.
It had been a long evening and Mrs. McLarney really had to pee.
The Green Latrine was not a place where one woman stood up to go to the lav and fourteen other women promptly stood up to go with her. In the Green Latrine, it was every woman for herself. A sensible woman managed to wait—forever, if necessary. There was even the theory that one could possibly sweat it out on the dance floor. Mrs. McLarney had tried that. It hadn’t worked and she couldn’t wait. She had to go. Now!
She solicited companionship from the other woman at the table. We gave her that secret female you-must-be-totally-out-of-your-freaking-mind look. She was on her own. She left the table with a forlorn backward glance over her shoulder. We waved her on, and then promptly forgot about her. We were drinking, laughing, dancing, and flirting. We were having a wonderful time and time passed and we didn’t even think about her.
When she returned, at first glance, she looked, well, unnaturally disheveled. We stared. We realized that there was a different look in her eyes—a cross between deer-caught-in-the-headlights and a hundred-meter stare—that mixture of having not only looked over the edge, but of actually having plunged over it. Her very presence demanded concern.
Are you all right?!
Where were you, we asked.
She was very wide- and wild-eyed. She’d taken too much time, she said, and the light had gone off, and it wouldn’t come back on, she added in a frantic rush that bordered on accusation. The locks on the bathroom door had been complicated in the dark. She had pounded on the door, she had even screamed, but the music, the laughter…. Her body shuddered. And, she added in an ascending voice, the cockroaches were everywhere. Flying. And on the floor. She was sure a cockroach had climbed up…oh no, we interrupted, surely it wasn’t possible. Here, have another drink. Have two!
I don’t think we ever returned to the Green Latrine after that evening. The McLarney Bathroom Incident loomed darkly, albeit silently, over all of us; for evermore, as it were.
I went on to survive the bathrooms of several more exotic locales, and these days, I can dash across the United States and dart into a super-highway public WC and pee without undue ceremony or hardship.
How is it in there? asks someone outside the entrance. Don’t inhale, I warn. No toilet paper? No prob! Use those sanitary seat covers, or the Kleenex stuffed in the back pocket of your jeans. I’ve become a bit hardened, a true pioneer; my father had been my trainer and Mrs. McLarney was my hero. These days I can even squat in the woods without exposing my backside to poison ivy or peeing in my boots!
But still, there are certain things I want to keep to myself. Certain places that are mine alone. Certain mysteries I want to retain. So when we were ready to leave our little café in Paris, and someone asked if anyone else had to use the unisex bathroom before we got on the metro, I said no thanks, I’ll just wait.
And, ya know, I knew I could.
Holly Dupré is an award-winning photographer, artist, and author who spent a good many years traipsing around the world with Nikons slung around her neck and a sketch pad at hand.
She is also my mom!