Retail Chronicles: Potty Talk, The Study

During an unpleasant stretch of employment, I conducted a study in a Macy’s bathroom. A study may be putting too fine a point on it. It wasn’t my intention to make any observations. In fact, I was doing my damnedest to repress all my sensory experiences in ‘the ladies.’ However, I found myself hiding in the second floor stalls too often to stay ignorant of certain emerging patterns.

If you don’t understand why hiding in a filthy department store bathroom might constitute a reprieve, I don’t think you’ve ever worked a retail job.  Frankly, it was a welcome break, basically a psychic vacation, to stand in a locked bathroom stall, clutching my skull, trying to breathe…but not too deeply. While stealing these breaks every workday, I scrabbled back into my own consciousness. I tried to gain some perspective on life. The restroom was a more fitting environment for this than I ever suspected.

Every restroom environment has its own culture. The second floor of the old art deco Macy’s building in Ardmore, Pennsylvania skewed towards middle-aged ladies. Rich ladies, save for Macy’s employees, for whom this was their only bathroom too. The sample was more racially diverse than you’d expect in Ardmore. Definite groups of bathroom behaviors emerged among the herd, during the year I hid out in this Macy’s bathroom. A few were common enough to comprise categories of patrons. I will submit a few samples below as a small contribution to the world of bathroom anthropology:

TYPES OF LADIES BATHROOM-GOERS

The Howlers and Whoopers

These ladies barrel into the bathroom, sirens on full blast, “Whoo! Hoo! Whoo! Oooh Hoo!” Installed, they whoop with relief, “pheeeeeeweee! whooooooaaaaaah…!”; and leave (always) with satisfied songs of, “mmmhmmm!…aaah.”

The Prayerful

The base and the divine intersect for these ‘excretrix.’ The Lord is invoked during, before and after the act. Sometimes, full mutterings of prayers will be uttered to ease their offal’s transition between realms.

The Dancers

The women who do a staccato dance on their toes while using the facilities. Some favor the cha cha. Others employ a mysterious morse code. Still others invoke the machine gun, impatiently drilling out their duty.

The Muzak Singers

They get into the soundtrack of their bathroom experience. They sing so earnestly, punctuating their solos with distinctly un-musical sighs.

The Soliliquist

If they think they’re alone, then the soliliquist will continue the conversation they’ve been having in their head all day, now fully or partially out loud. The acoustics amplify these strange poems. “I give up, I just…Lasagna, I could make the lasagna…stupid, stupid, stupid…okay, choose between peplum and polka dots and then go…there’s never any soap in these places, is there? Ha! What a dump…What is this world coming to…” The true bathroom soliliquist is rarer than the cell phone monologists- a demographic so vast and unabashed, and undoubtedly familiar, that I won’t waste any more words on them.

Advertisements

Grab Your Torch and Pitchfork! We’ll All Be Healed!

“We’re here to see the Horsehead, Horsehead, Horsehead

We’re here to see the Horsehead like be-fore!”

A  hungover musician optimistically called ‘The Band’, also called ‘Joe’, is leading us through the opening number. He grabs the mic and mumbles a verse. Joe is wearing tight black jeans, a pinching suitjacket and a messy tie. He pushes his sunglasses up and gestures to the audience. The group of strangers follows his lead. We mumble and shift nervously on the edge of our  Yard Theatre seats.

David and I are sitting in the center of the front row. Chanting. We’re getting into it. So is the rest of the crowd. The murmur builds into a low roar.

“We’re here to see the Horsehead, Horsehead, Horsehead/

We’re here to see the Horsehead, like be-fore!”

Neither David nor I  have any idea who The Horsehead is, or what he’s done. No one knows. But we are all in this together.

The Leader of the Community is chiming in with approval. This man in a tux wears wild eyes. He’s got the build and poise of a young Orson Welles. He speaks with rich, desperate authority. He is the one who organized this “Reconstruction” of the terrible crimes committed by the Horsehead. We, the audience, are his captive community. The Leader has lost a loved one to the murderer. He tells us that we, the audience, also know victims of the Horsehead’s crimes. The Leader of the Community hopes we will all learn something from this reconstruction. Everything is broken after the tragedy, but this performance will make it all whole!

The Band and The Projectionist are in The Community Leader’s employ.  An old-school overhead projector beams the lyrics to the ‘Song to Summon the Horsehead’ against the white wall of the theatre. The Projectionist handles the song lyric transparencies during the show. The Projectionist, a weedy, sullen character in a navy blue sweater, is also the puppeteer. He shines hand-drawn scenes and characters against the walls during the reconstruction. He moves them with Q-tips and gives them silly voices.

“Louder!” commands the Leader of the Community.

“We’re here to see the Horsehead, Horsehead, Horsehead-“

Yes, every soul who tromped through the icy drizzle to this post-industrial corner of London repossessed by art, every single soul, is implicated. Everyone who bought a seat to the first show of The Yard’s N.O.W. ’14 series this Tuesday night in February becomes a witness. The audience is a crucial part of Horsehead: A dark, rollicking satire; a weird, compelling ritual;  one of the most cohesive, inventive and fun pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time.

When the horse-headed boy whinnies and charges into the theatre, the Leader of the Community traps him in a ‘municipal chalk circle.’ From his cage, the parameters of which are literally chalk lines drawn on the floor, the Horseheaded Boy (Steven) is forced to re-enact the atrocities he committed.

What atrocities? Tramplings. Steven used his booted human feet in equine fury.

The motive? Sexual shame, social isolation and, well…horse brains.

We, the audience, chant! We pray! We sing hymns! We boo! …Some of us.

David was easily the loudest and quickest to break into the catchiest ditty, “We burn monsters/OH/We burn monsters!”

The man is always up for an adventure; he’s a dream audience member. Yet, his face crumples into a compassionate grimace when asked to boo the Horsehead boy.

The Leader: “Shall we boo him, ladies and gentlemen? BOOOOOOO! BOOOOOOO!”

David leans over,”I…I don’t want to boo him! This feels so wrong!”

“BOOOOO! BOOOOOOOOO!”

“I kno-ow!” I whisper back, “The liberal arts have ruined us!”

“I SAID SHALL WE BOO HIM, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN?”

Despite the chants, and the strange, enticing sense of community, there is no sense of victory at the play’s end.

The Leader of the Community cradle’s Steven’s severed horse head in his arms with a glazed look of shock in his eyes. The Leader’s voice no longer booms. He is unsure. His last command, for the audience to sing a hymn and take a ‘victory lap’ around the space, is issued in a daze.

It seemed to me that The Leader of the Community felt lost without the firm roles of the reconstruction. Perhaps, he had been doing the reconstruction over and over again- only this show was the show when he lost control and killed the captive Horsehead.

Now it was all over.

What had been put back together?

The audience’s ‘victory lap’ around The Leader of the Community and the horse head was funereal, and equally unsure. What did we just do? What was that all about? David and I weren’t certain, but the spell cast by the Horsehead has lasted weeks after we saw the show.

Over beer at The Yard bar, David said he saw a satire of “provincial English council meetings” in the show: the shabbiness, the shaming, the forming of mobs and designating of scapegoats. He talked about how becoming part of the mob was irresistable as well as uncomfortable. We discussed Frankenstein, fear of monsters, and the desire to create a sensible narrative, that is self-justifying and self-preserving in the wake of tragedy.

For me, the play also evoked the ritual played out after every atrocity committed by a ‘monster.’ The Theatre of Atrocity Coverage. I thought of the Boston Marathon bombers. I thought about the DC Metro area snipers. The school shooters. The outraged, wounded community, in addition to due process, demands a reconstruction. What exactly happened? Scenes are played out again and again in the media and over dinner conversation.

Who was he? There is always a sense that if the life and motives of the monster can only be explored and understood, answers will emerge. The victims will discover a crucial separation between their own humanity and the monster. So often, both the pitiable humanity and the inhumane monstrosity of the perpetrator emerges, muddying as well as clarifying the portrait of a killer.

Justice will be served!…What kind of justice? And will it be cathartic? Is there any release, any satisfaction?

Horsehead brilliantly explored all the elements of the reconstruction in the wake of tragedy- the pain and righteousness behind it;  all the complicated, perverse, problematic relishing that can come with it; the ambivilance, relief, or lack of relief…It is about that staged transformation between something broken and the inevitable way life continues. Does the transformation always occur? If we perform the ritual and it doesn’t, what does that mean?

The show was a rough-hewn, well thought out crucible for both incorporating and alienating the audience as a community. The audience members were both participants and observers in a mob, placing the consequences of the play solely in their own hearts and minds. I’m sure that the crowd reaction and feeling varied with each show.

It was fucked up. It was funny. It was sad. I was never sure what was going to happen next. To me, those are the marks of a good show.

Most importantly, Horsehead is a piece of theatre that has haunted me.

I think about it often. Walking around London, the catchy tunes sometimes float, unbidden, into my brain and match the beat of my boots on cobbles. I hear my own voice in the chorus echo at the strangest moments: When I read the news headlines; when the pub conversation turns to politics; just as I sit down in a completely different theatre to watch a completely different play…

“We’re here to see the Horsehead/Horsehead/Horsehead/

We’re here to see the Horsehead, like be-fore!”

Retail Chronicles: Potty Talk, The Prologue

Not long ago, the famous columnist and sedimentary scholar, Gene Weingarten, wrote a column for The Washington Post magazine reviewing a product for sufferers of Poop Shame. I don’t recommend that everyone read it aloud at the breakfast table, but when I did, it inspired an engrossing release of opinions and anecdotes. I myself was viscerally reminded of the robust lack of poop shame I witnessed when I used to hide in a women’s bathroom at an old hellish job. I’ll return to that, and my unintentional bathroom study, in another post.

First, for those not familiar with the concept of Poop Shame, I’ll give you a classic example:

I am waiting for one of three stalls to free up at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Frederick, Maryland. The line is long. All stalls are occupied. There is no chit-chat amongst the waiting women. The tension suddenly amplifies when fortissimo anal trumpeting and toilet bowl splashes echo off the tile.

A little girl at the front of the line screams,”LaTanya, you NASTY!”

Her sister emerges from the middle stall and says, “Shut up! Wasn’t me!”

Another brassy burst sounds, acquitting LaTanya.

Giggling, her little sister uses the middle stall.

Now, I’m the last in line. There are a dozen women before me. However, the two ladies occupying the two other stalls refuse to emerge, knowing that they’re are nailed as Poop Trumpeter suspects. It had to be one of them, right? And neither of them can bear the thought of leaving the stall to face a crowd of women who heard them poop! Worse, one of them was not the Poop Trumpeter, and she can’t stand the thought that people might think she was the one!

It’s not like someone farted at the Macy’s perfume counter. The Poop Trumpeter is doing exactly what is acceptable to do, exactly where it is acceptable to do it. Poopin’ in a toilet in a private cubicle. Yet, even though the ladies room line is long– even though it takes forever and a half for the line diminish—even though all the fussing, twitching women, their eyes tearing up, have to cycle through one bathroom stall to relieve themselves–the embarrassed stall-sitters settle in for a stake out.

I know this is exactly what is going on. I am positive, because, as I said, I am the last in line. No one else enters the bathroom. So when my turn to use the stall comes, the bathroom is quiet. No more shoes or shoe-wearers waiting against the wall are visible from the view under the stall doors.

This is when one possible Poop Trumpeter flushes. She seizes the moment, that critical moment when the last person in the a long line of witnesses, me, is safely ensconced where I can’t see her. She washes up and scurries out at top speed. The second occupier waits cautiously. She must’ve been the real Poop Trumpeter, because she didn’t leave, conscience-free with her fellow suspect. No, if she was innocent she’d have had the satisfaction of shooting knowing disdain at the culprit. Instead, the Poop Trumpeter makes sure I’m not flushin’ anytime soon, then she makes her getaway.

That, readers, is a brief and clear illustration of the Poop Shame phenomenon. For additional stories, I can only refer to Mr. Weingarten’s piece. For the sake of full disclosure, I will confess that I am both a defecator and a urinator. Poopery. Pissery. These acts are committed daily, hourly, every second…And I suspect all of you are guilty, guilty, guilty!

A Trip to the Health Food Store

I am browsing bags of dried beans , when a man stumbles into the doorway of a East London health food store clutching his crotch.

The door is wide open to the spitting English wind.

Moments earlier, I had tromped across the threshold into the narrow, cluttered shop, in search of cheap bulk goods. The only people in the place were the old man and I. We exchanged a tacit greeting. I turned my nose to the shelves, he turned his to an invoice, and we sniffled companionably about our business.

“You know if cherry juice is good for…for…this?!” The man claps a hand to his corduroys with dire implication.

The owner pushes his spectacles up his nose and answers, “Yeh, cherry juice, cherry juice is good fer it but only a particular kind of cherry juice-”

I assume the old man behind the counter owns the shop. White hair is spackled to his pink scalp. He wears the classic Old English Man getup of pilled-wool sweater, yellowed collar, and self-contained irritation. The attention he gives his tea mug and his invoice is equal. I deduce that the hand-labeled bags of rice, quinoa, and wheat germ are the work of his green pen.

“For-for what I got?” The man props himself in the doorframe with his free hand.

The owner sighs, “I sed, only a particular kind of cherry juice-”

“Do you have it?”

“No, not that kind,” the owner explains patiently from behind the counter, “But I can order-”

The man moans, “Is killin me! They say it’s gout but- auhh!- right where me leg meets me, me crotch!”

“Gout,” The owner considers.

The man is whining, “D’you think me hip is gone, tote-ally gone? Is there somethin-”

“D’you drink the carbona’ed beverages?”

“It’s gout they say-”

“Hey- I listen ta you,” The owner presses his hands to his chest, “You listen ta me-” he stretches his hands towards the dude with the afflicted crotch.

“I know you listen ta me, I know, it’s why I come to-” The man blathers.

“I listen to you, you listen to me,” the owner wets his lips, “Listen: Do you drink the carbona’ed beverages?”

“Yeh, yeh, coke, pepsi.”

“Stay. Away. From the carbona’ed beverages. Don’t drink ’em. Coke, pepsi, ginger beer, fizzy water- none of ’em.

The man dips his head shamefully,”I’m gonna fill my fridge right. Throw way all the ol’, fill it up right wif healthy thing-”

“No, no, now, yer not listening. I didn’t say throw all out, get all new, hey-I listen to you, you listen to me. I said, do not drink carbonated beverages. You know why?”

The man sniffles,”Why?”

“The carbona’ed beverages steal the calcium outta your bones. Right from  your bones. The carbonation will steal the calcium right outta yer thumbs.”

“I’m gonna change my food and all-”

I listen to you. You listen to me.”

“No more carbona’ed beverages,” the man concedes.

The owner goes on, “You know what else you gotta do?”

“Wha?”

“Deadly deadly nightshade,” the owner intones solemnly. He raises a finger, “The nightshade family is deadly to ya.”

“Nightshade?”

“All the vegetables in the nightshade family. Avoid ’em. No tomatoes. No aubergines. No potatoes-”

If possible, the man looks more stricken. He staggers back a step, “No potatoes?!”

“No. Potatoes. None,” The owner expounds, “The nightshades, they’re not the cause of the gout, but they’re makin it worse. You hear me now. Don’t eat the nightshade family. It’s deadly to ya.”

“Righ’, righ’, all righ’,” The man shifts and plucks, “Gon’ fill my fridge up wif all new stuff, get healthy-”

“Now I didn’t say that. I said no nightshade. Deadly, deadly. And stay away from the carbona’ed beverages!”

The man shambles off of the doorframe, “Righ’, righ’, thanks a, thanks a, you listen to me, I dunno what the doctors are doing for me and-”

The owner’s voice warms one degree Celcius as he repeats again, “You listen to me, I listen to you. All right, now.”

“Bye-”

“Bye.”

The man limps back into the rainy street. The owner of the health food shop turns smoothly back to his binder full of papers. I pick my way carefully through the maze of a half-unpacked arborrio rice shipment on the floor. I quietly collect groceries until I am too tempted, and I toss a question towards the counter:

“Do you have any nutritional yeast?”

“Nutritional yeast,” The owner repeats.

“Yeah, I like to stir fry it with tofu.”

The owner points to its spot on the shelf, and when I present the canister to pay, he shoots a probing look through his glasses.

“Good for you,” He nods, “That kind has added B12.”

I say, “Okay. Cool.”

I wait for him to continue, and he seems on the verge. He is studying me as he types on a manual cash register, noting the distinctive caw of my American accent, the backpack I brought to carry my purchases in, the misshapen purple bowler perched on my head. I don’t have any other questions, and he doesn’t have anything else to say. However, as I thank him and leave, he seems to be taking note. As if preparing to remember me.

I launch out of the door wondering whether the hell carbonation robs the calcium right outta yer thumbs, already looking forward to the next trip to the health food store.