September 13, 2015
On Thursday night I walked down the street with Jake to check out the NFL season opener at our neighborhood sports pub, which happens to be a Steelers stronghold. It was packed, loud, and greasy, but we found a couple of seats right at the bar, cast in shivering splashes of color from the myriad movie trailers and car commercials above. Below, chubby men in cargo shorts and ponytails danced around deep fryers while pouring out small cups of ranch from wide-mouth 3-gallon chalices. A deeply satisfying American menagerie.
I’m writing this during commercial breaks of the Rams-Seahawks broadcast, which is playing on a 3×5” screen in a separate tab. Jake and I had a great time on Thursday: we drank, we fingered some tots, we groaned with each monster Gronk reception and even vomited some off-hand stats towards the rabble surrounding us. However, there was a single distinct unpleasantness that sent me home reeling: my sole bathroom visit.
Bar bathrooms are dirty and cramped. The A&L Tavern’s was no exception. Still getting my sealegs after a couple of hoppy beers and an hour in a stool, I nudge my way into the latrine, spy the open urinal, and hook a quick left. Immediately a pair of hands clasp to my shoulders, followed by brisk, sturdy pats. Then, a voice:
Sorry, buddy, gotta wait – turn, not just standing here, just standing her for nothing, right? bathroom, standing in the bathroom, nothing, fucking, alright…
I can’t recall the exact cadence because the encounter was so sudden. But obviously this gentleman had been waiting patiently for a toilet, and I had intercepted him. So his first response was to grapple me and give me a few condescending pats on the back. My disoriented response came out something like
alright man, just fucking go – then just go, just go to the toilet, man, alright, just fucking go man –
Behind us, snickers. I was returning his fervent gestures, a sort of defense, and at that point we were a couple of dudes groping at each other in a rank three-holer within the bowels of a dark sports bar. After several bewildering moments of sardonic camaraderie, we somehow both ended up with a pot to piss in: during our brief engagement, a man had walked out of the stall, past us. I returned to my perch aside Jake. God, man…
Later that night I had some of the most vicious fantasies in recent memory of slamming that guy’s head into the ceramic trough and through the pickled urinal cake. A simple misunderstanding: I was a little tipsy and didn’t notice him in my blind surge, he was a little tipsy and construed my tunnel vision as a cavalier affront to men’s room etiquette. Of course, I had to wait on him as he washed his hands. We said nothing, and never made eye-contact.
And I’m left with a swirl of trivial, pathetic images and a memory of sincere annoyance: I’ve tried my best to reproduce the former below:
More aggressive encounters have rattled my drunken stupors: some I remember vaguely, some not at all. I remember being repeated shoved into the dirt by a gaggle of bouncers outside a Berlin techno dungeon, and scuffling with an ROTC muscle-dork on Valley Rod in late fall, after he’d spilled a drink on me and refused to apologize (that one really pissed me off). I remember last NYC in Adams-Morgan when I told this short, uptight Armenian doorman that he looked like Prince, and subsequently that he looked “like a dick” when he let half of our party in without a cover and demanded $20 from the rest of us. And I remember a stocky frat guy screaming in my face – literallyscreaming – after one casual warning that I “needed to leave” the bar or else. I thought he was fucking with me. Turns out they were having a private pledge event and rented out the whole upstairs. Wish he would’ve told me that. He had to wrangle the bouncers after another bout of vein-popping macho talk and lame gesticulation. My friends and I got pizza and went home.
Never before have I paused and strung all these incidents together in one paragraph. There are probably others that elude me. I’ve recounted these little misadventures in quick anecdotes over the years, but it’s impossible to convey the righteous anger of the moment. Instead, a nagging ambiguity drifts in to blunt it, a patina of shame: maybe you should have just walked away or maybe that guy was frustrated too or maybe you shouldn’t have had
so much. These days I’m not a heavy drinker or a raver or a college student, but tiffs are inevitable. Everyone, even the meek, harbors a little asshole deep inside them that is all pride with glass cheeks where you can read private histories of insecurity and doubt. Standing over the urinal I closed my eyes in ecstasy when the stream finally flowed forth – if my shy bladder caused a dry dangle after the patting debacle, and my new friend were to hear it (or lack thereof) in our aftermath of shared silence, and smile? Ruinous.
The American bathroom is a haven for reflection, as well as a bustling public space; a portal of relief and a chamber of distress for the sick, weary, or too-far-gone; a refuge for bereft smartphone-flicking party guests, promising either a chance to phone-a-friend, or to regroup and rejoin the fold in a fresh weave of conversation; a petri dish of design; an inherent contradiction. There’s a reason most people don’t like to talk in bathrooms, much less paw at each other like idiots. It’s just plain bad form.