Two stories. Two talented authors. Two bodily functions. Enjoy. . .
by Dee Dobson Harper
Nightclub toilets in 1980s New York City served multiple purposes. Aside from the obvious, they were meeting rooms, coke dens, retreats from hellish dates or customers, locations for spontaneous trysts, and places to sneak a toke from a clandestine joint. Depending upon one’s need, a good seat in a restroom could be as valuable as the best table or barstool in a crowded Manhattan restaurant or nightspot. One night I discovered what an attraction a simple restroom could be given the right location, the right circumstances, and the right suckers.
As a struggling New York actress, I served drinks four nights a week in 1988 at Chelsea Place, a popular Italian restaurant. Deceptively hidden in the back of a small gift shop, Chelsea Place was modeled in the fashion of a Prohibition-era speakeasy: staid in the front, decadent in the back. From the street, it looked like any other store. Beyond the façade, however, was a world of expensive dining, live music and patrons who loved throwing their money around. An elegant Italian restaurant caught much of it. The main bar with nightly musical acts and an intimate jazz bar upstairs took the rest. The place wasn’t private or exclusive, but it wasn’t a cheap night out either.
Chelsea Place patrons paid four dollars for soft drinks, five for beer, and six for mixed drinks, which for 1988 was kind of pricey. Their complaints were rampant, but the allure of the bars kept their business. Any given Friday night, the week’s busiest, would find a line at the door and a multitude of patrons moving in sardined unison on the dimly lit dance floor. Black lacquered tables with tall, high-backed barstools lined the maroon walls. A massive bar separated a surly Italian bartender named Carlo from the mostly young and corporate-type customers whose constant demands for drinks and penchant for stingy tipping chafed the jaded bartender.
This particular Friday was predictably hectic. I was scheduled to work the jazz bar upstairs, a calmer room than the main bar. The featured performer was a jovial, Reubenesque jazz singer named Clementine Jones who brought Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington gloriously back to life each evening. The bartender, Margit, a pretty Long Island blonde, and the busboy, Harry, a native of India with a great sense of humor, had become my close friends since I joined the team one year earlier. We enjoyed working together and shouldered the toils of cocktail lounge work like sports. Between the three of us, we had amassed a collection of regulars who kept us in tips and employment. In the middle of my normal eight-to-four shift, I passed Harry in the hallway as he posted an “Out of Order” sign on one of the two upstairs unisex restrooms.
“Harry, what’s the matter with that bathroom?” I asked, empty serving tray in hand.
“It’s out of order,” he replied. A native of Calcutta, Harry spoke very fast when he was agitated.
“No shit. I can read. Can anyone fix it?” I asked, remembering the growing throng of customers and dreading long waits in the restroom lines.
“Not ‘no shit.’ Shit is the problem,” said Harry.
“What are you talking about?” I demanded.
“This restroom has been violated,” said Harry, eyeing me with a slight grin. He looked back at his sign and smoothed it with one hand.
“I want to see,” I said.
“You don’t want to look in there,” Harry cautioned, standing in front of the door as if to prevent me from opening it. A group of talking customers emerged from the nearby stairwell and passed us on their way to the jazz bar.
“Yes, I do,” I insisted, laughing at the situation, “Let me see. Now, move!”
Harry threw up his arms in surrender and stepped aside. I twisted the chrome doorknob, pushed the door open, and barreled headfirst into a wall a stench. I froze. And then I saw it: someone’s bowels had exploded against the white back wall of the bathroom, blanketing it with oozing feces. My hand flew up to shield my nose and mouth. I stared, shocked beyond belief, at a heaping mound of dark brown feces dripping off of the gleaming back rim of the toilet seat and chrome flusher and onto the floor. Pools of runny crap were forming beside and behind the commode. Someone has been sick, I thought, and recently, too. In eight years of working off and on in the restaurant business, I never had seen anything to equal this catastrophe. I backed out fast and shut the door tightly. I looked wide-eyed at Harry.
“I warned you,” he shrugged.
“Margit’s got to see this,” I said, shaking my head and laughing as I straightened my black bow tie and white button-down. I could picture some poor soul squatting over the toilet seat and blasting the back wall by accident. I told Harry to guard the door while I went to get Margit. Then I saw Reggie Bowen, a regular Friday night patron, approaching.
“Don’t tell me that toilet’s out of order,” he said as he noted Harry’s sign. “There’s a line at every restroom in this place.”
“Well, you can’t use this one. It’s ruined.” I looked up at his puzzled face. Reggie was a handsome yuppie who suffered from terminal suave. He was a cheap tipper except on occasions when he wanted to impress a date. He was accustomed to getting his way. Right then, he was in a hurry.
“Come on, you guys. Just let me in,” Reggie implored.
“I’m sorry, man,” Harry said, “We can’t. You’ll have to wait for another. This one’s destroyed.”
“What are you talking about?” Reggie asked.
Suddenly Reggie struck me as the perfect mark for a joke. A close encounter with a roomful of shit was exactly what he needed. Now was the perfect time, as the upstairs clientele was gathered in the jazz bar and Giancarlo Santini, my alcoholic and geriatric boss, was downstairs in the restaurant. I started laughing again, then stopped and looked him dead in the eye.
“Okay, Reggie. I’ll let you go in, but it’ll cost you one dollar.”
“Get outta here.”
“Hey! You want in or what?” I thrust my serving tray at poor Harry and crossed my arms in exaggerated defiance.
Harry started laughing, and Reggie frowned at me as he fished his billfold out of his back pocket. He opened it, pulled out a dollar, and handed it to me. I snatched it.
“Girl, you want a tip for everything,” he said. Stepping from in front of the door, I gestured for him to pass. He barreled past me and, in one brisk motion, jerked the restroom door open and entered.
“JESUS F%&#*^$ CHRIST!” boomed the voice of a man who had just come face to face with abomination. I doubled over and held my stomach as my eyes watered from laughter. Hysterical, Harry steadied himself against the wood paneled wall for support. I looked just in time to see Reggie fly out of the restroom and stagger in a gagging heap in the dim hallway. I laughed so hard I thought I would wet my pants. Harry was crying.
I looked at Reggie and blurted, “You said you wanted to go in there!”
“Shut UP! Just shut up,” Reggie shouted, causing himself to cough violently. For a moment, I thought an alien would burst from his chest cavity. He struggled to his feet. He brushed himself off and glared at me. I exploded into giggles and Harry began snorting.
“It’s not funny,” said Reggie, incandescent with disgust. His comment elicited a fresh wave of laughter from the two of us.
“Reggie, I’m sorry,” I managed to say.
“You’re crazy,” he snarled.
“You have to admit it’s worth a dollar,” I said.
“It’s worth a dollar just to see you choking, Reggie,” Harry interjected.
“Get away from me. You’re both sick,” Reggie said, “I need a drink.”
“It’s on me,” I said. I left Harry to shut the restroom door while I whisked Reggie to the bar for a consolation drink. It took twenty minutes and a snifter of top-shelf cognac for Reggie to see the humor in my surprise. He began eyeballing everyone in the jazz bar in hopes of identifying the culprit. He would elbow me and point to suspicious looking customers.
Seeing Reggie’s reaction that night served to whet my appetite for mischief.
Luckily, the entire spectacle escaped the attention of Santini and other sensitive Chelsea Place personnel. By the end of the night, I had exposed six more customers to the restroom atrocity: four random guys who, like Reggie, were desperate to find a vacant restroom and were willing to pay a dollar to get in; one woman named Joanne who always wore thick pink lipstick and had heard about it from Reggie and wanted to see for herself; and Johnny Parker, the jovial house trumpeter who I had caught once standing on a toilet smoking a joint and exhaling into the ceiling vent above the commode. Johnny knew his way around a restroom if anyone did, and the crappy state of this one did not impress him at all. This heinous affair even beat the time a particularly amorous couple took over the other upstairs restroom and dislodged the sink from the wall with their activity. While I felt sorry for the restaurant’s cleaning crew who would be forced to tackle the mess the next day, I was tickled to have pocketed seven dollars without serving one drink. As they say, only in New York.
A Fluid Situation
by Trudi York Gardener
Coincidence, perhaps, or just bad luck that on the morning my husband and I planned to return to Portland after our romantic week at Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley, California, I awoke at 4:00 a.m. with a burning lower belly. I quickly identified my problem as cystitis — a bladder infection — the bane of any woman traveler and disastrous in a desert National Park without medical facilities.
Fortunately, before I left the Inn, I called my gynecologist in Portland, Oregon. She phoned in prescriptions for me to pick up at Nye General Hospital in Tonopah, Nevada, three hours away. All I had to do, she said, was drink as much fluid as possible and “try to void” often, which sounded cold and commercial, like canceling a check.
Trying to void, I realized, would require the cooperation of local toilets. Our plush hotel room at the Inn featured a commode with water temperatures of 80 degrees from the heated pipes. I knew serviceable restrooms existed at nearby Furnace Creek Ranch and Stovepipe Wells, but beyond these locations, there was a better chance of finding gold in Death Valley than a toilet.
As my husband finished re-packing our car, I weighed the likelihood we’d reach the closest desert town of Beatty, Nevada, forty minutes away, without an off-road stop. My bladder gauge was registering “full” although in several trips to the bathroom, I’d barely managed a few painful dribbles. My husband would go to the bathroom, and I’d listen to a stream with enough force to power a hydroelectric dam.
We hit the road as dawn cracked red across the sky. A recent spring storm had plunged temperatures to the twenties, and in the dimly lit desert, magenta spring blossoms dappled the pockets of powder snow. Strapped securely in the car and shivering, I bundled myself in blankets and sipped dutifully on my third bottled water of the day.
As we sailed across the valley floor that lies between steep mountain walls, the wind kicked at our car and gradually mutated into a semi-sandstorm. The veiled road dipped and rose like a roller coaster across gullies of the salt-washed white desert. With each smack of a gust, and every rise and fall of the road, my bladder threatened to blow.
I tried to quash the rising panic. Could I make it to Beatty? I certainly couldn’t duck behind the car like my carefree husband. Even if there weren’t rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas out and about in this weather, where would I find vegetation tall enough to hide behind?
Miles earlier I had crossed my legs and clamped my thighs so tight they fused. My teeth chattered, less from the temperature than the internal sloshing that was almost audible. As we passed a sign I couldn’t avoid — “Water for Radiators Only” — the car whipsawed in the wind. That did it.
“Stop!” I shouted.
Startled, my husband slowed the car and we coasted off the highway. I reached for the door, grimacing. It was no longer an issue of modesty, but whether I could face the right direction in the wind.
“Look!” my husband cried suddenly and pointed. There it was, several feet off the highway camouflaged in the swirling sand like a biblical miracle — a blue Port-a-Potty. I staggered over to the shed, mumbling prayers under my breath, and flung open the door. Once inside I was heedless of the crawly creatures sharing my cubicle. The ferocious gales rocked the tilting hut as I maneuvered gingerly over the seat, clinging to the low-ceiling interior. Outside I heard my husband thump against one wall, bracing the side as Mother Nature played Kick the Can.
Weakly I wobbled from the battered portable and fell into the car. We sped off and launched up the Grapevine Mountains on a road that twisted through narrow cuts with names like Hell’s Gate and Daylight Pass, ascending 3000 feet in a few minutes. With each wrenching corkscrew turn, I tried to imagine myself in a different and pleasant location, sort of an out-of-bladder experience. But each place seemed to include a lake or a river. Then I tried a scientific approach to help me focus elsewhere. I remembered my high school chemistry teacher’s assurance that liquid evaporates faster at high elevations. So much for high school chemistry.
Eventually the road dropped down to the Amargosa Desert where we exited California and arrived at the Nevada ghost town of Rhyolite by the edge of the Bullfrog Hills. Once a mining boomtown of 6,000 people, the town evaporated along with the gold. There was no bathroom among the sagging shacks, although I considered using a bottle from the Rhyolite Bottlehouse, constructed from 50,000 whiskey bottles. I assumed with my luck a bottle would be a protected historical relic anyway.
Ten minutes later we limped into Beatty’s Exchange Club in the center of a town where every place is the center of town. The casino was surprisingly festive in the wee hours with soldiers from nearby Nellis Air Force base, glittery young women, and the sound of tinkling coins. Instantly I bolted for the ladies’ room. When I reluctantly emerged from that haven, I spotted my husband in the jungle of slot machines.
“Hey,” he said, with a wave, standing amid a bevy of young women, “I think Fran and her girls are here.” Fran was Beatty’s famous madam of Fran’s Star Ranch. She was so popular for her contributions to the town—whatever that entailed — that the town pitched in and rebuilt her trailer when it burned in a fire.
I corralled a young blonde siren with teased hair and dark fringed eyelashes. “Where can I find a doctor in town?” I asked, briefly explaining the urgency of my request.
“Oh, honey,” she said, “there’s no doctor around here.”
“What’s the matter?” A tall redhead with impressive cleavage stopped alongside.
“She’s got female trouble,” said the blonde.
“Well, we could call Steve,” the redhead said. “He’s a paramedic. I think he had some training in Vietnam.”
This was not reassuring. I tried to imagine a Vietnam paramedic treating me. Would he come in fatigues? Did his home resemble a MASH unit? Would he want to amputate something, for God’s sake?
They summoned Steve the sleepy paramedic who arrived and told me his gynecology experience with male soldiers was limited. He proclaimed our best course was to drive to the hospital in Tonopah.
Morosely we drove north, my husband grumbling that he never found Fran, me grumbling that it was two hours to another toilet. My spirits lifted when we reached Goldfield, a ghost town slumbering under a blanket of light snow. Even though the imposing 1908 Goldfield Hotel was padlocked, the County Courthouse closed, and the few brown weathered stores without any signs of life, I knew from previous visits we would find the Chevron gas station open for business.
“There it is!” I pointed triumphantly, thrilled to see the familiar blue and white gas station. Barely waiting for the car to stop, I jumped out, feet crunching on patches of snow. In a minute, I staggered back to the car.
“Frozen,” I croaked, “they said the pipes are frozen so the bathrooms are locked.”
As we shot out of town, I knew I’d never forget Goldfield, the town that promised and failed to deliver. I imagined how miners must have felt when gold ran out in 1919, or the streets coursed with water during the flash flood of 1913.
Bad idea. I had to stop thinking about flash floods.
Forty-five minutes later, I was lying on a table in Nye General Hospital’s emergency room in Tonopah. The bearded young doctor reassured me the pills would start to clear up the infection.
“But,” he said, “you’ve got to drink frequent glasses of water all the way home.”
About this week’s authors:
Dee Dobson Harper is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Many of her stories, essays and poems are set in New York City, where she lived for 10 years and where a huge piece of her soul remains. She is a longtime advertising copywriter and currently a marketing communications/PR writer at East Carolina University. Her work has appeared in Summerset Review, Scrivener’s Pen, City Writer’s Review, Triangle Business Journal and Business Leader Magazine. She writes in the romance genre as Delora Daye and is the author of Driven, a romantic suspense novel, and two contemporary romance novellas.
Trudi York Gardner resides in Benicia, CA. Her humor pieces and articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, The Sacramento Bee, The Oregonian, and many other newspapers and magazines. Her humorous short story, “The Lights in the Window,” (1999) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Trudi has been the humor columnist for J, the Northern California Jewish Weekly. She writes humor columns on her blog at http://www.tygerpen.wordpress.com.
Brilliant!!! Loved both of these stories!