by Dani Rogero
I’ve often wondered what goes through an architect’s mind when he designs bathrooms for office buildings. I once had a government job in a relatively new government building. The halls were long and straight, the offices were all of equal size, floor after floor after floor. In the center of each floor, directly across from the elevators and the kitchen, was the entrance to the men’s and women’s bathroom. The design is common enough: an open archway creates an enclosure for two water fountains, and to the left and right a passage lead to the “” and “” respectively.
From a certain perspective, you might say the structure is similar to a person’s ear canal. It certainly had the same acoustical effect. Sounds drifting down the hallway, from the kitchen, or from groups waiting for the elevator, gather in the enclave—like an ear—and bounce across the tile and ceramic into the very stalls. While the running water in the kitchen sink could serve as an inspiration, hearing your boss discuss the issues of the day so clearly he could be in the stall with you… well that’s completely counter-productive.
The most unsettling seat was definitely the middle stall of that bathroom, the acoustical apex of the loo, where whispers from the hallway reach your ears like a freak exhibition in physics. Who can concentrate on the matters at hand when you’ve got half the office’s voices echoing directly over your head? To make things worse—to really give you a complex—is the idea that if you can hear them, they can hear you. Call it insecurity, call it fanaticism, but when you let rip (…no, not that) the tell-tale tampon wrapper, causing every man in the office to fear a PMS outburst, you turn to the fine arts of stealth bathrooming. Given massive quantities of toilet paper, you can even pee silently.
At least it’s not as bad as those horrid college days when the sounds you make in the john were the least of your problems. Let’s recall the rows of dorm toilets, raised on their tile platforms to maximize the flood damage in case of a clog, the doors crudely labeled with sticky-notes: “pisser, pisser, shitter, pisser, shitter.” The days when your shoes, elevated nine inches higher than the rest of the floor, were on display under the properly labeled stall, letting everyone know what business you were up to. The days when you could step out of a stall and very likely trip over a drunk hall mate, stumble drunk into your resident advisor, or bound half-dressed into someone’s boyfriend (or, on a regular basis one fall term, a guitar player from The Kinks).
In dorm toilets, it wasn’t sound, but silence that struck fear into your hall mates. Silence would make them brush their teeth a little faster, skip 4 steps of their 9-step face regime, all to escape the twitching size six-and-a-half brown tasseled Bass loafers silently peeking out from stall number five, “shitter.”
Maybe it’s me— More to the point, maybe it’s women. Men don’t seem to have sound issues in the bathroom, a cruel lesson I learned during my stint as an editor for a small manufacturing company. The business consisted of a warehouse & production plant full of huge machinery, with a tiny one-story addition for office space. I had a ridiculously small cubicle at the back of the offices, furthest from any natural light. I was in a corner and had two “real” walls, effectively cramming me into a nook directly outside the men’s bathroom.
There were other bathrooms in the plant of course. But this was a small one, with only two stalls, off the beaten path—it was most definitely a “shitter.” If the acoustic tricks of “the ear” design were bad, hollow plaster walls, tile floors, and metal pipes were far worse. From the ugliest grunts, the longest farts, to bare butts squeaking on porcelain seats, the working man’s shitter was a veritable megaphone from the inside out.
I was startled at the occasional “Woah” echoing from inside those walls, which I can only assume meant a poor fellow came dangerously close to blowing an o-ring and was lucky to be alive. A flimsy ¾ wall partition shielded me from the men’s room door, and served as my only protection from putting a man’s face to his sounds.
Obviously, I’m missing something. There’s camaraderie among men when it comes to bathrooms. When two men passed each other entering or exiting the megaphone, I often heard the exchange of a simple “hey”—one a bit anxious, one a bit encouraging—that revealed a moment if you will, that let those two men relate in a shared experience. Women might translate this exchange as, “Glad everything came out ok. You look thinner, refreshed,” with the response, “Thanks, you go on in now and take care of yourself. You deserve it! Good luck.”
Maybe it’s a lack of emotional depth in other areas, maybe it’s the fact that they can pee standing up, but bathrooms seem to bring men closer together. A male co-worker told me a one time, “Hear you’re going with Joe and Wayne to Missouri to pitch the new training contract, congratulations!” I was completely caught off guard. What meeting did I miss? When was I put on that team? “I just saw Chuck in the men’s room. He told me all about it.”
You see, women never experience the notorious men’s room business meeting, when it’s possible that our hard-ass retired Marine Colonel and vice-president of the company, “Chuck,” happy and jovial after a serious sit-down long enough for him to peruse an entire issue of the Marine Corp Gazette, could get chatty with whoever happens to be at the sink washing his hands. I can see it now. Both men emerge from the stalls, adjust their belts, and heave a satisfied sigh. They catch each other’s eyes and, smiling, give a knowing nod that relays this unspoken dialogue: “I’ve killed men before,” says Chuck. “I know,” says his subordinate. “You’re all right, son. I’d shit in the woods with you any time.” They are men, and they have bonded.
Perhaps I am indeed jealous of men for their ability to go to an office bathroom without worrying about what pops, plops, shudders, squeaks, and pbllllllllp’s; jealous of the high powered business deals that I’ll miss until I work for a company that adopts a unisex bathroom policy; upset that I wear a tell-tale 9½ shoe.
Women across the country, even the world, deal with this issue, and it comforts me to think that the Queen of England occasionally takes a copy of The Mirror into the loo. Perhaps we could make women’s bathroom phobias a national awareness issue. Martha Stewart could be our spokeswoman, and write a book on empowering women through fearless bathroom etiquette.
I guess when you really think about it, bathrooms are not the enemy. The fact is, everybody poos. Anyone who says anything different is full of…