My grandson aspires to be Clark Kent. He has announced this to everyone, including his teacher. I hear he got upset the other day when he couldn’t find his black-framed, plastic glasses. Just wait till he finds out there are no more phone booths. The last one I saw was on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side, but that was pre-Covid and is probably gone by now. I don’t count those isolation booths in airports.
I, too, am a sort of Clark Kent, but instead of phone booths, I change in the mens’ room. I started years ago when I jogged during my lunch hour. I would carry my athletic bag into the stall and come out in jogging shorts, t-shirt, and running shoes. Afterward, I would return to the mens’ room, rinse down as best I could, and change back into my work outfit, which usually included a tie. Things were more formal back then.
I don’t run anymore, but I like to walk and will walk to destinations up to five miles away (see Night Walking). This includes walking to work, which means I have to bring a change of clothes even though my work outfit is “business casual” without a necktie. As before, my transformation from Clark Kent into Superman still happens in a mens’ room stall.
The other day I walked to work for a meeting at lunch and a dinner later that evening with German entrepreneurs. Since the university where I work is on spring break, I thought it would be easy to find a quiet mens’ room to change. After reviewing the options, I chose the second floor at the back of the library. When I got there, the place was deserted except for a woman reading a book and a student listening to music on his iPhone. I went into a stall in the mens’ room, unpacked my bag with shirt, pants, sports coat, and shoes, and started undressing.
Now, a theme that has come up regularly in this blog is the question of intentionality or planning. That is, how much of life should be planned and how much should be left to what many call the universe but I prefer to describe as divine providence (see The Hand of God)? And, if planned, how detailed should the plan be? Some people living near that phone booth on Amsterdam Avenue would give their right arm to get their kid into the right preschool. You know, because it’s never too early to obsess.
I come down somewhere in between. You can’t float like a feather here and there à la Candide, but neither is it good to control every detail of life, especially when that life belongs to somebody else. So, it was with this in mind that I thought about which bathroom to change in but did not worry about it, because I knew nobody else would be around.
Not more than two minutes into my ritual transformation, somebody entered the adjacent stall. I watched to see the direction his feet pointed in. If facing the toilet, then fine. Many young men shy away from urinals, especially when there are no dividers. I thought that might be the case. This guy’s feet, however, pointed outward, which meant he was there for the duration. And, in fact, he wasted no time getting down to business, including all the gaseous eruptions you would expect and grunting that I’ve heard only on tennis courts and farm videos.
What could I do but the only thing left to me? I rushed as fast as possible before any lethal vapors seeped into my stall. The problem was that each move I made–whether to bag my sweaty t-shirt and sneakers, lace up my shoes, or swing the shoulder strap of my book bag onto the metal hook inside the door–set off the automatic flush on the toilet bowl.
What kind of mind came up with automatic flush toilets? I imagine it’s the same engineer or product designer who thought of automatic paper towel dispensers. I can see their benefit to disabled people, but are they necessary beyond that? They seem to be another ridiculous feature nobody asked for. Maybe they’re meant to justify tuition the way Mercedes Benz added little windshield wipers to their headlights to justify the cost of their sedans. But ask these engineers what all this automation will do to the electric grid.
Try to imagine the eine kleine Toilettemusik produced by intermittent farting and toilet flushing. It s no exaggeration to say that it went on for five minutes, ending only with my eventual exit, stage left. I didn’t stop to wash my hands but waited until lunch. I did a thorough scrubbing then. The head of our Covid response team would have been proud.
When I returned to the free-breathing world, the man I had lunch with, a Jesuit priest from Kenya, asked if I was all right. I told him about my “phone booth” experience. He laughed deeply and said, “Well, come to Nairobi. We don’t have flush toilets there!” I told him I’d be on the next flight.
Image credits: “Superman,” by Scott Feldstein, 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0); “Phonebooth,” by Brandon, 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0); “Stall,” by UW-Whitewater University, 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); door by Danny Greenberg; boy by Silvana Carlos; comics by Daniel Álvasd.
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