Posted by: wrmcnutt | May 13, 2009

Bathroom Humor

Quite a while back I was in England, and noted a sign on the automatic doors on the Tubes.  (Americans, that’s a subway.  The English like to entertain themselves by labeling underground walkways “subways” and watching Americans wander around in them looking for the train tracks.  Over the water, walkways are subways, and subways are tubes. But I digress)

The inside of the Tube door reads “Obstructing the doors can be dangerous.”

I laughed.  My companion, Duren, asked me what was so funny.

It had occurred to me that the markings could be edited by a graffiti artist to read “Obstruct the doors.  Be Dangerous,” like people used to do to the electric hand dryers in public bathrooms.

“Do what?” she said.

“You know . . .  ‘Push Butt?”

I got a blank look.  Then I realized that Duren is, for all of the utter lack of high heels and makeup, in fact, a girl.  (Well, her status as a Mom probably qualifies her as “woman,” rather than “girl,” but in any case, she’s unlikely to have spent much time in Men’s bathrooms.  Fair enough. The only time I’ve seent he inside of the Ladies Room is when I’ve built them, back in my contractor days.

So I explained.  Back in the day before iconic sinage became universal, electric hand-dryers had written instructions.  Universally, they read:

  • Push Button
  • Rub hands gently under warm air.

The humor comes in when you know that you could walk into a men’s  room at a brand new rest-stop on the highway, so new that it still smelled of paint.  So new that the edges of the blacktop were still sharp.  So new that the landscaping wasn’t even in yet.  And some wiseass would have, probably within the first ten minutes, taken his car keys and edited the directions to read:

  • Bush Butt.
  • Rub hands gently under arm
  • Dry hands on pants

Apparently, this never happened in the women’s restroom, or if it did, it was rare.  In men’s rooms, it was universal.

And that got me to thinking about differences between men’s bathrooms and women’s bathrooms that we aren’t aware of because we just don’t encounter them.

For example, I know, from my contractor days that most women’s bathrooms in classy locations have an antichamber with a sofa inside the main door, but separate from the hygene area.  Back in the fifties, before universal air conditioning, at least down South, these got called “fainting couches.”  Real fainting couches were 19th century items designed for women to collapse on in relative privacy when their corsets kept them from breathing right and they had to rest.  In the 20th century, they were mostly used by nursing mothers, giving them relative privacy away from both the business in the building and the germs in the hygene area.  In my youth they could be seen in most “sit-down restaurants,” department stores, and any shop that specialized in the “pink collar trade.”  Sadly, these are few these days, being snipped out as merchants try to extract more and more revenue from less and less square footage.

Your Standard Urinal

Your Standard Urinal

On the other hand, men’s rooms have urninals.  Again, it seems very odd to have to explain this, but when I was in high school and the whole band was housed in a men’s college dorm, the Director was careful to make sure that the girls new “not to wash thier hands in the ‘cold water sink.'” The urninal is the main reason why you never see a line outside the men’s room door.  A man can step up to one of the wall-hung specialty toilets, do his business, and be over at the sink washing his hands in less than two minutes.  At least, he’d better be washing his hands.

Common At Large Venues

Common At Large Venues

Speaking of urnials, there’s a specialty item that I call, sorry, the “pee trough.”  This item is reserved for giant venues like stadiums and really, really large concert arenas.  My wife didn’t believe that this existed until we happened to be in Thompson-Boling Arena on business when it was empty.  So I took her in to see.  She came out shaking her head, and to this day can’t picture hundreds of men willing to line up and crowd around these contraptions with no real privacy.

But men bring their own privacy to the men’s room.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, we’ll take stalls, dividers, and curtains, and be glad that they are there, but when John Dunne said that “no man is an island unto himself,” he had never been into a public men’s room.  No matter how many men may be sharing the space with him, every man is alone once he crosses the threshold of the men’s room. All conversation ceases .  Aside from the sink and the flushing sounds,  it’s like a library with lots of running water.  No eye contact is made.  When approaching the sink, it is acceptable to mutter, “excuse me,” and “no problem” when reaching for hand towels or soap.  And that’s all. Above all, you never, ever look down.  Especially at the urinals.

Which might explain why so many men’s rooms smell the way that they do.

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  1. You left out the ultimate expression of the pee trough however. There is a variant that accepts that with all the sight line rules a certain percentage are just going to miss and pee on the floor so let just accommodate for that.

  2. well that explains a lot.

  3. Scream:
    I live to elucidate!

  4. Issac Asimov did a wonderful description in ‘Caves of Steel’ about a future Earth that everyone lived in massive domes that were completely sealed and very crowed. In the book he commented on the differences between the genders when in the community bathrooms that were shared in the Living areas (shower and toilet).

    Your description reminded me of that part of the book. He was commenting on the extremely social aspect of the women vs. the men experience being much like in an elevator (no matter how crowed you are still ‘alone’) It was VERY taboo for the men to acknowledge each other.
    His description was worded in a way to describe the society in a way that someone totally foreign the it could understand.
    It was very interesting to realize that what he described was not nearly as extreme to modern American life as he was making it seem.

    • Any comment on my blog that evokes Asimov must mean I’m doing something right.


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