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Thursday, April 28, 2005

A Bathroom Reader

A grainy videotape is playing. It shows a narrow hallway branching from a wide room filled with tables. Near the entry to the hallway, just visible, is a cash register and a display case filled with various cakes and pies. A man walks by. He is walking quickly. He looks up at the camera briefly and then looks back down. His arm is pressed against his body and it seems as if he is holding something, either under the arm, or hidden beneath his shirt. He passes out of sight of the camera. Were anyone watching this videotape, they would be calling security right now.

The man on the videotape is me. I do indeed have something hidden under my arm, or perhaps beneath my shirt. The object is a book. I have not stolen the book, and I am not in the process of making a getaway. I am at the bookstore I am working at and am going to the bathroom.

I am a reader. I read whenever I can. Books have always played a central role in my life. My mom told me I would read to myself before I was in preschool, preferring to be alone with the book instead of with my parents. As I grew up there were books littered around the house, on the couch, on the coffee table, on the kitchen table, and in the study. Every Saturday after church we would go to the Cheviot Library in Cincinnati. I quickly exhausted the children’s and young adult section, and by fifth grade librarians were asking my parents

“Are you sure it’s okay for him to take this book out?” as I began a Stephen King rampage that lasted for several years.

As for many people, books were my main means of escape. When I was frustrated by the limitations I constantly discovered in myself, I would pick up a book. When I was upset at my parents or brother, I picked up a book. If I was dwelling on my shortness of stature, my round belly, and my horrible curly hair and freckles, I would escape my budding depression by picking up a book.

The problem with escaping life with a book is that, while your mind might be lost in an alternate reality, your body is still firmly rooted in the present. This means that at any moment someone or something might be ready to yank you back to whatever it is you sought to escape. You can do what you can to prevent this from happening. You can read under the covers or behind a locked bedroom door. You can go to the quiet corner of a park, or a pew in a dusty corner of a cathedral. You can find a cubby hole in a library or a curbside in a quiet alleyway. You can go to these places or any others seeking complete safety, full escape, but the risk remains. Reality is always ready to intrude.

When I was a child I learned the best place to retreat to when I wanted to read in peace was the bathroom. Going number 2 provided a wonderful opportunity to sit in peace and read. With the fan humming in the background I could drift away into whatever world was unfolding on the stage. Sure, after a half hour of being on the toilet someone might stop by and ask if I was okay, but they could be cast away with a mumbled

“Uh-huh, sure.”

The idea of going number 2 and reading became thoroughly intertwined in my mind. I looked forward to visits to the toilet. At the slightest sign of a need to go, I would pick up whatever I was reading and head to the bathroom, even if I knew that I really didn’t need to go.

This binding of bathroom and book became a problem as I grew older though. The first problem arose when I went to elementary school and junior high school. Now, it must be said that it was a rare occasion that I dare poo (I think I have been teaching pre-school too long) in school. It seemed somehow dirty to me, the toilets, the idea of poo-ing while there were people talking outside the door. Also, I could not very well walk out of class with a book in my hand after asking the teacher to go to the bathroom. It would have been social suicide. Oh wait, I wasn’t that popular anyway. Never mind.

Whether it be in school or in some other public place (or in someone’s home) where I didn’t have access to a book, the situation would overwhelm me. There I would be, in the bathroom with no book in my hand. I would get nervous and have trouble doing what I had gone to the bathroom to do. I would read over and over whatever had been written on the inside of the door and on the walls. If there was a toilet paper wrapper I would read about the toilet paper, reading it over and over until I knew exactly why I should use this brand instead of another. If there was anything possessing printed words I would pick it up and pore over it. I would learn the ingredients for soap or a particular skin care product. I would go through the words and see which letter was used most often, always rooting for the letter A, since my name has two of them. And all the while I would be thinking about whatever book I was reading at the time, imagining it to feel just as lonely as me.

As I entered my twenties, I still had trouble using the bathroom if I did not have a book. I would try to get the process over with as fast as I could so that I would not have to think about what I was missing from what I was reading. My hands would feel empty and I would not know what to do with them. If I could not finish quickly, I would hold my head in my hands and look for all the world like a man crushed by the weight of life.

It became worse when I started working at a bookstore. Now, here I was surrounded by books and magazines and newspapers. Everywhere. Fiction, history, travel, photography, art. Books. I would be reading three or four books at a time. I was constantly given new books, advanced reader copies, or books that someone thought I just had to have. I was buried under a mountain of must reads. One day when I complained to a man who was buying me many of these books (I will write about him one of these days) he said to me

“Don’t worry. Books aren’t like milk. They won’t go bad.”

It got to the point where my mom and dad told me to stop bringing books home. There was no room for them. In fact, when I talked to my mom just a few days ago she reminded me that besides the full bookshelves in my old room, there are still nine or ten boxes of books waiting to find a home (and this is not to mention the two boxes I have managed to fill while in Taipei). With so many books to be read it seemed an almost criminal act to go to the bathroom without something to read.

This is why I came to be glancing surreptitiously at video cameras, books tucked against my body, hidden from sight by my arm, or hidden under my shirt. It wasn’t so much that I was embarrassed by the fact that I was going to the bathroom with a book (I am sure most if not all of my co-workers would have done the same). More, I felt guilty because I knew that I would be in the bathroom longer than I had to be.

I suppose I did not need to feel guilty just because of the book. Even if I was unable to smuggle a book in with me, I would end up reading the events calendar that was posted inside each stall. I would read it front to back each time I went to the bathroom. As each one was posted for an entire month, I became quite adept at being able to help any customers inquiring about upcoming events. When was so and so going to be at the store? What time would the event start? Who would be playing jazz on Friday night, etc. I knew it all.

From the fall of 2001 until the spring of 2002 I worked at the administration building in downtown Cincinnati. I was doing title work and trying to save as much money as I could for the beginning of the first leg of my intended world journey. At the time I was reading more than I ever had before. I was going to the library three or four times a week, taking five or six books out at a time. I was reading all of the philosophy and literature that I should have read in college, but was too busy drinking to get around to. I found myself sneaking off to the bathroom at least once an hour or hour and a half. I would have no intention of relieving myself. I just had to get back to my books, my precious books.

I mention all of this today because of something that happened yesterday. I have about a two hour break between my morning class and the tutoring I do on Wednesday afternoons and so I usually go to a coffee shop to study Chinese and to read to pass the time. Before I left the coffee shop yesterday, I stopped to use the bathroom. The antibiotics I have been taking for me dog bite have had a rather destabilizing effect on my stomach and I wanted to make sure to clear everything out before going to teach. I didn’t have much time and I didn’t want to be in there long because the bathroom was a bit on the dirty side. However, I did have my Taipei Times with me and there were a few articles that I wanted to finish reading.

As I was sitting on the toilet someone tried to open the door. As I had locked the door, the door did not open. They tried to open it again. As I had not unlocked the door, it still did not open. Then they knocked. I said
“Just a moment (in Chinese).”

Then the guy tried to open the door again. Finally he walked away. Now, this threw my off a bit. I find it hard to go when I know someone is standing outside the door waiting, and it is nearly impossible if the person is trying to open the door. By doing so, he ensured that I would be there for at least a few more minutes.

Less than two minutes later, he was back and trying to open the door again. The door does not open. Pause. Try to open the door. The door does not open. Pause. Knock. Wait a moment. Try to open the door. The door does not open.

This has happened to me any number of times. And I have to admit, I have done the same, trying to open a locked bathroom door several times, as if magically it will unlock. Why is it that people do that? Is it that we can’t believe someone else could possibly have to relieve themselves at the same time we do? Is it a subliminal fear of going in our pants that propels us to hurry the person inside, letting them know in a not so subtle way that, hey, I’m out here and I need to go?

I suspect that this is another one of those things for which there are no easy answers. That or it is just another one of those things that nobody else would spend an hour and a half writing to ask.

After this happened the second time, I decided that I was probably finished and so I folded up my paper and wiped and washed my hands. When I walked out of the bathroom, there was no one there. That is when I got a bit angry. Why rush me like that and walk away? I didn’t even get to finish reading my paper!

1 Comments:

Anonymous Natalia said...

Thank you for sharing your toilet secrets with us!
By the way, I know now why you want to send your books to Argentina. Are we kind of a secondary warehouse?

4:06 PM  

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