“May I please use the bathroom?” The recent events at Starbucks in Philadelphia have picked the scab and unearthed a memory of an unpleasant bathroom experience years ago. Because the statute of limitations has long passed, I will withhold the name and exact location of the offender here, but simply relate the events surrounding the death of my father and our family’s revenge extracted from the petty municipal employee who tried to deny me use of their public facility in my time of pain and urgency. In solidarity with all those who have been denied, I offer this memory and suggestion for a path forward.
I’d been visiting my family in the lower Hudson Valley, said my goodbyes, and boarded my flight back to New Mexico. I arrived in the mid-afternoon. While waiting for my baggage to appear on the carousel, I heard my name on the airport PA system…“Robert Kanegis, please pick up the white courtesy telephone.” There was a message for me that an urgent situation required me to call my sister, and the urgent situation turned out to be that my father had died that morning of a heart attack. Grief stricken, I made a dash to my house, turned around and was on the midnight red-eye back to La Guardia. My in-laws who lived in Queens at the time, picked me up the next morning, and we headed north for the hour drive back to the family home.
About 10 minutes from the house, I really needed to use a bathroom. My guts were in an uproar. I was sleep deprived and in a kind of sleepwalking shell shock. I didn’t want to arrive home, meet my mother, brother and sister, grief stricken, and have to rush off to the bathroom. That’s when I remembered the little red schoolhouse that was just around the corner. It was the two room school where I’d gone to first and second grade. It’s school days had long passed and it had now been repurposed as the village town hall. I’d use the bathroom there, relieve myself and compose myself for the sudden and sad reunion to come.
“May I please use the bathroom?” I’d approached the front counter and stood there for an awkward minute. The town clerk knew I was there, but didn’t look up…apparently too busy with more important things than to acknowledge my presence. “Ahem…” I cleared my throat in the universal guttural call for attention. The clerk looked up and rolled her eyes. She sighed with an exaggerated droop shouldered expression of exasperation. And then she refused me. “We do not have a public bathroom.” She went back to her work. I was dismissed. But I was not going to be denied. Grief, anger, intestinal urgency, a sense of justice denied all welled up…I don’t remember everything I said, but I invoked my aboriginal rights as an alumni of the school, I pleaded as a grieving son of the recently deceased, and I concluded my case, with “and I REALLY need to go!” She looked up…she rolled her eyes…she sighed, she shrugged… she relented. I went. I left. But I did not forget.
A few days after the funeral, I started telling the story to the family and to my local friends who had come by. That’s when the solidarity “movement” was born. It started with my brother. He’s a few years younger than me. By the time he started first grade a brand new elementary school had been built…but Dave was not one to let an injustice go unanswered. “I think I’ll make a visit to the town hall and ask to use the bathroom.” He wasted no time and came back to report a slightly exasperated but reluctantly willing clerk. That gave heart and courage to my sister and my wife. The next day, they arrived a few minutes apart as the urgent supplicants. My mother, blessed be her memory, was next, and took a great deal of pleasure in the bewildered look of our nemesis…and then finally my best childhood friend Hank joined the parade. Well not exactly final. There was one more chapter to be written, and again, my brother took the lead. He owned a marketing company and took advantage of the company stationary to pen a letter addressed to the mayor and cc’d it to the town clerk. It went something like this.
“My company publishes specialized tourist guidebooks. We have a forthcoming publication devoted to access to public bathrooms which is an oft expressed but little discussed issue for the traveling public. We are delighted to inform you that your public restroom has been suggested to us by our scouts as an exemplary facility and we have decided to feature it in the “highly recommended” column for those traveling in the Hudson Valley.” He sent the missive certified mail with request for a personal signature of receipt.
The unfortunate events at Starbucks this week has prompted a much needed conversation about race, class and civility. It seems that first, humans need to be potty trained and then when they are adults anti-bias trained. But there is one aspect of the controversy that hasn’t received much attention as far as I can tell. Where the hell are the public bathrooms in America? How many people, this very moment are tightening their sphincters and praying for a miracle sighting, or buying an unneeded cup of coffee to justify an urgent request? When I was in Korea recently I was relieved and amazed to find public bathrooms everywhere…easy to find in large cities and small towns alike. No need to walk into a cafe or restaurant and ask or plead to use a bathroom.
Want to Make America Great Again? What about that promise of mass spending on infrastructure? A chicken in every pot. A bathroom on every block. POTUS has his golden pot. “Sir, can I please use the bathroom?” If not, will you please build thousands and thousands of beautiful thrones for the rest of us?