My fondness for toilets began in first grade when I staged a protest in the Jackson Elementary School girls’ bathroom. I objected to recess, of all things, the oxymoronic commandment to go outside and be free. Refusing to have my options thus limited—why couldn’t I stay inside if I wanted?—I gathered a loyal group of friends and we ditched recess to hide in the stalls. It made sense at the time.
My next formative bathroom experience was in middle school. A kindly church lady informed me and my short hair,
“Young man, that’s the girl’s bathroom.”
“I know,” I snapped back. Retroactively, I pray that my middle school scowl made her repent of her gender biases.
And of course, as any international traveler, I am proud to say I have a bevy of disgusting toilet stories from my years abroad. That time I peed on my own skirt in Spain (there’s no backstory to that besides serious inattention). That time—who am I kidding, all the times—I forgot my own toilet paper in an Asian bathroom and eyed the wastebasket as one of my options. That time I cried because I had to pee so bad on a bus through the Bulgarian countryside and, eventually, picked my way up to the front of the bus to the driver to gesture for him to stop, stop, Oh God, please stop on the roadside, there, now, so I could please, please pee behind the bushes or behind the bus or anywhere outside the bus or I swear I was going to pee inside of it, and despite being in the middle of Bulgarian nowhere, that bus driver found the cleanest bathroom in all of Europe and pulled the bus right up to it.
That bizarrely clean gas station bathroom holds a special place in my heart, but it was too sterile, too commonplace and cookie-cutter to make it into my informal list of favorite bathrooms. To give an example, one favorite resides at Calvin College on the second floor of Commons Annex. Two-stalled and tucked into the oddest brick enclave in the building, that closet bathroom was my go-to for years. You had to open about four doors to get to a toilet and a heavily-stuffed backpack forced you to sidle sideways.
I’ve recently found a new gem of a bathroom to share with you all. It resides in an old building on my current campus of Purdue University. Matthews Hall has two bathrooms for women, one on the third floor tiled and upholstered in a nauseating pink, and the other in the first-floor entrance. I walked straight past it the first time I visited, and a professor had to give me directions back to it. In-use pipes “decorate” the walls, abrasively green tiling (punctuated by that same nauseating pink) serviceable if cracked, toilets leaking only a little. There are seven rolls of toilet paper on display per stall, padlocked in place, cave-like lighting, and a sauna-like stuffiness. It’s the type of bathroom in which a girl could stage a serious protest about recess, if you see what I mean.
I imagine everyone has a good bathroom story, though some of you are perhaps less willing than I to write about them online. At least everyone has a favorite bathroom: a quiet, out-of-the way restroom escape. Good bathrooms aren’t big bathrooms—ballpark stadium bathrooms, lines of porta-potties, standardized, collated, uniformly and simultaneously pristine and disgusting. The best restrooms are a bit eccentric, a little awkward—a space designed so as to hold a paradox—the vulgar equalizer, symbolic of human weakness and routine, typical with its tile and yet unique in the jankiest of ways.
Elaine Schnabel (’11) spent her twenties traveling, blogging, and earning various master’s degrees. Now earning her PhD at the University of North Carolina in organizational communication, Elaine researches and writes at the intersection of religion and communication. You can find her blogging at Religious (Not Crazy).