It’s rare in the course of a man’s day to have such intimate proximity to another man. We pal around, we joke around, but when it comes time to take care of certain biological necessities, we don’t really want to be around each other.
The thin metallic wall that separates toilet stalls in the men’s room provides only minimal privacy as we do our business. Two males — perhaps similar in background and status and standards for civilized behavior, perhaps as different as two humans can be — find themselves sharing a nexus of time and space. They barely see each other, and what they do see is little more than a pair of shoes draped by a dropped pair of slacks. Yet they are hyper-aware of each other’s presence. You can’t squat on a commode less than a yard away from someone else without pondering what kind of limited acknowledgements are appropriate.
Either ponder, or pick up that 2008 Reader’s Digest that’s been in here for months and read again the profile of presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain.
I was in a pensive mood the other day as I sat in a stall at work and considered the anonymous man next to me one stall over. I’ve never been comfortable moving my bowels so close to another person, and it occurred to me there was really no way to explain my discomfort. I resented this poor fellow whose needs were no doubt as urgent as my own, but I couldn’t explain why. He had as much right to these facilities as I did. He was a Child of the Universe. He had a right to be here. Then why did I wish that when he flushed, he’d disappear into the sewage system along with his waste?
The awkwardness, I finally figured out, was due to the fact that we had no ground rules for how we should share this space in a polite and mutually beneficial manner. That’s when it came to me that what was needed was more open communication between us.
It was there that my idea for this Open Letter to the Guy in the Next Stall crystallized. I grabbed a scrap of paper and a pen out of my pocket, and immediately started scribbling notes. Before long, I had a list of major points I wanted to make. I briefly considered passing them under the stall wall, then thought better of the wisdom of such a petition. Better, I realized, to seek a wider audience by publishing my reflections on the Internet.
Such was the genesis of this open letter.
Hey. How’s it going?
I know this is a little awkward for both of us, but I wanted to communicate some ideas I’ve had on how we can make this a more comfortable experience for both of us. You’re probably feeling the same low-level anxiety I am, and I thought if we could agree on some general rules, we could make this whole thing even more gratifying than it already is.
Allow me to pass on a few of these reflections.
(First, let me say right off that you shouldn’t be alarmed by this overture. I have no intention of soliciting a gay tryst from you, and I trust that your intentions are equally honorable. I just wanted to make that clear.)
We both know each other are here, but let’s pretend that we don’t. I’d rather believe that this wall separating us went all the way to the floor and was made of reinforced concrete topped by razor wire instead of thin sheet metal. However, since it isn’t, let’s keep our awareness in check as best we can.
One thing you can do to help with this is to not make any sounds. I know that the “Humor in Uniform” section of the RD can be riotously funny, but I’d prefer not to hear any laughter coming from your stall. Also, if you could stifle any sighs, moans or sounds of straining, that would be most appreciated.
Obviously, this would also apply to any cellphone conversations you might be tempted to have while you’re in here. If you blurt out a “what’s happenin’?” to your good buddy on the other end of the phone line, remember that I have no way of knowing whether you’re talking to him or me. And, trust me, you don’t want to know the specifics of what’s happening with me.
Now, I realize that some sounds are going to be inevitable. The human body does not expel its by-products, nor does the bowl of water accept these, without a certain amount of noise. What I try to do, and what I might suggest for you as well, is to launch a flush at the exact moment that these sounds are anticipated, setting up a sonic wall that blocks my perception of exactly what just occurred. Such a “courtesy flush” will also head off any accumulation of foul odors.
If you drop anything onto the floor during your visit in here, you can pick it up as long as it stays squarely in your stall. Anything approaching the dividing line between our two realms should be left where it lays, since this could lead to an exchange of words between us, something neither of us want. If you drop money, and the coins roll from your stall into mine, know that I will report you to both Human Resources and the local police.
If you’re wearing a company-issued ID badge attached to your belt, please turn the face of the badge away from my direction. I don’t want to know who you are. If you’re my boss, I might find myself performing my duties as if I were being evaluated, which can lead to a certain stricture of functions. If you’re my underling, I don’t want to believe you’ll think lesser of me as your manager just because I have an all-too-human alimentary canal. And please be aware that the laminate facing of the badge exhibits just enough reflectivity that it might cause me to see things I wish I hadn’t.
If you’ve largely completed your mission here, but feel the need to linger a few minutes longer before officially calling it quits, realize that I’d prefer you move along. I will signal my impatience with a wadded-up ball of tissue paper that I’ll toss over the wall at you. This will be your signal to leave.
If you’ve already completed your final flush, I will be listening for the jingle of your belt buckle as an indication that you’re re-dressing yourself and are about to exit. If you’re not wearing a belt, please jingle your keys in a simulation of this move. This will allow us both to time our egress from the stalls so that it doesn’t happen simultaneously.
If you have business to attend to at the sink, as I hope you do, see to it quickly and efficiently. Wash your hands and, if you must, check your image in the mirror. A brief swipe at your hair with a comb is generally permissible but other types of grooming and ablutions are frowned upon by those of us waiting for you to leave the room before we exit our toilet. I will take the roar of the hand-drying machine as the sign that you’re all but finished, which will allow me to begin gathering myself to leave as well.
And, one final point. Don’t turn off the light as you leave the restroom. It’s not funny. It’s very, very scary.
Thank you for hearing me out. I don’t mean to be forward, but I am interested in doing whatever I can to make this workplace a more comfortable environment for us all. I think you’ll agree that these simple rules represent a common-sense approach that we can all agree on.
If you have any questions, please keep them to yourself. And thanks again for your time.
The Guy Next Door Wearing the Adidas Running Shoes