Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Issue #39, September 1998
Every time I visit New York, I suffer from horrible anxiety attacks. The only way I can deal with them is by drinking coffee and going to the bathroom. The problem is that New York City lacks decent public restrooms, so I spend my days only half-enjoying the city, painfully reading books I can't afford to buy at Barnes and Noble on 16th street while dreaming of clean restrooms to discharge my nervousness. But I can't do that either. Instead I while away my time having crises on the streets of the Lower East Side, carefully planning to slip into restaurants and cafés when the staff isn't looking, hoping to score half an hour in privacy.
The reason why New York brings out such a feeling of distress in me is because its geography repudiated me when I was child. I could never afford to eat anywhere. Restaurants, museums, clubs and cafés were always closed to me. The lack of opportunities manifested itself in a feeling of profound cultural constipation that expressed itself physically. The urban landscape manifested itself as an erect index finger shoved firmly up my young punk rock behind.
Due to New York's callous disregard for the needs of its citizens, it is almost impossible to find the privacy necessary to relieve oneself. At five I always call my brother David at his office and ask him when he's going to be done with work. He always says he's running late, so I go to his office early knowing it won't be until eight that he's done. I spend the evening enjoying the half-completed bathroom in his never-finished office reading alternative music magazines. When I emerge, David asks me what the hell I was doing in there so long. I tell him and he says "Joel, you've got a problem. It's called being anal retentive."
"Maybe I am," I respond, "but New York can be a cruel and inhuman place if you don't live here. How can a city that claims to be America's cultural capital not provide accessible public lavatories? It's criminal." "Yeah Joel," David replies, "but imagine what the culture would be like if everyone was able to unburden themselves? It'd be just like Portland: Boring."
What can I say? For me, New York is synonymous with shit. On my last day of high school in Brooklyn, I took the Number Four train to 48th street in order to meet my sister before flying out to my new Episcopal boarding school home in Oregon. My nerves were shattered, and I was in a state of bewilderment. My stomach was grinding with what could only be described as hail stones. I feared that if I put anything in it I'd be in so much pain that I'd die. All of a sudden a barefoot homeless person appeared in front of me, clad only in a sackcloth. We looked each other straight in the eye. He smiled, looked around and, noticing I was his only audience member in the empty subway car, lifted up his poverty-determined monk's cassock and took a dump right in front of me.
When he was done, the relieved exhibitionist cracked a huge smile, dropped his dress, and moved on to the next subway car. I sat there stunned, watching the gentleman's refuse and pee slowly slide forward as the train sped to its uptown destinations. I started to see stars. My stomach was doing somersaults. I lunged for the door, thinking that I had to find a bathroom, immediately. As I desperately searched for restaurants and bars to sneak into, I turned up the same thoughts I would find myself thinking fifteen years later.
"No wonder people commit such vile public acts," I thought. "The lack of public restrooms in a town like this makes you want to shit on someone in protest." Because that's exactly what had just been done to me. Now the class of persons I had always seen myself in solidarity with during those dark first years of the Reagan administration had gone and done the exact same thing to Joel that Republicans had done to them. I couldn't have had a better reminder why it was time to get the hell out of New York. "Oregon," I thought as I got into a cab and raced to meet my sister. "It's gotta be better than this godforsaken shithole."
Naomi was waiting for me at the office of our lawyer. The moment I got there I excused myself and retreated to a 1940's marble and wood upper-class chapel of salvation. Unaccustomed to the elegant, soothing surroundings, my body refused to cooperate. "No," I screamed, "this is real. DON'T LET ME DOWN." But it wouldn't. After picking out an issue of Creem from my schoolbag, I immediately turned to Robert Christgau's monthly record guide, where I spotted a review of the Bad Brains first record, Rock for Light. Once I had made the descent into new rock and roll, there was no turning back. Five minutes later I felt like a new teenager again. When I left the bathroom, my sister was sitting there with our attorney, Miriam. "Are you ready to go to Oregon?" Naomi asked. "Lets go," I replied. I gave Miriam an enormous hug and thanked her for helping us. Five days later, after a brief stop at my sister's apartment in San Francisco, I found myself in Portland.
"I haven't gone to the bathroom in two days," I confessed to my sister as we got into our rent-a-car at Portland airport. "Oh my," said Naomi in her characteristically bemused tone. "With the kind of changes you've been going through, it's not surprising." "I know, but I don't know what to do about it. I feel gross, I feel fat, and I don't have any idea how to make myself feel better." Naomi smiled, patted my knee and said that she has to contend with that issue all the time. "Don't think it's a unique problem Joel, because it isn't. The same thing always happens to me when I get nervous. What I do is make sure to eat bran in the morning, and follow it with a glass of orange juice, and a bit of coffee. It's the only cure. Believe me, it works."
Unfortunately, the food at my new boarding school was lacking; trying new additives in my diet wasn't an option. Everything we were fed was tasteless, overcooked, and, most importantly, bereft of any nutritional value. Breakfast was particularly appalling. Regardless of what anyone says about the Pacific Northwest's tradition of fine coffee brewing, the Java was so extraordinarily thin and redolent of chicory it tasted like a burnt coffee substitute purchased from surplus National Guard food stock left over from the Second World War. Not only did it fail to function as a laxative. When downed in conjunction with the only gruel-like substance in the cafeteria, Oregon Episcopal School coffee made me want to go straight back to sleep. When I tried both substances in combination with orange juice, the only thing the concoction would bring out in me was a flaccid bladder in first-period courses.
By the end of the spring term it was clear to me that I was failing most of my classes. Being the tender age of sixteen, I found it very difficult to admit to myself why it was that I was flunking out. I felt sick all the time. I couldn't process the food that was being fed to me. I became convinced that even though I lived in proximity to clean cement restrooms, that the world had conspired against me yet again to make me unable to go to the bathroom. I might have left New York, I thought, but New York sure hadn't left me.
I daydreamed that I had become the homeless man I had encountered in the subway that final, fateful afternoon, destitute, on the verge of losing everything except the desire to take a literal shit on my surroundings. It seemed like it was my only choice. But my sanity eventually prevailed. Once I figured out how to get off campus and go downtown on the few hours we were allotted before what the dorm authorities called "Lockup," I found a café called La Patisserie in old town. Little did I know that that smoky little café would become my high school salvation.
Every Friday afternoon, I'd pack my rucksack with my diary, a picture of John Lydon taped to its cover, pop a copy of REM's Chronic Town in my Walkman, tuck my long brown hair under my wool beret and bum a free bus ride to Pioneer Courthouse Square. After gazing out from the Trimet window at the first Starbucks being built on the southwest corner across from Nordstroms, I'd wander down to Burnside until I met up with the metal statue of soon-to-be mayor Bud Clark exposing his naked body to the cold and wet miserable weather immortalized in the classic college town knick-knack store poster "Expose Yourself to Art."
I'd always ask myself why anyone would ever have such a stupid facsimile of themselves erected in a public area. "They obviously have never spent time in Manhattan," I'd remind myself, asserting my new worldliness inherited from exposure to naked homeless people shitting in front of me. ("Portland's such a stupid place," I wrote in my journal at the time, a rather intrusive and pushy date recently pointed out to me as she poured through the John Lydon volume while I made her dinner. "Did you really feel that way Joel? You seem to miss it so much, " she said as I uncorked a bottle of wine and lit dinner candles. "Not really," I replied. "It was just a tough time, Ôcause I turned out to be just as unhappy there as I'd been in Manhattan. Nothing seemed all that different. At least for the first year or two.")
As I stepped into a puddle and felt my new Converse All-Stars get soaked through, I cursed the darkening gray sky. Why me? I thought. Getting one's feet totally wet could ruin a day there, just as searching for non-existent restrooms in New York still can. In some ways Portland's worse because you can't dry your feet as easily as you can go to the bathroom.
It's three months later now. I stroll through the never-ending series of puddles through the Chinese gates of old town, finally reaching the entrance to La Patisserie. Taking my beret off, I walk up the stairs past its characteristically dark fake tropical palm tree and aquarium-lined entrance, take a left and make a straight beeline for the table in the far left corner near the window.
Dropping my backpack on the seat in front of me, I walk up to the front counter, eyeing all the different flavored bran muffins underneath. I order them all, along with a good stiff pot of coffee. Amused, the New Wave-looking waitress tilts her half-shaved dyed pink head, puts the muffins on a tray and brings them out to me with my beverage a few minutes later. Adding cream and sugar to my house blend, I begin to methodically eat the muffins beginning with the carrot one, moving slowly through the cranberry and blueberry versions until I reach the plain, downing a cup of coffee in between each of them. Then I order a tall glass of fresh orange juice, pore through a copy of the Willamette Week, and begin to check off the all-ages matinee shows I think I can afford to get into.
"The Wipers, The Rats, The Miracle Workers, Poison Idea." At the rate that I'm eating, they're all unaffordable. I have to make a decision. "I'll go to shows during the summer when I get a job and can afford to do both," I reassure myself. "Besides, I've got good tapes to listen to till then." I strap on my headphones and begin listening to REM. As the soft strains of "Gardening at Night" come on, I start to write in my journal about how much I hate getting my feet wet. My stomach begins to hurt. I can feel a bowel movement coming on. Sweaty from the rush of the caffeine-and-muffin dinner, I pick up my Walkman and head for the bathroom. As usual, it's full. I sit there and wait, excited, nervous.
Finally someone leaves. I grab the key from them and head on in, grabbing a copy of the local music paper Two Louiesfrom the free magazine stand next to the entrance. The restroom stinks. I grab some toilet paper, wipe the seat off and sit down. I begin reading the latest story about local up-and-comers Quarterflash. I start to feel a little sick. Nothing's happening. People start knocking at the locked door. I yell out "There's somebody in here." Worried that I'm about to lose this brief moment of freedom, I turn the tape over and begin listening to The Stooges.
As the languid wah-wah of "1969" kicks in, my body starts to pulsate to the tribal grooves of the alienated rhythm section. I put down the newspaper. My Protestant boarding school-induced repression begins to undo itself. I take a deep breath and heave a sigh of relief. When it's all over, I stand up, button my fly, and look at my restored face in the mirror. I'm beginning to crack a smile. "I'm not in New York anymore," I say to myself. Grinning with self-congratulation, I unlock the door and return to my bran wrapper-strewn table. "Expose yourself to art," I write down randomly on a blank page in my notebook. "Expose yourself to art indeed."
Joel Schalit is a doctoral student in Social and Political Thought at York University. Currently engrossed in his third thesis in eight years, Joel's cultural regime extends to the cut-and-paste audio guerrillas known as the Christal Methodists, Chicago's Punk Planet and Madrid's Discos Kolazhnikov. Submit yourself to Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.