Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Public Restrooms: Breeding Grounds for Awkwardness

This was the bathroom in the village of Shiparango. Talk about a breeding ground for awkward moments. I made sure to eat and drink very little on Sunday mornings so I never had to use this. I get awkward in normal American bathrooms that have toilets, doors and running water so I knew this flimsy, porta-potty constructed of tarps would only spell trouble for me.

I started thinking about these awkward moments in bathrooms when I was running along the beach and swung open one of the bathroom doors to discover a middle-aged woman squatting over the toilet, pants at her ankles, in the very awkward, very vulnerable position none of us ever desires to be caught in. I quickly snapped my eyes shut and flung the door closed but not before she called out, "Sorry!" I was hoping she hadn't seen me but apparently my expression was one of such horror she felt the need to apologize to ME for making this awkward moment possible by not locking the door. I really don't know which I like least- walking in on someone or being walked in on.

And then the first day of school rolled around last week. There is only one bathroom stall for female faculty in my building but luckily my room is right next to it. However, since our bladders have not yet adjusted to a school schedule, it was constantly occupied on the first day. By lunch time I was about to lose it. Literally, I gave myself 2-3 minutes before I would need new, dry pants and an explanation. There was a line outside the bathroom and I asked my waiting roommate if it would be totally inappropriate for me to use the students' bathroom since we were just instructed NOT to. Her advice was to go in and announce, "teacher present."


Students already see us as not fully human and freak out when they see us in public eating or walking or simply existing outside of classroom walls. When my team was doing sit-ups, I once let one loose by accident. You really have no control over that when doing sit-ups. I excused myself and blushed, the team erupted into laughter and by the end of the day most of the school knew that Miss Hardeman farted. We're human and have normal bodily functions but this concept is mind-boggling for most students. So the thought of them hearing me pee? That's a 100 % guarantee for an awkward moment for everyone involved. You want me to announce my presence? "Teacher here! I'm going to pee and you'll hear it. And I'll hear you pee as well. Just so we're all clear and prepared to be super awkward."

I couldn't do it. So I snuck inside and lifted up my feet so they couldn't peek under the stall and see my "teacher shoes."

This of course got me thinking about the many awkward moments I endure in public restrooms. There is no deep meaning in this post. God has yet to speak to me through toilets; however, I won't limit Him to doing just that. Perhaps you don't feel awkward in public bathrooms. Perhaps you're a guy and these scenarios don't present themselves in your world of urinals. I wouldn't know. Perhaps it's just me. Or, perhaps you should be awkward but just didn't realize it until now. Either way, here are the moments I cringe inside the public commode:

* When the crack between stalls is an uncomfortably large gap. I've yet to make eye contact through this crack with anyone but I hate that it is a possibility. Plus, when I'm standing in line, I can't help but glance at the crack and if it's large and I see movement in there, I'll avoid that stall or bathroom altogether.

* When there are no doors on the stalls. Have you been to these older parks where the restrooms architects forgot one major necessity? The door? Doors are NOT optional. Were they trying to save money? Did they install hidden cameras? Did they just want to torture people? I've only been desperate enough to use these a few times. I always walk to the very end making lots of noise so any unsuspecting users could alert me of their presence with a loud cough or sneeze. Once at the end, I set my purse far out so it's clear the stall is occupied. The risky part is having to glance to see if the stall is already taken. I keep my eyes on the ground and look for shoes. Making eye contact with someone sitting on the pot is worse than watching a puppy get run over.

* When someone knocks on the door. I've yet to discover the proper response to this. "I'm in here?" "Go away?" "Can I help you?" "Who is it?" Really, what are we supposed to say? This once happened at a gas station bathroom when I was traveling with my college basketball team. The knocker was loud and forceful so I assumed it was a teammate because I always give the polite, gentle knock so as not to offend or startle the potty user. Since I assumed it was a friend and I had recently seen Forrest Gump, I not so politely yelled, "Seat taken!" I thought I was pretty clever until I emerged and discovered not a teammate but an unsmiling older women. Joke's on you crabby; I did not go number one.

* When waiting in a line but noticing open stalls. Should you point this out to the people in front? Do you dare go check out the open stall yourself to see why it's being neglected? If you do and it's because the people in front are unobservant, do you tell them it's open or grab it yourself? Or do you wait it out, frustrated but unwilling to risk that embarrassing moment when you discover the nasty toilet clogged to the brim with nastiness. "Ohhhhh. That's why it's unoccupied."

* When it seems that all the stalls are occupied and you have to start the line. First, you must ensure that there are no free toilets to avoid the previously mentioned awkward moment. How does one do this though? Many push on the stall doors to see if they swing open. I am not a proponent of this method. What if the lock didn't latch? This has happened too many times to too many innocent, unsuspecting victims like myself and when someone pushes on the unlocked door I've had to yell, "Hey!" and slam the stall back. No fun. I prefer the duck and peek for shoes method. This is the polite way to check and ensure you won't intrude on anyone. I always feel a bit silly though when someone else walks in and I'm ducking low to the ground checking all the stalls. It's worse when there are none open and now I have to start the line but others have since joined the bathroom. Where should I start the line now? You are clearly behind me but I can't go back to the natural starting point because you're blocking me. So I have to start this line in the middle of the stalls which leaves me in the direct line of view of many cracks- between the stalls and elsewhere.

* When there are only two in the bathroom and you enter the stalls at the same time. I try to avoid this scenario whenever possible but it happened just the other day. There we were, both seated on side-by-side pots and the race was on. Who would start the stream first? Of course this moment becomes a competition for me and I feel even more pressure to "win" and start peeing asap. That moment of silence while we both wait for the pee to come is one of my least favorite moments in life. I always feel the need to suppress a nervous chuckle and refrain from announcing, "Sometimes I get stage fright." I really do though and will occasionally flush the toilet or spin the toilet paper rolls loudly to break the terribly awkward silence before pee flow.

* When there is no toilet paper and you forgot to check the roll before going. Now the debate begins: drip dry, scratchy seat cover, or ask for help? I've done all three. I prefer asking for help but the exchange of paper beneath a stall is never very comfortable. Plus, how do you get your neighbor's attention? Put your hand under their stall and say, "hello there?" Knock on their stall and say, "pardon me?" I've learned it is best to check the roll first. Always check the roll.

* When you have the pre-pee toots. We all get them on occasion. Yet, I'm continually embarrassed and ashamed by my lack of control of them. And then I'm ashamed by my lack of maturity and ability to control the laughter that follows when they escape from me or anyone else in the stalls. Again, I revert to the "make as much noise as possible" technique when I feel them coming. Sometimes I'll take seat covers and crinkle them up into balls just for the sound or suddenly fall into a fit of fake coughs. The problem is when I hear others do the fake cough and I know exactly what they are doing and can't stop myself from laughing.

* When the inevitable plop happens. Yesterday my nephew Vander made me stand outside while he went number two. He chatted with himself the entire time and then said, "Ally oop" followed by the PLOP. Three year olds don't get awkward. That sound is so shameful and if there is a splash, it's even worse. I cringe for others when I hear them and want to hand them seat covers and say, "Here, use these to muffle the sound." My friend who shall remain anonymous was so uncomfortable doing the deed where others could hear that she refused to use the dorm bathrooms. Instead, she made the trek across campus to find a private stall. She made the mistake of telling me about this. Naturally I watched and waited patiently until finally, late one night I saw her leave the dorm and practicing my sneaky skills, I followed and stuck my camera over the stall and destroyed her place of peaceful pooping.

* When you hear a grunter. This is a rare moment and although awkward, I kind of love when it happens since it's just so ridiculous. Either the person is deaf, lacking social awareness, having major bowel issues, or just doesn't care. It takes every ounce of maturity I have to hold back the giggles. I once thought I saw my friend's mom following me towards the bathroom. Since she didn't see me, when I heard her come inside I did a huge fake production inside complete with a long stretch of awkward grunts. She held it together and didn't laugh at all. Then I came out of the stall and realized she had actually not entered the bathroom. Someone else had who I did not know. I've never washed my hands as fast as I did that day.

Years ago my aunt told me about an experience she had in a Walmart bathroom. Her neighbor was a grunter. My aunt is mature and did not laugh. But it got worse. Her neighbor was handicapped and then asked in a low, hoarse voice, "Excuse me? Can you help me?" She was not asking for my aunt to pass over some paper. She needed help wiping. This begs the question- would you help wipe a stranger's butt? My aunt did. I think it's one of the most Christ-like acts I've ever heard of someone actually doing. Moral of the story: never, under any circumstances, use a Walmart bathroom.


  1. Forget public bathrooms, I just peed my pants from laughing so hard!

  2. haha my eyes were watering reading this!!! hilarious and im so glad that you brought all of these up because we know they are ALL true! to add to the first one when the crack is too big....i'd say when the crack is big and your at the stall thats closest to the front of the line and people act like they arent peeking through but you KNOW they are trying to peak through that crack while they are waiting for their stall to open. haha well done Katie :)

  3. oops and i think you spell peak...peek. im probably have worse grammar than a 10 year old.

  4. You are so right Teri! I avoid that end stall like the plague and vegetables.

  5. Oh Katie, I love your blog. But, I have to believe that you would absoluutly loooove the little gadget present in most of the public bathrooms in Japan. It is a little box on the wall near the toilet paper. You push the buttons to have a choice of flushing noises or sometimes music. I prefer the natural flushing noises which go for several minutes so you can accomplish your buisness avoiding the problems of bashful bladder, unexpected farts and possibly even grunting. By the way in the Philippines, you don't make one polite line in a full bathroom, you make an individual queue for every stall. Makes it kind of crowded but alleviates several of your other issues mentioned here. Sometimes the way they do it in other countries makes alot of sense. If only the toilets had seats and toilet paper...

  6. Leave to the Japanese to figure out how to eliminate awkward moments. I would love that. However, I don't think I would like the individual lines in the Philippines. What if you get stuck waiting for someone who is having problems? Doesn't it turn into like at the grocery store when you never can pick the right line? I would feel pressured when it was finally my turn because the waiting person would know exactly how long I was in there.

  7. My cousin forwarded me your blog today becasue she read this entry and thought of me. I have the WORST public bathroom stage fright I think anyone has ever had, so I was laughing so hard reading all of this because it sounded like I could have wrote it! lol Just wanted to tell you I loved this post!

  8. Thanks for the poo shout-out! Was it the observatory, science building, or library basement? Ah, I feel all warm inside thinking about the good ol' days of you stalking me with your camera. FYI - a study I read (pause for mockery) found that the first stall always has fewer germs than any of the other stalls. Chew on that (or don't). Also, what about the situation of being forced to use the handicapped stall (lack of options) and all the while being consumed with potential guilt that there is an outside chance you will emerge from finishing the deed just to see someone in a wheel chair waiting patiently? I do a disapproving head shake every time I allow myself to use that reserved spot. One of life's great dilemmas.

  9. Katie, not only do we a share a first name and sense of humor, we share an affinity for awkwardness which is why as I was writing this post, I was often thinking of you. I'm sure lots of people think of you when they think of bathroom memories. Remember when I asked you to take my pee sample to the Health Center and the lids didn't work that year? You are a true friend.

    Excellent call on the handicapped dilemma. You really are rather pressured into using it when there is a line but I too am tense the whole time, terrified of a really mean, unforgiving lady in a wheel chair to be waiting for me to emerge. It has yet to happen but the possibility is still there and still very frightening.

    Interesting point about the stall closest to the door. It makes sense why we all avoid it though- hello peeping toms or "sallys" in our case. The crack by the wall is always the largest. I will still avoid it. Germs shmerms.

    We were talking about these moments the other night and Trent pointed out that I should have mentioned when you have to take a stall with a broken lock. Yet another super tense experience spent half squatting over the pot with one arm fully extended, ready to slam the door back if someone opens it.

    Also, I will give you a poo-shout out any time. It was the observatory although now that you mention it, I vaguely remember stalking you in the library.

  10. ew/yum.

    I love this! So many great rules, stories, details......!

    At my school we have a sign saying to please be considerate and flush your items. That is just a fancy way to say we don't want to see your nasties staring up when someone walks in!

  11. "Ew/Yum." Fabulous juxtaposition.

    I probably use that word too much. I just love it.

    I like that your school uses the term "items" but I like your term of "nasties" even better.