Going With the Flow

The men’s room has a code all its own. Now if we could all just learn to follow it.
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OCT09 OMO imgIt’s not the kind of thing we typically talk about in mixed company, but you might be surprised to learn that a men’s room can be a fascinating place. Even putting aside those behaviors that resulted in Senator Larry “Wide Stance” Craig getting caught with his pants down, there’s still plenty to talk about when it comes to the social microcosm that is the public restroom. Scenes from books, television, and movies have given us a sense of what happens in ladies’ rooms, but not much has been said about the room next door or across the hall. Until now.

Let me begin with a vast generalization: Man is a social animal. And wherever two or more human males gather together, whether by design or chance, there are social mores and codes of behavior that guide the interaction. Indeed, once past the threshold, each step a man takes in the can is fraught with intricate signifiers requiring nimble decision-making. Some may call this etiquette, though I prefer to think of it as simple survival skills, the roots of which go all the way back to the days when early man first agreed that it wasn’t kosher to pee in his buddy’s cave. In any event, bathroom bylaws are innumerable and sometimes confounding. However, should you be caught in a men’s room unawares, or be momentarily struck with a case of amnesia that renders you incapable of remembering the etiquette, here’s a quick refresher.

First, a few pointers on how to handle yourself in what the Europeans so delicately call the pissoir. A true guy’s guy never opts to use a urinal next to one that is already in use unless there are no other options. Men don’t like needless distraction in the bathroom. It’s also a violation of acceptable behavior to look around. Your gaze should be focused straight ahead at the wall immediately before you. Wandering eyes make one’s neighbors nervous, self-conscious, or suspicious of your motives. Gazing downward tells others that you’re either horribly self-absorbed or painfully insecure. Likewise, one’s free hand should rest comfortably at one’s side or on the flush handle, less others think you’re a two-handed braggart.

When a guy’s business is done, he should wash his hands and exit posthaste. Guys who remain in front of the mirror and play with each strand of hair—or, worse, apply gel that they keep at the ready in their man bag—are looked upon disdainfully as pretty boys who may be better suited for the ladies’ room. This sort of primping makes the rest of us guys who may not have washed our hair for days feel like the slobs we are. That’s irritating.

Talking is also frowned upon by the unwritten (until now!) but widely embraced rules of the restroom. Yes, it’s OK to chat (a little) with a buddy, but conversing with strangers is just not done. Trying to engage another guy in conversation in the restroom pierces the bubble of privacy we each have around us, and it can distract our gaze from its fixed-forward position.

Of course, this rule gets violated all the time. Chatty Kathys, or Kevins as it were, are most likely to appear in bathrooms in bars, as well as at concerts and wedding receptions—in short, places where drunk guys have mistakenly convinced themselves that they can dance. Now, most guys cut their drunken brethren some slack, for we’ve all been there. And sometimes such chat can be entertaining. Up to a point. As evidence I submit an exchange I recently had with a guy during intermission at a Jackson Browne concert.

“Great show, man, great show! Don’t you think?” he said, as soon as he stepped up to the urinal next to mine.

“Yeah, uh, great show,” I said, without averting my gaze. (Important corollary: While talking is a violation of the men’s room code, being outright rude to a fellow man with a full bladder isn’t acceptable either. So I had to say something. But note how I deftly acknowledged him without posing another question in response or otherwise kept the conversation flowing? Sadly, this guy didn’t get the hint.)

“Here in a second, I’ll be ‘running on empty,’” he said. “Get it? You know…the song…‘Running on Empty.’”

“Yeah, I get it. Funny,” I deadpanned. Having done what I came to do, I quickly made my way to the sink. He must have gotten to empty with amazing speed because a beat or two later, he was standing next to me.

“I got another one for you.”

“Lay it on me,” I said—admittedly, not the kind of thing one should say too loudly in a men’s room.

“Man, it’s killer stuff.”

“Yeah, I know, you said that already. What’s the joke?”

“Watch,” he said. He walked three or four paces away and then turned around and walked back. “Look, I’m walking on empty!” He burst into hysterics.

“You should have been JB’s warm-up act,” I said. From the slant of his drunken smile, I could tell he thought I was serious. Which is just sad. What’s even sadder is that the guy probably hung around the tour buses after the show in the hopes of laying his joke on Jackson Browne himself. If so, he broke what is perhaps the paramount rule in outhouse etiquette: What happens in the men’s room stays in the men’s room.

SOME PUBLIC MEN’S rooms have attendants, guys in dress slacks and ties who stand at the ready with hand towels. This is allegedly classy, which is why you’re more apt to find such potty pals at private clubs and certain fancy restaurants. But attendants occasionally surprise you by popping up in more pedestrian venues, like Cadillac Ranch downtown. No matter where you encounter them, and no matter how polite and discreet they may be, I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of men when I say attendants irritate worse than horsehair underwear.

For starters, attendants talk to you, which, as you now know, is a no-no. When they ask how you’re doing “out there” or pay you a compliment on, say, your shirt, what little sincerity you may wish to invest in the comment quickly evaporates when the next guy in the door gets asked the same question or given the same compliment. This buttering up is a blatant attempt to improve their nightly tip intake. Let’s be clear: Relieving oneself is a not a privilege, it’s a right, and feeling the pressure to tip a guy for standing where you don’t want or need him to is aggravating. Frankly, I’d rather tip the guy for staying out of the bathroom.

Often attendants come equipped with bowls of mints or individual cigarettes to offer patrons, the unspoken policy being that you’ll pay for it (and then some) with your tip. Breath fresheners and nicotine sticks obviously come in handy for many guys, but receiving a Tic Tac or a Pall Mall from a gent in the bathroom doesn’t make them any more special. A coin-operated machine would certainly suffice.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find the very notion of bathroom attendants depressing. The thought that some men make their living, or part of it, by servicing the simple hygiene needs of other men in the lavatory is demeaning. I know—a job is a job, especially these days. But I still find it intensely awkward. So much so that I over-tip, which only leaves me feeling frustrated—and waiting until my bladder is at 110 percent of capacity before going back in there. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure assistance in the bathroom is something I will eventually appreciate having when I can no longer walk or manage to manipulate the zipper on my pants. But until then I can handle things on my own, thanks.

THOUGH ATTENDANTS ARE off-putting, one thing that is greatly appreciated in the men’s room is something entertaining (and not too mentally taxing) to look at. Some of the more enlightened men’s rooms have plastic frames mounted above the urinals where you’ll find a page from the day’s newspaper or some sort of advertisement. I have nothing against blazing a new trail for ad placement, but sometimes it isn’t so well thought-out. I recently saw a public service ad in the restroom at Molly Malone’s in Pleasant Ridge aiming to recruit men to mentor children for a well-known organization. The ad depicted a man and a child lying on the floor happily playing video games together. Given how hard such organizations must work to screen for pedophiles and other creeps, advertising for men to mentor children while those prospects are standing at a urinal doing their business seems…how to put it? Rather unfortunate. It reminded me of another classic advertising blunder—the time Southern Comfort ran banner ads after Hurricane Katrina that read: Born in New Orleans (Where Anything Can Happen). What were they thinking?

It’s comforting to know that one of the best things about the men’s room remains just as prevalent as ever: graffiti. Looking for a good time? You’ll find names and phone numbers aplenty. Looking for something a bit more literary? Limericks abound, and yes, Nantucket is still very much on the graffiti map. Looking for something a bit less expected? No worries, it’s there. I’ve seen mathematical equations scribbled on bathroom walls; I’m not sure if someone was trying to calculate his bar tab or his odds of having a urinary tract infection. And I’ve seen political statements and social commentary, including such brazen manifestos as Smart people prefer Pepsi and Make guns legal. When I read such brilliance, I leave the restroom a little lighter (and dumber) than when I came in.

One of the more bizarre pieces of graffiti I’ve seen was in the men’s room at the Starbucks at Rookwood Pavilion. Inside hung a poster touting the company’s fair trade policies. One guy, apparently a student, took the time to pull out a pen and write on the poster: I did a paper on this. What would possess someone to take even 10 seconds out of their day to share this tidbit, anonymously, with his fellow man? Beats me, but this over-eager communicator really needs a Twitter account. If the graffiti artist in question is reading this, all I ask is that you don’t tweet anything while standing next to me at the john. That would be flat-out rude. 

Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki
Originally published in the October 2009 issue.

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