Vivian Lawry


I don’t remember my first toilet training—though Mom always claimed I was a fast learner—but by the time I was able to notice anything, I noticed that going wasn’t the same for everybody, not even all women and girls, because Great-Granny used “the necessary,” which sat right beside her bed, looking like a plain oak chair, arms worn smooth and dark, with a solid seat hinged at the back that lifted up, exposing another seat with a not-quite-round hole in the middle, and underneath that hole sat a chamber pot, but I was never allowed to use that chair—although I could sit on it with the top seat down and talk to Great-Granny, or listen to her, mostly—because I was relegated to what Aunt Mary called the bare-ass chamber pot (white enamel with a bale, a red rim, and a loose lid that clattered into place on top) tucked under the bed at night and used as seldom as possible because no one wanted to clean chamber pots, but because I didn’t use a chamber pot at home, not even at night—only when I visited Granny—I wasn’t very good at it, not like Aunt Mary, who (at age nine) could squat over the pot, holding the lid in one hand while her pee cascaded like a waterfall, whereas I (age four) sat right down on the cold rim, gripping the pot between my legs, the hot pee hissing against the side and warming the metal between my feet, but most of the time (by day, anyway) everyone except Great-Granny used the outhouse, regardless of weather, and Mary had to walk me there in case there were snakes, no longer a worry once Grandpa and Granny had a bathroom in the house, but being a regular bathroom with one commode, when it was occupied, those in urgent need used the old privy (still standing astride the creek, water tumbling over pebbles and rocks, a breeze brushing one’s bottom), choosing from three holes in different sizes, which allowed Eastern Kentucky privies to be right social places sometimes—sort of like a public restroom now but without the stall walls—but even in my mid-twenties, after seeing private and public facilities too numerous to count, I remained toilet-naive when I landed in Frankfurt, Germany, needing to go, shifting from foot to foot waiting to change money, then dashing into the women’s room, surprised to find no coin-operated box on the stall door, but rather an attendant who handed me several squares of toilet paper going in and offered soap and a towel coming out, and as I turned to leave, she tapped my shoulder, pointing to a list posted on the mirror, apparently fees, but I couldn’t read the words, couldn’t match the written list with the coins, so I held out my hand and let her take what she would, tears of embarrassment and fatigue stinging my eyes, and that was the beginning of my introduction to international toilets, though most new experiences were less stressful, for example Hyde Park (London), where the public facilities had brown toilet tissue rough as the paper towels at gas stations, every sheet of every roll stamped with a small gold crown and the words “Property of Her Majesty the Queen,” and so saying the Dutch had it all over the Brits when it came to the royal treatment in public toilets doesn’t sound like a high bar, but the Royal Porcelain Fles Factory (where Delft porcelain is made) could have cleared any bar, with the insides of the toilet bowls hand-painted in blue designs that matched the Delft china patterns and I thought this was like using a soup tureen as a chamber pot—not that I knew what a soup tureen or Delft porcelain was back in my time of chamber pots—and there couldn’t have been a greater contrast with the Delft public toilets than those in Istanbul, in the park near The Blue Mosque, where women entered a gray stone box, perhaps twenty feet long, with narrow, rectangular ventilation slits near the ceiling and the open doorway providing scant illumination of the trench—about a foot wide—halving the room, worn grooves on either side of the trench showing where women had stood through the ages, enduring the overwhelming stench (despite the surprisingly clean floor) while positioning their feet on the gritty gray stones and doing whatever was necessary to bare their bottoms and not soil themselves while resting elbows on knees and easing into a squat, and I gave thanks that no attendant stood by to collect fees (or observe my awkward efforts) while I learned that in situations such as this, skirts would be a lot more convenient, and pockets easier to manage than a shoulder bag, but fortunately, I carried tissues with me, having been forewarned that there would be no toilet paper, no washbasin, no running water of any kind, the whole experience a stark contrast with Venice, where facilities in the plush hotels came with toilet paper and washbasins as a matter of course, and toilets sported a little button for a little (urine) flush and a big button for a big flush, but none of these brief encounters came close to preparing me for two weeks of publicly fulfilling my needs during a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, 226 miles of Colorado River whitewater rapids and pristine campsites—pristine because everything that went into the canyon was packed back out, and I do mean everything—and such care for the environment necessitated the groover, a rectangular metal WWII ammo box with a lock-down lid, and the first thing the head river guide did when making camp for the night was choose a location for the groover—always scenic, overlooking the river, with privacy at least from the waist down—and our first night in camp we had the groover lesson, delivered by the apprentice guide (a petite brunette who rowed equipment but not people) who, when all seventeen campers had gathered around the groover, shouted that we were going to talk sh-i-i-i-i-t—startling all of us, causing many to shuffle their feet and avoid eye contact while a few laughed nervously and the two teenaged boys guffawed—because everybody does it and on the river we needed to know where and how, and she proceeded to explain that shit—and only shit—went in the groover, to avoid the explosive combination of urine with the chemicals that treat shit, so everyone had to pee either in the river or in a five-gallon bucket alongside the groover, and, therefore, we were advised to pee first—but even so, it was sometimes necessary to two-step back and forth between the groover and the bucket to keep them separate—because, in spite of the river, it’s a desert environment, and evaporating urine leaves uric salts in the sand, contaminating the campsites, and to avoid that, everyone should urinate in the river (or dump the bucket there), which was fine because urine is sterile, and when asked why it was called the groover, the guide said that people used to sit right on the ammo box, and the edges grooved their buttocks—which led me to wonder whether anyone ever got grooved on a chamber pot—but in either case the groover was better than the day-tripper, used when one had to evacuate one’s bowels while on the river rather than in camp, necessitating the guide rowing that camper’s raft to signal the apprentice guide, both rafts beaching as soon as possible, where the apprentice guide handed over the Tupperware container containing toilet paper and the small, rectangular metal box (not much bigger than a big metal lunch pail), which the camper toted to whatever privacy was available, did whatever was necessary, and hoped fervently that no one else would need to go before camp that night, because the contents of the day-tripper wouldn’t be emptied till the groover was set up that evening, and although the day-tripper was a great equalizer in some ways, such was not the case for women urinating while rafting, who had only three peeing options: (1) ask the guide to pull ashore and squat in the shallows as we did when in camp (but which slowed progress for the entire flotilla), (2) jump over the side and hang onto the raft (mostly submerged in the fifty-four-degree river) with the associated choices of peeing through one’s clothes or (for women) wrestling one-handed, underwater, to get them down and up again, or (3) yell “Eyes forward” to one’s fellow rafters, lower one’s pants, grab the cargo straps, and cantilever one’s bare behind out over the rushing water—although that clarion call did little to shield one’s nakedness from the rafts that followed—and although by the end of the trip I was voted the woman most improved in peeing off the side of the raft (I was on a diuretic for high blood pressure, after all), the only thing in the canyon that prepared me for the lights on timers (remarkably brief timers) in public toilets in Spain, problematic when the light switch was outside the door to the hall, and after sitting in the dark once (my mother would have applauded my one-trial learning), I carried my Maglite at all times, along with the headband that allowed me to use it hands-free, which worked finding the doorknob in Spain as it had finding the groover at night on the river, and the Western-style toilets in Spain set me up for bathrooms in Taiwanese tourist hotels and homes, but not for the public toilets which were usually modern but Eastern, such that one squatted over a low porcelain oval and pulled a chain to flush, obeying posted notices in multiple languages that requested no flushing of tissue because the plumbing couldn’t handle toilet paper (which wasn’t provided anyway, so everyone carried tissues, and in Taipei, sidewalk hirelings handed out free tissue packets advertising bakeries, bookstores, and banks) and instead of flushing, to deposit used tissues in the nearby receptacle, usually half full and smelly, and another toileting twist in Taiwan, to avoid the confusion of who wears pants and who wears skirts, on the east coast the icons for public toilets were a high-heeled shoe and a pipe, and while toilets for men and women opened off the same hall, they were separate, unlike the washbasins and mirrors in a common room between, and when there was an attendant, it was one attendant for both, usually male, and lest you think I’m alone in finding toileting around the world interesting, be aware that there are whole books with titles like Shitting Pretty (a book that advises on personal hygiene while traveling in various unforeseen and unlikely places) and Going Abroad (which purports to include anything one needs to know about “how to answer the call of nature anywhere in the world”) but, alas, I didn’t find such books before the fact, nor the many products now available to make going easier for travelers, products such as women’s hiking pants that have a Velcro-closed crotch, or Uri-Mate, a disposable funnel that allows women to pee standing up with minimal undressing, and when necessary, one can use Restop 1 and Restop 2, zip-top bags containing biodegradable materials that turn human waste (urine and solid waste, respectively) into deodorized gel, and although I’m sure those products would be helpful in the outback, it never occurred to me to keep them on hand when traveling by car in the United States, which is why—stopped dead on the interstate so long my need for relief had become desperate—I pulled off on the shoulder, opened the passenger side front and back doors, and squatted between them, not even blushing, for having gone bare-bottom on the river, two car doors felt plenty private. At this point, all I can say is that my toilet training wasn’t complete at the age my mother always claimed!