Monday, October 5, 2009

meeting in the ladies' room/they're all gonna laugh at you/duke + funk (medley)

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in ladies' rooms.

I know, I know, all of you who know me are saying "well, that explains a lot." Here's the sitch: It was the early '70s. My dad, who would divorce my mom in 1973 and then exit the picture completely, was rarely on the scene even then. My household from birth until age 17 was my mom, my maternal grandparents, and, until December 1976, my aunt. That's three women and one elderly man, plus me. So when we went out, odds are that I was in the care of one of those three women. And they were not going to let their little boy go into a men's room by himself.

And who can blame them? It wouldn't be a great idea to let a preschooler go into a men's room by himself now. But this was the '70s, when child kidnappings and cult abductions seemed to be in the news every day. So when my mom, grandmother, and/or aunt needed to go to the restroom, or even if the restroom visit was on my impetus, it was always to the ladies' room and accompanied by one of them.

You may be asking "why didn't your grandfather supervise that?" Well, he wasn't always on these outings, so he may not have been there. Even when he was, he just wasn't a "tend to the little kid" kind of grandfather. Don't get me wrong, I never doubted that he loved me completely, and he was a wonderful man whom I miss more every day. But out in public, he did his own thing. During our visit to whatever store we were in, he more than likely would have wandered off from the main family grouping to eyeball what was new in the hardware department, or he would have flagged down another old man whom he recognized from a carpentry job in 1948 and they'd be chattering each others' ears off out in the lobby.

So it was a life of ladies' rooms for me. This would come back to haunt me in first grade. The women who raised me, who did a boffo job in the things that matter most in child-rearing (unconditional love, nurturing, protecting, giving me intellectual freedom to become myself), didn't really understand male-specific things. And one of those male-specific things they never thought to teach me was to use my zipper when urinating. Every adult I saw urinate dropped their pants to do so, so I did it too.

This didn't matter when all my toilet visits were either at home or behind the closed door of a ladies' room stall. But on my second day of school, Mrs. Semanco marched her Switchback Elementary first graders (I never attended kindergarten - that's a blog entry for another time - so first grade was my first year of school) to the restrooms, where the class split by genders: girls to the girls' room, boys to the boys' room.

So for the first time in my life, I was alone with a bunch of other boys in a male-only toileting facility.

OH. MY. GOD. This was a different world. The stalls had no doors. (I'm not sure if I ever did #2 at school in all six years I spent at Switchback. Pooping in public? No way!) There was another, larger stall that housed some large non-commode porcelain objects, but on that early September day in 1973, I had no idea what a urinal was. (A few years later, when the girls' room was being repainted and the girls and boys had to take turns in the boys' room, Vanessa Rucker exited the boys' room and excitedly asked the waiting line of boys "do y'all ever take showers in there?" Obviously, she also didn't know what a urinal was.) Plus, relative to what I was used to, the conditions were filthy.

I had never seen anything like this before. I was freaked out.

But I also had to pee.

So I went into one of the open stalls and reluctantly did what I always did when I had to urinate: I undid my pants, let them fall around my ankles, and started peeing.

The gales of laughter started almost immediately. And in some ways, wouldn't stop for twelve years, even though I subsequently figured out what that zipper was for and never dropped my pants to pee again. It wasn't like I could explain to them over all that cacophonous cackling the context that I just spent umpteen paragraphs explaining to you. Heck, even if I could have explained it, they wouldn't have been more understanding. They were kids. And kids are cruel.

I'm not kidding about the humiliation lasting for twelve years. David Law, who was present on that day and for the remainder of my pre-college education, found fit to mention this incident to me when we were both in high school, and Mr. Law by then had become a good friend, so in some ways I never lived this down.

And, I guess by retelling the story here in a public forum available to God, man, and law, I might never live this down. But that wasn't what this blog entry was going to be about, even though it's about that now, I guess. What my intro was really about was some background for a totally different toilet anecdote, which will still follow:

So, there I was, going to ladies' rooms in the early 1970s. Graffiti, while not a new phenomenon, was reaching unprecedented proportions in the U.S., and was the subject of much denunciation from the mainstream media as well as from my family.

And graffiti was in the ladies' rooms of southern West Virginia. For whatever reason, the one piece of graffiti I remember most was on the door of one of the stalls in Grant's in Bluefield, West Virginia. (For the WV locals, Grant's was on Cumberland Avenue in a shopping center with the non-downtown Kroger and the bookstore, and the location became our area's first K-Mart after the Grant's chain went out of business.)

Also, keep in mind that, as you probably have surmised, I had a very sheltered childhood, so my notions of obscenity and vulgarity were my mom's and my grandmother's, i.e., lots of things were obscene. I have yet to hear my mother utter a single curseword. Ever. I heard my grandmother say "shit!" once, when someone pulled in front of her. My grandfather would occasionally say "shit!" and get roundly chastised for it. And even more mild stuff like "heck" and "darn" was equally prohibited, because, to quote my mother, "it's just standing in for the worse word, so you're still thinking the worse word." My family was not particularly religious beyond a kind of general Protestantness; they all believed in God and Jesus and the Bible, but we didn't go to church except for my grandmother on Easter, and they thought the super-Christian folks amongst us were, well, nuts.

So it wasn't religious zealotry. They were just prudes.

Anyway, on the door of one of the ladies' room stalls at Grant's in Bluefield, WV, was inscribed the following item of graffiti:

DUKE
+
FUNK

To my little mind, this was the Most. Obscene. Phrase. Ever.

I'm not sure why I thought that, or why it's still stuck in my head nearly 40 years later. Was it "funk"'s proximity to the truly reviled "f" word? But at that age, I hadn't encountered the f-bomb at all. And why did I think "DUKE" was also a "nasty" word? I knew that "duke" could be a title, and I didn't think that the Duke of York or "Duke of Earl" were nasty. I don't even think my mom or grandmother had pointed out this particular piece of graffiti as disgraceful. So I got nothin.'

But "DUKE + FUNK"... oh man, I thought I had to cover my eyes when I went past it on the way to the next stall or back to the sink for handwashing, lest Billy Graham yell at me and I end up in Hell.

OK, I'll stop writing any time now. Let the psychoanalysis begin!

2 comments:

spanghew said...

Ah. It all comes clear now, Miles...

Tim Pintsch said...

Wow... We've all got skeletons in our stalls.