Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
Being too full of sleep to understand.”
When Nature calls, we go. If we’re lucky, we go indoors.
Different antiquities vie for the claim to the first flush toilet several thousand years ago. King Minos of Crete had one in the Knossos Palace, and another was discovered in the tomb of a Chinese king in Shangqui county in the central province of Hunan.
We had two flush toilets in the house where I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio — one on the second floor right across the hall from my bedroom, and another down in the basement. One day, I was playing in our basement when Nature rang. I knew even at the tender age of three or so that I wouldn’t be able to make it up two flights of stairs in time. The gleaming white porcelain toilet just inside the open door to my father’s office in that subterranean world beckoned to me. Taking advantage of its proximity, I hustled over.
After much maneuvering off of the various layers encasing my tiny body during that frigid Cleveland winter, I plopped down. Unfortunately, someone not of the same gender had preceded me, leaving the seat in an upright and locked position. My mother, preparing dinner in the kitchen above, was the first to hear my shrieks as soon as my tiny bottom hit that ice-cold water. She rushed down and pulled me out, and then read the Riot Act to my father.
Gotta be a better way, I thought to myself. Ever after, I raced up those stairs to the second-floor bathroom as fast as my little legs would carry me. Thank goodness for indoor plumbing, but I don’t believe I ever partook of that basement bathroom again the whole time we lived in Cleveland.
On occasion, I’ve had my own encounters with a variety of outdoor facilities around the globe. I’m not counting overnight camping trips or hikes in the woods, mind you. Or the ubiquitous portable toilets found at all 10k races, music festivals, and traveling circuses nowadays. These tall turquoise tureens are known by such brand names as Porta-John, Johnny on the Spot, Porta-Potty, and Toi-Toi. No, I’m referring instead to the handmade type.
My earliest experience was on my Grandma’s farm in Alabama while I was growing up. My family would either drive down from Cleveland or take the train.
My sister always packed a roll of toilet paper. She didn’t like the Sears Roebuck catalogs Grandma kept in her outhouse for the same purpose. The very first toilet paper placed around a rolled tube was actually sold in 1879 by Scott Paper Company, which had a large refinery just across Mobile Bay from my Grandma’s farm.
Her weathered wooden privy stood between the barn and the chicken coop. From time to time, I’d end up with a splinter in my leg from the wood. The outhouse had a slanting corrugated metal roof and was kinda dark inside if the day wasn’t sunny. The only opening was an iconic crescent-moon shape cut out of the door for light — as well as air.
The privy was a one-seater, with a ledge to the left of the hole for the catalogs. My sister kept her personal secret roll of paper in her brown Samsonite suitcase that locked. She wouldn’t share it with me. I didn’t really mind the Sears catalogs so much. I liked to sit there whiling away the day, looking at all the pictures of life’s supposed necessities and reading about these luxuries. I dreamed about what I’d buy if I had any money of my own. Which I didn’t.
Initially billed as the “Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone” when it came out in 1894, the Sears catalog had everything one could imagine and more. From jewelry to sewing machines, guitars to tennis rackets, the copies that survived the decades now serve as time capsules of another era. I was particularly taken with all the shoes. Those big tomes helped me pass many a dull day. Who knows, maybe they even jumpstarted my love of reading.
But “Watchman, what of the night?” Well, in biblical times, Isaiah and his peers probably hadn’t heard about the flush toilet that King Minos of Crete had in his palace because it was destroyed first by fire and then by earthquake, ending the Minoan civilization about 1450 B.C. I’ll bet they devised some sort of pan system like my Grandma had, although chamber pots date back only to the Middle Ages.
The large round enameled bowls sat under Grandma’s beds hidden during the day, but when Nature knocked during the night, we sure didn’t try to hustle out to that outhouse. No siree. That would have meant sidling past the gigantic sycamore tree with its scary branches, and probably awakening half the chicken coop. We just slid a pot out from under the bed and made quick use of it. Grandma would empty them in the morning out past the fig tree, which seemed to be fairly prolific. I never wanted to eat any of the figs, though.
Certainly the most memorable elimination structure I ever encountered was on a small Pacific island the summer after I graduated from college. I was teaching English as a Second Language in the Palauan village of Ngaremlengui during a HeadStart program for Peace Corps training. The family with whom I was living had a fairly large outhouse by Micronesian standards. Called a benjo, it was located down a little path behind the house. The wooden benjo had a screen at the top from just above head height, on up to the slanting corrugated metal roof. A really tall person when seated could actually look out at the jungle whilst otherwise engaged. The screen also ventilated the outhouse in the tropical climate, aerating the aroma.
The two-seater outhouse had a wall between the two halves, also with screening at the top. Two people sitting back to back could theoretically chat with one another when attending to business. Each side had a wooden hinged door — with no crescent-moon shape, however. Therefore, upon approaching, it was customary to call out, “Alii!” That was what a citizen of Ngaremlengui said when drawing near to another’s door. Sort of like “Yoo hoo,” I suppose, a common greeting when going to a neighbor’s house in small towns in the USA. Probably every village all over the globe has its own word for alerting folks that they are about to get company. The standard reply in Ngaremlengui was an echoing “Alii!” That would let the approacher know that it was okay to enter. Sort of like, “Hey, come on in!”
One day, I advanced on the family benjo in a bit of a hurry, forgetting this quaint little village ritual. Flinging open Door Number One, what did I spy inside but the gleaming brown thighs of my host family’s older “brother,” Kabriel, sitting in all his glory on the throne. He looked as shocked as I did.
“Alii!” I cried, both in desperation and embarrassment, lobbing the door shut and rushing to Door Number Two.
“Alii! Alii!” I kept singing out through the screen divider overhead.
Amidst Kabriel’s hysterical laughter, I kept hearing him chuckling over and over to himself, “Alii! Alii!” He sounded like he was shaking his head in bemused astonishment. By his tone, I knew the story would be repeated throughout the village by the next day. I had a feeling I was just not cut out to be an ambassador for my country.
I sure wanted to learn the Palauan customs, though. I tried my best not to have to get up after hours. Memories of Grandma’s sycamore tree branches rustling in the night probably chastened me to hold on. Once I was acclimated to that atoll, however, I decided to venture forth. Getting untangled from my mosquito netting took long enough, but then I had to find my flashlight and step over all the sleeping bodies of my family spread out around the floor on their pandanus mats. Plus try to push open the sliding Japanese door without awakening them before stepping out on the porch.
My native sisters, I’d noticed, didn’t bother what all that rigmarole in the night. They just pushed open the back door and hunkered themselves out over the edge, calling to mind the philosophy of William Cullen Bryant expressed in his poem Thanatopsis: “Go forth under the open sky, and list to Nature’s teachings.”
I simply couldn’t see myself doing that, though. So out into the darkening jungle I’d slip, with my trusty flashlight in hand. Except that I quickly learned I could leave the flashlight inside. Good thing, because batteries sure corroded fast in the humidity of that equatorial rain. No flashlight, I soon saw, could ever match the brilliance of those stars.
After a nighttime benjo hike, I liked to sit on the front step for a few minutes, awash in a bevy of celestial bodies so dazzling against the black sky they lit the whole village. And close? Man, being seven degrees above the equator brought the cosmos almost within arm’s reach.
Did John Keats ever visit Babeldaup, the island of this village where I spent a summer? To my knowledge, the only travels he ever took out of England in his short life were the vicarious ones he detailed in “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” Yet I wondered, on my nocturnal forays, how he could possibly have penned these lines from his poem “A Prophecy” anywhere but in the middle of the vast Pacific:
‘Tis the witching hour of night,
Orbed is the moon and bright,
And the stars they glisten, glisten,
Seeming with bright eye to listen—
For what listen they?
I soon learned that late-night foot traffic up and down the dirt path in front of our house was quite heavy. Where were all these people going? Once, in that dark period between bedtime and waking, an older man passing by saw me sitting on the porch. The next day I heard from someone in the village that he thought I was sad because I was sitting out there. I’d never been happier.
Our stalwart band of Peace Corps trainees left our calling card in Ngaremlengui before we departed that summer. We built a public benjo right next to the abai, the communal meetinghouse in the town center. Our benjo was a two-seater, for occupants to sit side-by-side rather than back-to-back, with a wall in between. A screen divider at the top enabled them to have conversations. I really wanted to paint “Alii!” on the door, but I didn’t. I wonder if the benjo is still standing there, next to the mangrove swamp.
The fanciest outhouse I ever encountered was on a family trip with my husband and three daughters to Alaska. There we we were, north of Fairbanks on the Elliott Highway, which meets up with the Dalton Highway at Mile 84. The Arctic Circle Trading Post at Mile 49 was the last outpost for miles and miles and miles, so we made a pit stop. No one really wanted to go once we heard that they had an outhouse, but our guide called it “a really nice one.” Sure, I thought.
Yet when I pulled open the door, I couldn’t believe what I saw. The interior was painted all baby blue everywhere, fresh wildflowers beckoned from a vase, magazines begged to be read, and a framed original oil painting adorned the wall. Plus, no Sears catalogs! Actual rolls of toilet paper awaited. Of course, I think they might have come over the Bering Strait, because the tissue was a tad less soft to the touch than the Scott Paper Company brand.
Who was I to complain, though? I realized not everyone in the world has indoor plumbing. Quite a few don’t, actually. That’s a really important fact we should think about more often. Until 1840, indoor plumbing was found only in the homes of the rich and in the classier hotels. Even today, in many parts of the world, indoor plumbing is seen as a luxury. Yet in some areas, it is not necessarily an assurance of adequate sanitation to prevent diseases linked to diarrhea.
When we consider the definition of poverty, the foremost response that comes to mind is “lack of money.” Indoor plumbing and safe drinking water, however, are imperative for the burgeoning population of our planet. If you ask me, the Privy Partition ranks right on up there with the Digital Divide.
The need is universal. When you gotta go, you gotta go.
Copyright 2012 by Elaine F. Tankard