Over the past decade, I’ve learned to mark my territory, to place myself in space not by familiar landmarks, but by public restrooms. This is not for illicit purposes, but simply to deal with my shrunken bladder, enlarged prostate, the physical changes that leave me in need of hourly relief. In Davis Square, there’s the omnipresent Starbucks, and the funky Diesel, both of which have an open-door policy. But as I travel to other parts of the Boston area, such as Harvard Square or (even worse) Copley Square, Back Bay and Mission Hill, finding a public restroom is a bit like scoring a seat on the B line, once the BU students are back in town.
As I wandered around town last weekend, I found myself in a series of crowded places —at Honkfest in Davis Square — and, the following day, at the Museum of Fine Arts. I’d wandered into the Square after teaching a writing workshop at Somerville Library, absorbing the sights and sounds—a thin young man with hoop earrings, a young woman with teased up pink hair, which reminded me of cotton candy, and a guy standing on a traffic island in the middle of the square wearing a bird mask and playing a kazoo in time to the music across the street.
I’m not a big fan of street bands, which sound, with their tubas and drums, a bit like noise. But I enjoy people watching, and so I spent 30 minutes wandering, hanging out on the crowd’s edge, conscious of my internal clock, which reminds me of nature’s call in ever-more-frequent increments. It seems that after hitting 40, my metabolism (or my prostate) changed in some fundamental way. I’ve always been thirsty, and need to hydrate on an hourly basis. And after two episodes of kidney stones (the closest a man can come to the pain of childbirth, I’ve been told), I was told to drink even more water, so that a plastic bottle has become an extension of my left hand, an extra appendage.
On Sunday afternoon, I drove toward Mission Hill, and parked behind Northeastern. I was meeting a friend at the MFA and had some time to kill before he arrived. As I skirted the campus, I felt the familiar pull, my body’s reminder that I was not a camel, and it was time to search for relief. There’s not much around the MFA, and so I simply went into the museum and asked a uniformed guard to point me to the restroom.
“You have to buy a ticket first,” she said, in a voice that brooked no argument.
I gave her a look, a silent appeal, and then headed back outside. Since my friend was an MFA member, I could get in for free, and I didn’t want to pay $15 just for use of their bathroom. I decided to try my luck at the other, less used entrance of the museum, where I stood outside near a water fountain, the rushing of the water an unhelpful reminder that, unlike the Rolling Stones, time was definitely not on my side.
I spoke with a ticket-taker who said I’d have to ask the guard —he directed me around the corner —to see if she would let me in. Miraculously, the guard was absent from her post, and I hurried into the museum, a man on a mission. A few minutes later I was unburdened, with a full hour before I’d need a return visit. I wandered about the museum until my friend texted me to meet him at the Fenway entrance. By then, he was in a full-throated argument with the guard I’d missed a short time earlier.
It turned out that he, too, had heard nature’s call, and was in the midst of a “bathroom emergency.” M had explained that he was a museum member but couldn’t talk right now, that he would come back and show his card, and that time was of the essence. By the time I got there, he’d returned to find me and resume his argument with the guard, who radioed her supervisor because a patron “was being rude and difficult.”
Though I said nothing, I wanted to chime in, “Honey, do not get between a middle-aged man and his pissoir. “
The supervisor, a young man who clearly did not want to referee this particular fight, was non-committal. The argument petered out when my friend snatched his membership card from the guard’s hand and we walked back into the museum. So much drama, so much wasted effort.
Sometime later I was back home in Medford, with no guards, no stress, and no need to plea for a place to pee. It felt remarkably like freedom.
Judah Leblang is a Boston-based writer, teacher and storyteller. His next reading, with local writer Randy Ross, is at Bestseller’s Café/Medford on Thursday Nov 7 at 6:30 PM. For more info go to www.judahleblang.com