Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Poets and porcelain

I'm a reader, what can I say? I seldom go far without a book, but there is the occasional little necessity trip when it is simply impractical to delay action long enough to browse for reading material.

So, one reads the walls in the stalls. You can hardly help doing it, you know. It's there. You're something of a captive audience.

I never told a soul about any of the angst, humor or poetic injustice I've seen on those bathroom walls, because when it comes to restrooms and Las Vegas, as they say, what happens there certainly ought to stay there.

That was until George W. Bush inspired me once again with his courage. You may recall the great flushing of controversy back in September, when a photo that Reuters News Service ran around the world showed the president, apparently studiously taking notes during a crucial United Nations Security Council hearing, which he then handed to Condoleeza Rice. What the photographer claims to have never noticed until it went out blown-up in print worldwide, was what the note actually said:

"I think I may need a bathroom break. Is this possible."

People went nuts. Editor & Publisher spanked the press corps as "stupid" and "childish" - "You should be ashamed."

What's the fuss? So the man's human. Do we expect that a head of state is so powerful that he no longer needs to visit the little boys room? And the man is the leader of the free world - he'll take five when he wants to, and the U.N. will learn to like it.

I like to think that Mr. Bush enjoys a good read now and then, too. Maybe even in the loo. If so, he isn't alone.

This bit of graffiti is written on a men's restroom in the House of Representatives, Washington, D.C.

"If pro is opposite of con, then what is the opposite of progress?"

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating graffiti in public places, which is quite illegal. I haven't engaged in such activity since Kristin Finneran broke my heart in fourth grade and I put her phone number on the wall in the boy's room in Hawley Elementary. Sorry Kristin, I hope you turned out okay, anyway. If so, can I have my Hot Wheels back?

In tracking down the details on the Presidential Potty fiasco, I discovered that Google lists 7,140,000 entries on the subject of restroom graffiti, so now I don't feel so bad for reading it.

Just out of curiosity, I see there are over a million pages dedicated to White House restrooms, mostly, as it turns out, relating to Monica Lewinski investigations or people stealing paper towels with White House seals stamped into the sheets.

According to the American Restroom Association (I kid you not), the White House discourages public access to the powder rooms, and directs the desperate to the nearby Willard Hotel.

So, for the moment, I cannot report on any graffiti in the presidential household. (Jenna looks like a tagger to me.)

These days, too much of the writing is gross or dirty. There's nothing worse than a vandal without an imagination.

But there are some interesting examples in there, out there:

* On a college restroom door: A kiss is two questions answered at once. Interesting.

* Written on a stall's left wall: "Toilet Tennis. Look Right." On the right wall: "Look Left."

* I am told by a reliable source that this one is written next to the toilet handle on the restroom of the Music Building at Hastings College in Nebraska: "Please wiggle Handel. Written below it: If I do, will it wiggle Bach?

* "There is nothing so pure as the kindness of an atheist."

A website credits this to the ladies' room at Duke Coffeehouse, Durham, NC

* "Make love, not war." Response: "Do both: get married!"

A filling station men's room in Bozeman, Montana.

* "They paint the walls to cover my pen, but the bathroom poet strikes again!" From a school restroom.

* "Bowling is Drawing." From Pour Richards in Cedar Falls, and I still don't get it.

* "Most live and learn but by the time most learn it is too late to live." Seen in a Des Moines airport restroom.

* "Beauty is only a light switch away." A university library restroom.

* Jimmy's Jigger, across the street from Kansas University Medical School, mid-60's: "Cinderella married for money."

* "Not all who wander are lost." And written underneath, "Not all who launder are washed." Portland, Oregon

* On the paper towel dispenser on campus: "Pull here for an arts degree."

* On a subway system restroom in New York: "Life is one contradiction after another!' Scrawled underneath, "No it's not!"

* Reported from a ladies room: "My husband follows me everywhere." Next to it, "No I don't!"

* One to think about: "Homophobia is gay."

* "You could fill our bathtub with the tears I've spilled in here," a new tenant finds in teal eye shadow on an apartment bathroom mirror.

Perhaps we all have a basic need to leave something behind... um, the writing, I mean. I has a sociology prof once who claimed all graffiti is an affirmation of one's uniqueness. Books, like "The Grout Society" have been written about it, and I know of at least one documentary film, "Urban Scrawls."

All of this is nothing new. Prehistoric man scratched messages on the walls of those certain dark cave corners. The Romans had a goddess named Cloacina to preside over the latrines and the wisdom that was apparently written there.

There is even a name for bathroom graffiti now, coined by folklorist Alan Dundes - "latrinalia."

One must accept originality where we find it, I suppose. Unless, of course, we are on the janitorial staff.

I leave you with these thoughts, from an ISU loo,

"Oh, bathroom philistine

Erase not these lines;

There'd be nothing to read here

If not for my rhymes."