Notes Toward a Row of Urinals


1. Ideally, urination is a solitary experience.

The presence of bodies on either side sets in motion a series of unspoken but universally practiced routines:

A lateral peek. A rotation of the head just far enough to ascertain whether anyone else along the line is issuing a reciprocal glance. This bobble-headed investigative work is but the overture of a quiet symphony: flitting eyes, squeaking shoes, clanking buckles, soft sighs, and of course the periodic, melodic union of urine and ceramic.

A row of men. Peeing. Not talking. Not thinking about each other. Not thinking. Peeing. Unzipping. Certainly not thinking about each other’s genitalia. Peeing.  Clearing the throat. Emptying the bladder. Emptying the mind.

Upon entering a public restroom, every man instinctively knows the rules of proximity: if the row of urinals is one from full, complete it; if three slots are available, scurry for the middle one and count your blessings; if a lone ranger occupies one terminus, head for the other . . . but stop one or two short because asymmetry is safer, less deliberate.

Even the linoleum walls encourage a feigned, strained nonchalance. They echo every shoe squeak, every cough, every accidental bout of flatulence. They reverberate every chord and refrain of the bodily symphony while amplifying its underlying anxiety.

2. Urinals are getting more stylish these days. Which makes them harder, I think, to pee into. Rounded edges, bleached white and ergonomically sloping bowls, passive infrared sensors for a hands-free flush.

The last thing I want to do to this thing is pee on it . . .

Manufacturers have even begun to place small, colorful graphics in the bottom of the urinal. My favorite: a bumblebee, buzzing lazily just north of the bowl’s center. Is it simply branding? Am I to aim my stream at it? I do, usually. So if that’s the case, some engineer should get a pat on the back. Probably the bee has been strategically placed  for smoothest stream reception and minimized splatter.

Or perhaps the bee’s objective is simply to draw the eye downward and prohibit lateral drift. If this is the case, I am again a success story. Although to be honest I do worry about my downward focus giving the impression that I can’t, without rapt ocular attention, get the urine into the urinal. To miss at such close range would require a degree of determination . . .

3. Those who design the layout and spacing of urinals must be either comedians or anthropologists. Or both.

Some urinals protrude but a little from the wall, girded by protective barriers on each side. This setup is ideal in the sense of solitude it grants the user. More specifically, this setup effectively truncates all sight lines to the genitalia. Other arrangements include urinals that jut out from the wall and have no dividers whatsoever. These require standing out in the open, unzipping, and letting loose for all to see.

The difference in body language at a row of the former and at a row of the latter type of urinal is more than worthy of anthropological scrutiny. In the absence of 1 inch dividing boards and forced 8 inches farther into the center of the room, men grow quite tense. Shifts in body angle to shield the lower self from view. Increased frequency of lateral glances. And of course a renewed effort to appear nonchalant.

The conversion of a primal human need to a meticulous, strained routine. Standing on tile; striving not to splatter; aiming with care; making not a sound; monitoring the slightest urge. These are civilized men, uncomfortably sandwiched by similarly uncomfortable men.

4. Some urinals are actually single, giant urinals. These are generally aluminum and appear in places like baseball stadiums. They look like pig troughs. They feel like pig troughs. They smell worse than pig troughs. An acrid amalgam of urea and chemical aromas.

Some urinals stretch all the way to the floor. Some are staunchly rectangular, others almost spherical. Some are playful products of a designers’ humor: gargoyle urinals accepting urine into gaping mouths; metal bucket urinals; saxophone urinals; even venus fly-trap urinals.

Bathroom humor never really gets old.

5. Women, it turns out, can use urinals too. A small device called the Female Urination Device, or the FUD, attaches directly to the female body and allows women to urinate and easily control stream direction while standing. The FUD can be used in conjunction with the traditional urinal for the full experience.

Women should rest easy knowing that if they desire, they can urinate with the assistance of everything ranging from an FUD to a motion sensor to an ergonomically placed animal image.

Equal opportunity is a beautiful thing.

6. Occasionally, I walk into a public restroom and find myself alone. A wall of urinals, stoic, silent, seizes my attention while an odd sense of liberation unfurls in my gut. The risk of a stranger’s entrance only exacerbates my impulse to engage in the ridiculous. I glance to the ceiling, half expecting to find security cameras. In their absence, I take my time deciding which urinal to anoint. I hum a little melody. I dance a little dance. I unzip and let loose, sometimes backing up as far as I can mid-stream while still maintaining contact with the ceramic.

I marvel at the inhibition with which public space is rife; revel in its occasional disintegration; regret the solitude accompanying moments of release.

-Patrick Madden, Contributor 

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