Monday, April 4, 2011

Hey Gov, Pass the Soap

It’s a five hour drive from Manhattan to Utica, and the Divine M and I made it just south of Albany before we needed to pull into the Thruway’s Malden service center. We were on our way to a scholarship awards ceremony for our daughter Victoria and were driving happily through late season snow squalls and driving rain.

The first order of business, of course, was a visit to the restrooms. Martha carried a flannel shirt and slacks so she could change into more comfortable driving attire, and I slipped unencumbered into the men’s room.

As every guy knows, public bathrooms are places for minding one’s own business and – except for unexpected developments known as the “Senator Larry Craig Exception” – what happens in men’s rooms stays in men’s rooms.

This time, however, two men entered just behind me and faced the wall on either side of me. Both wore well-cut gray suits. Both pulled their jackets slightly apart, and soon all three of us were gazing slightly upwards and heaving contented sighs.

As we completed our missions, each affixing his gaze on the tiles in front of us, we readjusted our clothing and moved toward the row of sinks. Out of the corner of my eye I realized that one of the men seemed familiar and I stole a glance at his face. It was the former governor of New York, David Paterson.

The other man may have been an aide or a security agent. The three of us washed diligently and shook the water from our hands. Two of us stood back so the ex-gov could have first dibs at the paper towels, and then we departed.

Outside the bathroom, I watched as other customers began to recognize Paterson, who was simultaneously smiling and nodding and quickening his pace to get out of the place. He stopped ever so briefly to shake hands with a puzzled child whose parents were pushing her toward him, and then he escaped through the open doors. As almost everyone knows, the former governor is legally blind, but that didn’t slow him down. In an instant he was gone.
It was several minutes before Martha emerged from the women’s room. As seasoned journalists, we try not to be impressed by celebrities, but this was one story on which I could not sit.

“You’ll never guess who was in there,” I said, gesturing to the men’s room. “Governor Paterson!”
“You’re kidding. Where is he?”
“He left,” I said.
“Did you get his picture?”
“Um. Nooo.”
“Why not?”
“It was the men’s room,” I said. “There are certain protocols to be observed in the men’s room.”
“You should have gotten a picture.”
We bought some food and carried it to a table. I grabbed my ‘Droid and tapped an update to my Facebook status:
Ran into ex-Gov David Paterson in the men's room at the Malden service area on the Thruway,” I wrote. “Was he ever surprised to see me.”
Three hours later we pulled into a small motel in Utica and began to unwind for the day. I pulled out my phone to see if there were any messages. There on the small screen was evidence that meeting celebrities in bathrooms may be a universal and memorable experience. The first Facebook response was from a prominent American Baptist leader:
Several years ago I was in the men's room at the train station in NYC.” He wrote. “Looking straight ahead, as we've been taught to do, doing my man thing, I heard two voices that sounded really familiar to me. I looked around. To my right was Jesse Jackson. To my left was Al Sharpton. I managed to resist the temptation to try to shake hands.”
I read the response to Martha, who said all the talk about Men’s Room Protocols made her think of the lyrics to “Lovely Ladies” in the musical Les Miserables. 

Old men, young men, take 'em as they come, 
Harbor rats and alley cats and every kind of         scum:
Poor men, rich men, leaders of the land,
See them with their trousers off they're never     quite as grand. 
All it takes is money in your hand!
She also recalled standing in a long line to the ladies’ room in a Broadway theater with an unexpectedly patient Liza Minelli. (“There is no parity in lines to Broadway bathrooms,” Martha added.)
My brother Jim added his experience to Facebook: “I once peed next to Ed Bradley at a Broadway show. He still talks about it.”
Amid several additional FB comments, my friend Martin Bailey observed, “Sounds like you’ve got the makings of a great book.”
Now there’s an idea. The proposition jogged my memory of an event years ago in New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington. The 1976 presidential campaign had begun, and the church hosted an ecumenical gathering called, “Religion and the Presidency.” All the major Democratic candidates attended except the ultimate winner, Jimmy Carter – but no one cared because it was early in the campaign and he was a long shot. The other candidates were more prominent and more likely: Sargent Shriver, Eugene McCarthy, Morris Udall, and Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp.

At one point during that hectic meeting I joined the testosteronal crowd that jammed into the bathroom with all these potential leaders of the free world. I stood unobtrusively next to Sargent Shriver, but the image that sticks with me is of the petite Shapp squeezed unwillingly between ex-basketball star Udall and the lanky McCarthy. There is no parity in men’s rooms either.
What’s the big deal about meeting famous people in toilets?

Jon Fox, a one-term Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, was delighted to discover that his House office had once been occupied by Congressman Richard M. Nixon. Fox routinely escorted his visitors to the bathroom so they could share an historic commode with a disgraced former president.

I had a similar experience at the original Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. had offices. During a World Council of Churches meeting in the church dining hall, I excused myself to use the bathroom. And as I stared into the scratched and stained urinal, a shiver came over me. Is this, I asked myself, the urinal – he – used? 
There’s no real secret to the feelings that come over us when we engage in a universal and necessary act with rich or prominently powerful people. In this over-mediated age where film and video and blue tooth elevate the merely famous to demigods, it’s reassuring to be reminded that it’s merely an illusion. All human beings are created in the image of God, but God did not create all of us as stars. On a high-res flat screen TV, your governor or president is elevated far above you. But standing next to the dude at a urinal, you remember that God made us all the same.
The late Bob Campbell, general secretary of American Baptist Churches in the seventies and eighties, used to tell a colorful bathroom story. I assume the story is apocryphal, but it makes the point.
According to Bob, several Orthodox clergy gathered in the Interchurch Center in New York for an ecumenical meeting. During a break all of the priests adjourned to the men’s room – including Iakovos, the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
“Your Eminence,” one of the young priests said, “How shall we conduct ourselves in such a place? Shall we line up according to ecclesial rank? Shall we address each other by our titles?”
Bob told the story dozens of times, and it may even have been true.
“Brothers, relax” Iakovos said. 
“In here we are all peers.”

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