The Grand Urinal of the Elks (Richard Selzer)

In the beginning urination was an
outdoor event. Adam distended, unleafed his spigot and let splatter
wherever in the Garden he happened to be. No bush nor boulder
nor tree was essential as prop. Windblown, augmenting the rain or
reflecting the gold of the sun, urine was voided with the freedom
and openness of beasts. And with less purposiveness. Unlike the
loping wolf who hoards his water, doling it out here and there to
mark out his sphere of influence or to attract sexual partners, man
holds his piss in no such concern. He does not use it, but would rid
himself of the whole lot of it at a single standing, then get on with
the business of the day. No fellow human reads his chances from
the ammoniacal fumes of a rival. McEnroe does not pause to sniff
what Borg or Connors has deposited on the other side of the net. It
is in the nature of man to spend his urine with the generosity of the
guileless. And indeed, urination is the most innocent of acts. Dangerous,
too. For, exposed, standing still and engaged in no other
preoccupation is he never so vulnerable from the rear. So stabbable, so
brainable, so garrotable.

Let me pause to make clear that upon the subject of female
urination I profess no expertise. My own first encounter with female
urination was an inadvertence which took place at the age of five,
when, having wandered from a family picnic, I caught sight of a girl
of my age, squatting over a bed of wild violets. This convinced me
that females did not urinate; they expressed little lavender bubbles.
A concept that I relinquished only years later when, perforce, the
evidence became incontrovertible.

Time was when urination was a wholly subjective process.
One considered not at all where one did it or who might be looking
on. It was only much later that man gave up his yellow liberty and
consciously sought out specific objects upon or behind which to
void-a certain tree, a bush, a rock. Thereby going from “I peed”
to “I peed on a bush, rock, tree, etc.” The element of objectivity was
introduced. Was it an awareness that he needed some concealment,
some protection, that caused man to urinate behind something’?
Surely it was not out of a sense of modesty. Before long, what had
begun as a measure taken for safety became a way of life, part of
the mores of the tribe and incorporated into the heritage. The
proper place to urinate was passed on from one generation to the
next. “Piss here,” instructed father to son. “You must use the pissing
rock.” Rock training, if you will. Soon it became the wisdom of the
ages. One expressed contempt for an enemy by urinating on his
father’s grave or upon his doorposts. Physicians became piss
prophets, diagnosing disease by the inspection of urine.
Having a specific receptacle for his urinary stream gave man a
sense of coziness that urinating into the wind could not impart.
There was a man, and there was his target, only to catch sight of
which was to arouse the desire to void, the object thereby exerting its
subtle influence upon the subject.

Forty years ago, as a newspaperboy in Troy, New York, I had
occasion each day to visit the local Elks Club. Just off the lobby
was a slatted swinging door which concealed the torso only of the
passers-through. On the wall above this door a board had been
nailed bearing the ancient Latin misnomer lavatory. Although the
term is not gender-specific, it was understood by one and all that this
was the place where men went. One simply knew. It was part of
being an Elk The Ladies’ was secluded at the end of a hallway
where the sounds of feminine physiology would be safe from the
ears of the village urolagniac.

Just to pass through this swinging door was to enter a different
world. It was the Baths of Caracalla all over again, but now with a
medieval baptistry thrown in. Here all was cold marble. There was
the ceaseless trickle of water over stone. One’s voice grew resonant.
Facing the entrance was a vast urinal into which a boy of nine
could have stepped and been accommodated. Once I did just that.
The thing was five and one half feet tall, two and one half feet
wide and partially recessed into the wall. A marble plinth extended
in front of the urinal upon which one stepped to void. This gave a
certain elevation to the proceedings. One rose to the occasion. Positioned
for duty, one was concealed from one’s neighbors by projecting
lateral aprons of stone which met above in a kind of oval nave.
In such a grotto a saint might have stood to receive veneration. The
marble itself was etched with a plexus of interlacing lines and
cracks such as is seen in old oil paintings. It was as though something
lay just beneath the stone surface which, after a long unblinking
stare, might emerge. A scene, perhaps, of the Battle of the
Monitor and the Merrimac, or The Rape of Lucrece. At the bottom
of the niche was a wire screen upon which had been placed a votive
offering of raspberry-scented soap, always in varying degrees of
erosion as the God of this place absorbed his due.

Into such a receptacle, urination was performed importantly; it
was grandly addressed. One felt larger. One had significance. Class
distinctions were abolished. In this place, chairman and clerk, paper
boy and publisher, all occupied the same station in life. Before the
Grand Urinal of the Elks, all men were brothers. Nor have I met
with so democratic a plumbery in forty years of urinary experience.

The sacristan of the shrine was an elderly man who, wearing a
fitted waiter’s vest, performed his tasks with the kind of serenity
that comes over those who tend altars. He had a scrubbed, lumi-
nous face which had taken on the color and glow of the marble
amid which he dwelt; I should not have been surprised had it the
same cool, smooth texture. It was Ferdinand who extracted with
tongs the cigarette butts trapped in the strainer, replenished the
raspberry soap-cake and sifted the sand in the urn for wads of
chewing gum and other rejectimenta. I see him now, a freshly
laundered towel over one arm, polishing the brass of the faucets,
wiping and rewiping the gilt-edged mirror over the sink, and all in
absolute silence, as though the god Harpocrates, with finger at lips,
had shushed him. It was Ferdy’s particular genius to see everything,
but never seem to. In Ferdy, men’s room attendancy was exalted
to a high art.

What a far cry, all that, from the modern toilet wherein a man,
in haste, as though furtively, and certainly joylessly, does what is to
be done and no more, sending his liquefactions swirling down a
bowl sent vortical by the depression of a handle. How puny by
comparison is the dwarfed and distant urinal of the present day,
which delights not the senses nor spurs the imagination, and where
one is expected to aim to Muzak. Even the substitution of a picture
of a top-hatted man in profile for the word lavatory is symptomatic.
Urination has become cute. And if that can happen, can the fall of
civilization be far behind?

Recently I returned to Troy and to that Elks Club which I had
not entered for four decades. There, under the influence of certain
celebratory liquids, I heard, at first faintly, then with more and
more urgency, the half-remembered call of the Lavatory. It was
right where I had left it, just off the lobby. There was the same
ancient sign above the midriff swinging door. I pushed through and
found myself standing where I had stood so long ago, listening to
the sympathetic trickle of water over stone. I looked about for
Ferdy. But he was not there, of course, having long since been
assumed to glory. In a magical daze, I mounted the single step
before the great urinal. I arranged myself for voiding, relishing all
the while the sweet sense of enclosure, the intoxication of grandeur.
There I waited for the kind of surcease I had not known in forty
years and for which I ached with all my heart. But it was not to be.
I should have known better. One cannot recapture the storied past.
Walt as I might,. try as I might, cajole, reason, curse, as I might, I
could not. Nothing. Only a few pathetic drops. All at once the
?rand Urinal of the Elks took on the shape of a man-sized coffin,
Its marble maw open and mocking. For one menacing moment, I
feared that the thing would clamp down upon me with a crash of
Colliding crockery. I would be cut off, chewed, mangled!

With bladder bursting, I turned and fled, scarcely attending to
zipper and button. Through the swinging door, across the lobby and
out. to the street. Then around to the back of the Elks Club, where
against the bark of a kindly maple tree, I let go a thick twine that
would have been the envy of Hector, Priam, Paris or any of the old
gang of Trojans of days gone by.

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