Bathroom Talk — Liz Rose Shulman 

In his last year of treating patients, my father, a 78-year-old pediatric infectious disease doctor, found a toilet in the hospital that no one else seemed to know about. It was spacious, quiet, and clean, unlike the one closer to his office that was cramped and overused. He talked about it a lot before he retired.

The toilet my father found was close enough to his office to be a quiet respite in a busy day, but far enough that he had to plan ahead. It couldn’t be a spontaneous trip. Exiting his office on the seventh floor, he walked down a long hallway, got on the elevator, went up to the fifteenth floor, down another hallway, crossed a pedestrian bridge that led him into a newer wing of the hospital, and walked down a long corridor.

Like seasoned travelers who protect their most cherished locales from the hordes of tourists, I won’t reveal which bathroom I prefer to use.

He’s certainly not the first on a quest for a good toilet. I’ve had conversations with colleagues—I teach English in a large public high school—about where the best bathrooms are, but I don’t share. Like seasoned travelers who protect their most cherished locales from the hordes of tourists, I won’t reveal which bathroom I prefer to use. But some do.

In season two of Seinfeld, George and Jerry discuss where the best public toilets are in Manhattan (54th and 6th, 65th and 10th). In season five, George argues that the doors in the stalls at Yankee Stadium should be extended to the floor for more comfort and privacy. Since COVID, some public bathrooms have had a comeback with smart technology: digital signage indicating open and cleaned stalls signaled with red and green lights, touch-free dispensing, audio greetings, music, and new HVAC systems.

It wasn’t too much to ask for a good toilet when working fourteen hours a day outside the home, and besides, the prerequisite for a perfect public bathroom include just a few basic things: good quality toilet paper and paper towels, a fresh scent, a spotless toilet with a strong flush, kitchen-like countertops, and a stall where your knees never touch the door in front of you. It’s quiet, wide, with low and soft lighting that makes you look better than you normally do, like a skinny mirror in a dressing room. A perfect bathroom is clean enough that it prevents you from imagining the hordes of people who have come before you, or the experiences of the inner stomach that have taken place there. In fact, the perfect bathroom makes you forget its sole purpose—it’s an aesthetic contradiction.

Is there nothing to be said for the bare-boned, no-frills utilitarian shared public bathrooms, the kinds in baseball stadiums and airports? Or are we done with these shared spaces and prefer to spend such private moments alone, giving up any potential for unplanned connections with others? My husband once ran into Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire in a bathroom at Northeastern University. Washing his hands, Freire asked him how to get to the Sociology Department. After helping him, my husband, a star-struck doctoral student, told Freire awkwardly how much he loved his work.

It was funny when my father told me about his secret toilet because it wasn’t the only time we’ve bonded over colon-related matters. When my brother and I were kids, he’d tell us strange tales at dinner, usually while eating spaghetti, of patients who had passed large worms. He asked us about our own colons, too. When I lived in Jerusalem as a graduate student in the 1990s, he grilled me about the regularity of my bathroom habits when we talked on the phone every few weeks.

Six public phones were mounted on the stone walls in the bomb shelter below the graduate dorm where I lived. I stood at the payphone with one arm on my waist in a 20-something posture of bravado, answering awkwardly when my dad asked if I’d had any stomach upset, what I was eating, if I was drinking enough water. I was diligent in my response, though I feigned a teenage annoyance as my voice echoed in the underground room. Looking back now, I understand that asking questions about my gut was his way of making sure I was OK—adapting to studying in a foreign country in my early 20s, mastering another language, living on my own with no family. The pragmatic check-in, I realize now, was code for a deeper emotional concern.

Though it makes sense that an infectious disease doctor would enjoy talking about gastrointestinal issues more than the average person, it surprised me, at age 23, when my father’s love of medicine fused with his passion for Chicago Bulls basketball in the strangest of ways. Around the same time Jordan retired, my father had discovered a new strain of Salmonella in a patient. Since many Salmonella strains begin with the letter m, my dad, who was given the honor of naming the new strain, decided to call it mjordan. It made the news, arriving on the desk of Bob Geeene, former Chicago Tribune journalist, who wrote about it in one of his columns.

Naming the strain after Jordan was the highest tribute he could give to him, my father told Greene, insisting in jest that it was appropriate to honor “the greatest basketball player in history” with “an organism that causes diarrhea, severe headaches, and abdominal pain.” My father offered to show Greene pictures of the new strain. Greene promptly said, “No thanks.” My dad had hoped that honoring Jordan might help create an opportunity for them to meet in person, but it never happened.

Besides, that was all a long time ago, when my dad was younger than I am now, when he was trying to impress one of the world’s most famous basketball stars in the midst of his own career. Last year, at age 78, he was forced to retire because COVID-19 restrictions prevented him from treating patients—an irony that a leader in the infectious disease field couldn’t see patients because of a pandemic caused by an infectious disease.

A man of practical efficiency, he still talks about the toilet he found at the hospital with pride, and now, with a bit of nostalgia—a top accomplishment up there with naming a new strain of Salmonella after his favorite basketball player. He could bypass two of the hallways and get to the toilet even quicker, he told me—just before asking me if my stomach was OK—by thinking ahead and entering the other wing of the hospital from the street before heading up to his office. “But that kind of preparation takes a lot of work,” he said. “It was just a really nice bathroom before you get to the cafeteria.”

Liz Rose Shulman’s writing has appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Los Angeles Review, Mondoweiss, Punctuate: A Nonfiction Magazine, The Smart Set, and Tablet Magazine, among others. She teaches English at Evanston Township High School and in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. She lives in Chicago.