With only ten minutes between classes, I’ve got to hurry across campus to get to the next one on time, but because I start each day with three big cups of coffee, I always have to stop off and go to the bathroom. This isn’t a take it or leave it sort of need to relieve myself; this is a borderline emergency, one that puts an extra giddy up into my step, an awkward movement my four year old calls “the pee pee dance.” The campus restrooms are busy between classes, and in the men’s restroom that I use there are three urinals. Between classes, the first and third are always occupied and long lines follow. For reasons I have yet to understand, the middle urinal always remains empty. One of the first weeks I taught in New York City, the circumstance gave me pause. Back in Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia–places I’ve lived prior to New York City–everybody I knew would have filled all three urinal positions. Of course social convention would dictate that the outside ones are filled first, sort of like you know to stand on each side of the elevator before it fills up or sit in the subway car leaving some room while there is still room to be left, but if it were up to me, I’d fill that third urinal when the other two are in use.
At first, I wondered if maybe the middle urinal was broken, maybe given to showering its user or flooding up over its levee walls each time it was flushed. I looked to the floor and there were no telltale signs of defect, no paper towels smashed in over the drain, or puddles welling up on the floor. As far as restrooms go, this one smelled okay. After a second or two of hesitation, I stepped into the gap between the two lines of young men, walked past five or so students who were in line, and strode up to the vacant middle urinal, where I relieved myself. With a touch of anxiousness for what might happen next, I tugged at the silver flush handle and suffered no consequences. There was nothing wrong with the urinal. It had simply been left open. Why?
Walking to my next class, I thought about the situation. (Who knew what some professors think about between classes?) I decided I had witnessed not an everyday occurrence but a circumstance created by one persnickety student. This student, I imagined, like the germ-fearing riders of the subway who cleanse everything they touch with those disinfectant wipes, had choose to get in line when the middle urinal was open. People tend to follow what’s already going on and so as the men came in on that day, they fell in line.
As it turned out, my hypothesis was wrong. Again and again, in the restrooms I frequent where three is the magic number, the middle spot is always left open. What was first a mystery is now a law I abide. I have given in. I no longer possesses whatever pizazz is required to be a line-cutter in the restroom. I now fall in line, doing some version of my own “pee pee dance,” while I wait and look longingly to the open urinal.