I called it my porta-potty. That rectangular prism next to my mailbox. The contractor left it one day, wrapped in the excuse that every building under construction in the state of California must support a portable toilet if the project lasts longer than three days. A quick online cross-reference revealed there is no porta-potty-law; it’s just a practice in decency, courtesy, and efficiency to leave a monolith out there as a temporary outhouse.
The workers used it, I guess. I never saw them use it, but they probably did.
I only saw one man open the door, let it swing shut behind him, and then open it again from the inside. His name is Man-with-red-Toyota-Tundra-who-noticed-the-incriminating-hole-in-my-cowboy-pajamas-and-waved-at-me-before-he-entered-the-space. He didn’t ask permission to use it, and I didn’t stop him.
After a porta-potty is used, there is no sound of completion, that clear end marked by a flush. There’s just silence, until the door opens and the slam comes. Quiet returns, and the man walks away, back into the seat of his truck, and you have to watch him drive off, around the curve of your cul-de-sac, as the breeze blows through that hole again and reminds you some man just used your porta-potty.
The exact name of these boxes is unknown. Even the voice behind 1-800-TOILETS, a service with an “unmatched selection from basic Porta Potty Rentals to best-in-class portable toilet rentals,” will admit they have no set title. Some people at the company call them portable restrooms, others will just talk about them as lifeless “product.” She’ll tell you this after you tell her you’re writing an essay about them, and remind her three times it’s not a humor piece, but a serious exploration of porta-potties.
That’s probably the easiest thing to call them, two conjoined words infantilized by cutesy endings, tied together by alliteration and the power of the p-words that happen within.
Although, once you say the word, the object builds itself in your mind. Walls of plastic connected by a few rivets, under a white roof that contains what is within and keeps away the without. There’s a logo on the front door, and on the sides, and on the back, to advertise the brand to those who pause and notice. The lock abides by the green-go, red- stop convention and will change with a click from empty to occupied.
I brought the story of the porta-potty back to school with me, sharing those two minutes as a response to “how was your summer?” It all stretched out into around a three minute anecdote, beginning with the sun caressing the lids of my eyes, preparing me for a bright day, a happy few hours spent sipping coffee and flipping through the Times, when suddenly a slick man rips up my street, slams on the breaks, penetrates my porta-potty, and leaves it violated.
That’s the word I said. Violated. It seemed to match the listener’s response to the story.
The story of the summer didn’t stop when the heat chilled. It was to continue into the semester, when I said I wanted to write an essay on violation in relation to porta-potties: on these layers of plastic as false constructs of safety from the outside world, when anyone from anywhere can come, apply pressure from one side, and watch them fall to the ground.
CHRIS1 So, are you a government concentrator?
CHRIS Maybe political aspirations in his future, eh Nori?
NORI2 Oh, yeah, yeah.
CHRIS Why did you shake my hand?
SAM I learned it was the polite thing to do.
CHRIS If not politics, a future in what then? Consulting? Go on, take a seat, don’t just stand there.
Sam wants to say “writing short stories.” He wants to reveal himself. He wants to accept his wants and place them on the white table. But he says something else, not something that exists inside him, but a title that will look good placed against the small, white magnets across the wall.
CHRIS Screenwriting? Interesting.
I wanted that word to stick to the white walls. In that half moment the interviewer gives an interviewee to formulate an answer, I saw that empty space surrounding us and threw myself against the wall, once. That version of me slipped down, slowly returning to the pool of bcc’d applicants. So I made something up, rather than reveal anything about myself.
I was put on the course’s waitlist. End Scene.
A difficult part of the porta-potty journey has been keeping life clean of the puns that stink up every day.
Each listener who hears the story for the first time grins and tells me how shitty it is.
What a load of crap I’m full of.
Why I can’t smell the roses.
I feel shitty.
How can I just dump this on them like that.
All their comments are worthless piles of crap.
But at least they’re talking about it.
I told Chris the story during one of our introductory classes together3, with ten other potential laughs listening.
Down the hall, there’s a restroom. It has three stalls, one of which is handicapped. The entire space contains the distinct smell of a bathroom. You know that smell. It’s strong, inside the pockets of your nose as soon as the door opens; it embraces your body, attaching itself to the holes in your skin. You worry it’ll follow you out of the restroom, back to class where everyone watches the slides move across the screen:
A black mastiff, caught running through the snow on a country estate at night.
A pregnant addict using her blue arms to pump heroin into the man who will become her husband and is the father of her unborn daughter.
A bus, with a sliding scale of white to black as the windows move from front to back.
The last slide is blank, an absence of an image that leaves a square of light on the projector screen. In the restroom, when there’s another person, there’s silence. There’s often a wall between you, one that ends at your chest or the top of your head, depends if you’re seated or standing. The space is stocked with amenities, and the entirety of the visit can pass without conversation, one of the few spaces where small talk is not forced into the air, but instead overpowered by the precise frequency of the Dyson Hand Blade.
But I’m still next to that guy with his South Park Christmas underwear bunched in the seam of his jeggings, and two feet from my right ear there’s a man who I can’t even see peeing on the image of a bee. Underneath my butt is the warmth left by someone else. On a bad day I can smell him, and on the worst days you can see him etched into the bottom of the bowl. The walls leave spaces at their seams for any eye to scoot into and see your legs spread. Listen to the sounds around you, everyone engaging in a personal, private movement. It’s a communal act now, a violent shift into society that mom never mentioned in potty training.
And to get to that point, where you can exit a swinging door in the process of zipping up, you must wait in a line, behind the backs of their heads, all facing the same throne, for their own ends.
Coprophilia is the derivation of sexual pleasure from feces. Somewhere in the world, at some time, that interest became a reality, a moment of visual, visceral, olfactory intensity.
I don’t have any photographs of that, but I do have five hundred of porta-potties:
Along the River during the Head of the Charles, lines of the same shade offering a uniform experi- ence in any slot.
Touching the side of church undergoing renovations.
On the corner of an intersection.
By the Northeastern boathouse.
At the top of the hill behind the baseball field.
Under the arches of the football stadium.
Inside construction sites.
And in many front yards, unique, solitary objects, standing guard over houses, the only figure in a scene under construction.
I found them wandering the streets of Cambridge. That sentence has a confusing subject-object-verb arrangement, so let me clarify: I was the wanderer; they were stationary, each planted on the ground for a low fee of $110.00/billing cycle.
Before I photographed portable toilets, there were two motifs in my work: scraps of food and the backs of others’ heads. They were linked by two trends, one being they both did not happen in the restroom, and two being they avoided the completed subject, showing a piece to finish the original object. Placing a whole orange in front of camera overwhelmed me: That was a complete sphere, something whole and orange, and I was just me, taking a picture of one half of its surface content; why would anyone look at my picture if they could just pick up an orange?
I understand the ridiculous nature of that metaphor. And I like hiding in metaphors. But that sentence, with its colons and commas and questions, is not a figure of thought, but an actual thought I had.
SAM Hi, Ron. I’m a student at Harvard researching a paper on porta-potties, and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?
RON Okay, yes, we’ll do that. I’m busy this week, let’s talk next. What’s your first name?
RON Last name?
RON Town of birth?
RON What you studying?
RON Okay, goodbye, call back next week.
Five minute pause.
The cellphone buzzes; it’s Ron.
RON Hello, what’s your name townof birth and major?
SAM This is Sam Reynolds, fromGlendale, the English guy.
RON Okay Sam, just checking in. I
know my buddies, and they like to fuck with me. I don’t want to be scammed. Call back nextweek and we’ll set up aninterview.
A voicemail doesn’t mean someone will call you back. And if one recording of your voice left somewhere in their files doesn’t do it, I’ve found two or three more approach a marginal effectiveness of zero.
The Throne Depot told me to “talk to your school, they’re the ones who will know.5”
The toilet psyche happens to be something peo- ple don’t want to talk about to another person, so they offload their information to a webpage, where a family-friendly sanitary slideshow advertises the three-word structure of trust, needs, and support, all concepts that will ensure a pleasant user experience:
A construction site with one blue porta-potty much larger than a swinging crane.
Lines of mobile restrooms with a man’s profile glancing at them.
Some people in groups.
It goes without saying the photographs are awful; the upload quality on most is so poor that even the company’s phone number is illegible. The only part that’s clear in every image, even when the sky lacks depth and the writing melts into an out-of-focus mass of pixels, is a monolithic toilet always present in the background.
When a face does make an appearance in the photograph, it’s tucked in the background, far away from anything remotely personal. Streaming through all these slide shows, it’s as if the companies don’t want to sully their porta-potties with any sort of humanity, even a smile6.
The average consumer might not notice the absence of smiles, but as someone whose most fre- quently visited websites all contain the word “toilet,” the lack of humanity is draining. It makes you wonder if they’re saving their smiles for when they’re inside, away from the watching cameras and noise of others, alone to look at the back of a door.
When I was small, my family shopped at Costco. Now we buy groceries and toiletries or electronics at separate stops, once a week. They ride on the back seat, a few paper bags transported on the cushions of my childhood car.
One time at Costco, I needed to poo. I told my dad this when the sliding doors let us into the store, before we reached the aisles but after choosing a cart. He told me to hold it.
This is the sort of story that’s inappropriate for a nine-year-old. Had I been seven, or younger, we could excuse this to preschool anxiety/a lapse in training/life before memory. And if I were a teen, or a tween, maybe I could call it rebellion, or add it to a bout of high school illness. Dipping into a younger age group would also have allowed my mommy to take me into the ladies restroom, avoiding the conflict entirely. Older me could have popped in by himself at any time. But I had to wait for dad.
This incident has no real excuse, except that it takes approximately two to three hours to navigate Costco, select the correct brand of wholesale pick- les, diverge for samples often, and reach the check- out. I kept saying, “Dad, I need to go poo.”
He told me to hold it.
In the checkout line, I watched each box fill with items, bread, peanut butter, rolls of toilet paper covered in that mocking Kirkland shoving double-quilted irony in my face. Check the bill to make sure it’s correct, and wait while dad swipes, then argues about a double charge, then swipes again.
When we finished there, he took me to the restroom.
In an empty one with two stalls, you always choose handicapped. The extra square footage adds to the illusion of privacy: more room to move, more power to pretend you’re not in a superstore that sells baby-grands and cabbage inches from each oth- er and that there’s not thousands of people eating while you’re trying to not eat.
I didn’t think about that then. All I could think about was that toilet bowl, right there, in front of me. All I had to do was turn around and sit.
Here’s where the memory becomes a story, so stop and skip to the final section, please.
I drop my pants, but before I can sit, I shit a pool up to my ankles. It covers the tops of my white socks and completely obscures whatever underwear I had been wearing. Have you ever seen a brown figure eight, a warm infinity loop wrapped around two small, pale legs?
SAM Come here.
Obviously the door’s locked so I shuffle over and
let him in, careful to hold everything within the confines of my shorts. It’s important that the bath- room remain clean, so no mark of my presence remains when this is done.
DAD Oh Sammy.
SAM I said I needed to poop.
DAD Uhh, I’ll be back.
I waddle back and finally take my seat. Everything slips off, and I form a pile with it in the cor- ner, where it sits against the wall as I wipe my legs and feet.
A line starts to form outside. Other people, on their normal day, wait in the silence of the restroom. No one speaks, but they can smell, and they know that I’m in the handicapped stall naked wearing my new gold wire glasses that I think look cool when I’m alone but dumb in public. And that’s a pile of shit in the corner.
Silence, suggested five minutes; maybe longer?
DAD Sam, open up.
Sam waddles/walks like a duck; up to dir. inter- pretation.
SAM These are your shorts
DAD I wasn’t going to buy you a new pair
I leave there with a 38-inch khaki waistband bunched in my right hand. The pile was still in the corner as I walked by the three balding men waiting for a stall.
At the car.
DAD Wait. Don’t sit.
Lays a towel.
DAD Okay, now sit.
They drive home. This is the same car they use today.
They like talking about shit. For years their conversations will blend bowel movements with “what’s for dinner?” and “did you see last night’s episode?” This story will never come up, except as “Costco,” one word to push Sam back into a nine-year-old moment of terror.
Often, sensational topics invade conversation as a stand-in for sincerity. When you’re comfortable in your space, with the people you’re with, you’ll say anything to watch it bounce off the walls because you know at any moment you can stick out your hand and grab it.
This story, however, happens on blank pages, to a reader I do not know, as I pull my nine-year-old self out of his room with his pants off.
It’s not the same as twenty-one-year-old me writing with shit between his legs, but it’s as close as I’ll get right now, closer than I’ve been before.
None of my images enter the porta-potty. The toilets stand in for the people, portraits themselves. It wouldn’t be right to open up their doors and expose them to the world. That would be exploitive of their interiority, right?
On my final day of shooting, I walked through the football stadium with a friend and came across a new crop of toilets in just the right overcast light. I needed to take this picture, to continue manufacturing my story, and to finish it with a few final shots.
But then there was that urge for something else. I opened the door, slid behind the metaphorical curtain, into my subject. And I peed, all without taking one breath, but still feeling the smell inside my nose, and bearing with the grimace that spread over my face before I could pump the hand sanitizer, slam the door, and leave.
We want the safety from being vulnerable transferred to whatever space we stand or sit in, a moving set of walls or stalls that follow my steps and protect me from that which lies out there. When something “violates” you, attacks your presence in that mo- ment, it defamiliarizes the most familiar places, the home, classroom, restroom, and leaves you exposed, even if your clothes are literally on.
Who would want to be conscious of this change? To look at others looking at them naked? I really don’t. But I will continue to do so because otherwise I’ll still be nine, somewhere in an aisle, needing to, but not having, pooped.
Once I let the door of the porta-potty shut behind me, this wasn’t just something happening to me. I was doing it; I was active, engaged, peeing! I don’t think I’ve ever written an exclamation point before. There’s been someone who wanted to exclaim this entire time hidden in my cuticles, and he’s glad he spoke up.
Writing violates your vulnerability. You’re not just leaving yourself exposed for someone else to stop and dissect; your goal should be to strip away every last piece of cloth and present yourself chipped away by words. It’s scary to tell a story about anything because it presumes what I’m telling is valuable and the listener will enjoy spending their time listening. Filling the minutes with myself increases the stakes, as I’m now the subject tangled with the tale. It’s not so strange that dinner parties fill themselves with stories of “my crazy uncle” and “my friend’s summer vow of silence” rather than stories of ourselves; it’s easier to hide behind others, or other things, than present who you actually are.
But power comes when you swing out the doors on your own restroom and poop with them wide open. We often read in the restroom; I recommend writing there sometimes, too. It shows, not just tells, the world you’re okay to exist without the walls of safety up at all times, that vulnerability is welcomed. Yes I am human, yes I poop, come shake my hand. There’s joy in self-consciousness, just letting it lie there, while you converse with the reader, showing them your stories and admitting, yes, those are my porta-potties.
1 “Chris Killip (born 11 July 1946) is a Manx photographer who has worked at Harvard University in Cam- bridge Massachusetts since 1991, where he is a professor of visual and environmental studies. Thank you Wikipedia for writing one sentence for me in this sea of hundreds of others; perhaps I should have read it myself before applying to his introductory photography class
2 Nori isn’t on Wikipedia, but he is a wonderful TF in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department, whom I would like to thank for his help and patience and presence in this piece
3 I got off the waitlist; turns out that does happen, sometimes.
4 Ron, the regional New England Manager of United Toilets, also known as 1-800-TOILETS. Can be reached direct: 508-245-4410
5 “Hello President Faust, I’m a junior at the college writing an essay on porta-potties. Is there someone in your office I could contact that could set up an interview/photo-shoot?”
6 Consumers tired of the impersonal webpage and interested in both good conversation and customer service should dial NSC Restrooms, who surpass their motto of “the difference is in the Toilets” and provide a standard of care unprecedented in my experience with the industry. Brenda, their general line responder, provided most of the stats on porta-potties: $110/toilet/billing cycling (28 days), with the guarantee of a weekly service of the restroom, which involves the company truck driving around Boston, sucking sludge from each toilet, and pumping a few gallons of clean water back, with a blue tablet added for color and cleanliness. When the chemicals stop functioning, the mixture turns green.