Sunday, July 27, 2008

Inching to the Ladies' Room

Menstruation, childbirth, children leaving home, menopause – the links of shared experiences that bind the female sisterhood range from poignant and painful to peevish. While it may be the least significant, certainly the most common bond is the time spent waiting in line for the Ladies’ Room. As we stand shoulder-to-shoulder, inching forward at a snail-like pace, friendships are forged, life histories are shared.

The line to top them all was a rest-stop experience on the New Jersey Turnpike. The traffic was appalling and I was desperate, so my husband dropped me off when the service station ramp came into view so I could sprint across the median and lanes of crawling cars. Given the traffic, I should have known what I would find inside, a queue that stretched the length of the building. My automatic “Oh my God” was uttered by every woman that pushed through those doors, falsely believing she was within minutes of relief.

It fell to those opposite the doors to assure panicked newcomers, “Don’t worry, the line moves quickly.”

It was an inspiration to watch new entrants. Upon first seeing the line, their faces would fall. But they’d shake it off, straighten their shoulders, breathe deeply, then hike stoically to the far, oh so far, end of the room.

I found out that Giants’ Stadium had just disgorged a mass of spectators. In addition, many women were returning from Washington where they had participated in a “Million Moms March” to protest the Iraq War. I was filled with admiration for the valiant protesters standing before and behind me with jaws and cheeks clenched, their discomfort masked by pleasant expressions as they made their way toward the beckoning sign - "WOMEN."

When I reached the position opposite the main entrance, I assumed the mantle of comfort from my sisters before me. “Don’t worry, the line moves quickly,” I said with an encouraging smile to those gasping in dismay as they breached the sliding doors.

I chatted with a young woman from Maine who had been “holding” for over an hour. Men have no idea of the courage displayed on a regular basis by women in excruciating pain waiting in the lines that they so blithely sail past as they dart in and out of those line-less Men’s Room doors.

Why is there such a disparity in lines? Does it really take so much longer after that initial unzip to pull down pants, hike up skirts and sit, or perch precariously on toes to avoid seat contact? Even factoring in the placement of two sets of tissue squares on each side of the seat, maybe replacing one as it slides into the bowl, even then, why is it that lines are de rigueur for women while men don’t know the meaning of “wait”?

At times, Kegel maneuvers prove unequal to the urge and action must be taken. I have been party to one of those rare rebellions when, with arched eyebrows and a giggly show of boldness, we ladies stormed the Men’s Room. Leaving a lone guard, a platoon of would-be tinklers thrust aside the door to that bastion of urinals and mis-shots and got the job done. I don’t know why we don’t do that more often. I suppose girls are raised to be patient. Perhaps fortitude nurtured through a lifetime of waiting for the bathroom is one of the reasons women endure.

Because they can so easily whip it out and go anywhere, men have no understanding of the discomfort of holding. There are too many smug boyfriends and husbands who boast that it is their policy “not to stop” on long drives. “Once we’re on the road, we are going.” Humph. A friend of mine once showed a macho idiot a thing or two as he purposely wiggled the steering wheel to jostle the car upon learning of her need for a restroom. “I’m telling you, I’ll go in the car if you don’t stop!” She cried.

He had his fair warning. I hope the urine stained his BMW’s leather seats.

It is relief divine to approach the inner sanctum after a long wait. The mix of camaraderie and competition among the final three poised on the threshold, those urging their bodies to hang on but a moment more because the end is literally in sight, is fascinating. Six pairs of eyes fixed on locked doors, the gracious smiles of the newly emptied patrons as they head to the washstands, the grateful looks and quick-step stride of the soon-to-go.

Even then, there are challenges to be met. Entering the stall, body tense and ready, there is the dilemma of pocketbook placement. The hook on the back of the door is generally missing. Have too many people forgotten their bags? Does the management feels this teaches responsibility? Too, the extraction of toilet tissue is not always easy. Those oversized plastic canisters house three rolls – two in reserve. If the tissue strip has been torn short, it requires worming a hand up inside the contraption in order to isolate and grasp the end of a sheet – all while balanced on tiptoes and grappling with a purse.
The ecstasy of long-awaited release is accompanied by insight gained into neighboring squatters – choice of shoe tells a lot about a person. There are spiky heels, flipflops, a bandaged toe, painted nails (That looks like my favorite, Cherry Crush!), or a pair of little feet sharing the stall with Mommy – a tiny voice reporting exactly what is produced.

For me, the washing and drying of hands is made cringe-worthy by faucets and dryers that turn on automatically and stay on, often far longer than necessary, wasting precious water and electricity. They have obviously been calibrated according to some standard of hygiene that I flagrantly neglect. At times, the opposite situation exists, where the flow is an insignificant spritz that allows a mere moistening before shutting off. It takes two or three tries to assess the timing and limber up the reflexes to catch the paltry spray. And then the finale. Much as I worry about wasting electricity, those blow dryers are deliciously warm on a chilly winter day.

The exit from the ladies' room demands a certain diplomacy. Those departing, after all, are cleansed, empty and relaxed while others remain in clench-mode. Some adopt a demure smile with eyes slightly averted upon leaving. Others strut out with a manner just shy of cocky. It is, however, in the very nature of women to nurture. Most exit with a straightforward gaze and a comforting smile that conveys, “Don’t worry, the line moves quickly.”

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