If you really want to break the ice at a party, I would
suggest asking the simple question, “Where’s the worst place you ever took a
shit?”. While this is a seemingly
distasteful question, this is a universal experience that is burned into each
one of our collective memories.
The answer will tell you much about the person. In my experience, the more interesting
the answer, the more interesting is the person. A plain answer, without nuance, will generally reveal a
plain person, also without nuance.
Is this a perfect question in every social scenario? Well, probably not, but you will learn
more about the person than if you asked where they had gone to high school.
I have a few candidates for my answer. There was an ugly incident in Selestat, France. A train station in Monte
Russo, Italy comes to mind. There
are several rock clubs on the East Coast.
However, allow me to take you to the summer of 1989. It was a hot summer. It was the hottest on record up to that
time. I was living in a bleak
rental house without air conditioning.
My window, which never produced a breeze, looked out on a patchwork of
utility lines and shabby backyards.
The house was really a wonder of construction. Somehow, no matter which room you were in that house, there
was never a breeze. A shower would
be followed by immediate perspiration.
The thick stale air always hung like a moist blanket. The key to living there was to limit
movement, as if a lizard on a rock. That summer was absolutely brutal.
The decision was made to go see the Grateful Dead with the
Violent Femmes opening up at Buckeye Lake outside Columbus. An extremely unusual bill, it was right
in our wheelhouse. I was, and am
still, an unapologetic fan of the Grateful Dead. Without “American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead”, the idea
of “Americana music” would be far fetched. The problem with the Dead for many people is the wrapping
paper. Look, I get the fact that
hippies are really frustrating.
Yes, the Dead seem to almost always be out of tune. I know, they sure do noodle around a
lot on those 90 minute second sets.
However, Jerry Garcia’s inventive playing and enthusiastic interpretation
of American roots music was my gateway into a treasure trove of music styles
like bluegrass, jazz, and Appalachian standards. After I went to a couple shows and saw how much fun could be
had, I was all in. Hey man, maybe
they’ll play “New Speedway Boogie” tonight…
I got into the Grateful Dead a few years before that “Touch
of Grey” video on MTV blew the lid off the scene. After years of toil, the Dead were suddenly a cool thing for The Public to check out. Let’s pretend it’s 1967
and get fucked up at the big arena! The circus is in town! Shows went from 12,000 to 60,000 overnight. While the size of the crowds were overwhelming, add into the
mix that about 15,000 of the 60,000 people at the show thought it would be a
great idea to try LSD for the first time.
Thus things like “parking the car” and “entering the facility” became
almost impossible. Traffic would
be backed up two miles because some guy had set up a teepee on I-79 and was
seeing visions. “Hey man… How can
I go to the show when my eyes fell out a hundred centuries ago?” Um, I’m not sure, but can you get your
dog out of my seat?
The show at Buckeye was at the peak of this insanity. Buckeye is a “facility” in much the
same way “Montana” is a facility.
Buckeye was an enormous group of rolling fields with a stage plopped
down in the middle of it. Snow
fences circled an area the size of Harrisburg to keep the ticketless out. Cars were herded in via one two-lane
road in a traffic nightmare from The End of Days. We finally parked the car in a vast field with 31,000 other
cars. There was a small
outcropping of woods on the left.
Rumor had it that the concert was roughly a mile east. It was then I noticed that in the woods
a small group of guys that all looked like Charlie Manson were freaking out on
some drug or combination of drugs, eyes peering out between the leaves like
rabid raccoons. They were gone. Forget about them. They were going on a trip that was
going to be a rocky ordeal. It
would be a Lord of the Flies thing by nightfall.
We had a few hours to kill, and started in on our tailgate
supplies. The hippie community was
the first group I saw that truly embraced craft beer. In 1989, it seemed like everyone was drinking Samuel Smith,
Saranac, or Sierra Nevada. I think
we had Saranac Pale. We should have gone with water. It was 102
degrees. There was no breeze. Not a cloud in the sky. People sat Indian style in any shade
available. We drank and laughed it
up, the sun roasting our skin. I
felt great, in that way you only can when you are 21 without a responsibility
or care in the world.
The first gurgle in my intestine was a warning shot across
the bow. I was concerned, but
hoped this was something along the lines of “at some point you will have to deal
with this, but not yet…”. The
level of gastrointestinal discomfort rose. I had notched up to DefCon3. I would need someplace to go to confront this
situation. Someplace soon. Very soon.
It will be hard to convey upon you the hopelessness of my situation. From my immediate vantage point, I had
two options. I could go into the
woods and shit amongst the freaked out Allman Brother looking guys, which
seemed like a horrible idea based on the noises coming from those woods. Option #2 was even worse, squatting
between cars like a dog in plain view of 15-20 people depending on what angle I
could work out. This I decided
would irrevocably erase the line in me between “man” and “beast”. I would no longer be human, but some
sort of biped animal to be mocked and feared.
I set out on a mission, a quest really, to seek out any
change in circumstance that would approach anything close to an “acceptable” bathroom option. Over hill and dale this intrepid
adventurer traveled. I walked past row after row
of cars as the merciless sun beat down. Sweat poured down my back. The grass almost crackled it was so dry. These were hard times. Rock hard times. Then, in the distance, I saw a lonely
line of three portajohns. I was
like a man that had wandered the desert and spotted an oasis. I walked unevenly in that direction
through hacky sacks, nitrous tanks, and dead eyed girls in peasant dresses with
cardboard signs offering palm readings.
By the time I reached the toilets, my gastrointestinal
status had reached DefCon4. This
was happening. This was happening
soon. There was a surprisingly
small line of people waiting, as these three toilets appeared to be servicing
17,434 people. As I waited in
line, we all made nervous small talk and told jokes about how badly we all had
to go, a brotherhood of the toilet.
I can still remember the stench coming from the toilets being
overwhelming. At this point, that
did not matter. Nothing did. It was “go time”.
At last it was my turn. I don’t know what the conditions of the other two portajohns
were at that time. Mine could best
be described as “horrifying”. I have seen some horrible bathrooms in my time. Bernie's in Columbus. CBGBs. JBs Down in Kent. Assorted gas stations across the USA. This was unique. It was almost beyond belief. Part
of the toilet seat and most of the backsplash had been sprayed like a hose
filled with pudding had been fired into the doorway. A brackish brown liquid sloshed around my feet. The temperature was unbearable outside,
but inside it was hot enough to braise short ribs. However, instead of ribs braising was an unfathomable
jambalaya of human excrement, perched just inches from the filthy seat. I would have gagged, but didn't want to open my mouth.
Sweat poured from my brow. I squatted above the general area, my shorts being held
above the filth on the floor by my positioning my trembling legs like I was
skiing snowplow. I released. Despite the monumentally terrible
conditions, it was a moment of relief.
I rode the wave. Imagine a
can of Dinty Moore beef stew being shot out of a shaken Coke can landing on a
heap of spaghetti sauce. It was
soft hitting soft. I wanted more
than anything to get out of that tiny filthy space, but I was held captive
until my colon spasms ceased. It
seemed like I was there an hour, my shirt now soaked through. Voices yelled from the outside. “C’mon man! What are you doing in there?” Pressure.
Tension. It was awful. Then it was over. At last.
My relief turned to horror when I saw the roll of toilet
paper puffed out from contact with God-knows-what liquid. I reached carefully into my pocked and
found a used Kleenex and receipts to pad myself as clean as possible. It wasn’t, shall we say, ideal. I walked out of the portajohn, making
eye contact with no one and filled with shame. The next person in line, probably as urgently needing to
enter the facility as I had been moments earlier, wouldn’t have even noticed. Even if they did, their focus would have
completely shifted to taking stock of their new hellish reality that I would have been
I set back out with the sun in my face; unsure of where the
car was or which direction I had come.
It was, without question, the worst place I had ever and hopefully will ever shit.