As we enter into the home stretch of summer time, I think now is as good a time as any to tell you some tales from one of the stranger summers of my adult life.
The summer of 2005 was a weird one. I’d graduated from Drexel with my Masters, but was still working in the restaurant business, which had left me feeling some kind of way about myself. And I was STILL nursing a broken heart from a break up that had taken place in January, a fact that also had me feeling some kind of way about myself. There were a lot of tears that summer, many of them while I was out in public, walking to and from work. Luckily, I’ve always had a predilection for giant, Jackie O-style sunglasses so no one was the wiser (to this day, my sister will make reference to my “crying glasses”).
Making ends meet in downtown Philadelphia working as a hostess was (and I’m sure still is) nearly impossible, so I would routinely work 10-12 days in a row before having a day off. My record was working 22 hour shift without a day off, which is just stupid. In retrospect, it was probably for the best that I had minimal time off because just about every time I had a day off, something weird and/or unpleasant would take place. Like the incident in the Liberty Place restroom.
Now, for those of you who don’t live in Philadelphia and aren’t in the know, Liberty Place is an urban shopping mall of sorts. It’s two levels, with about 50 stores and restaurants as well as your typical mall food court on the second level. That is where you will find the restroom. Like many a mall restroom, it’s located down a long, isolated hallway that is out of view from the food court where no one can hear you scream. And also like the typical mall restroom, it was a completely disgusting place to be. The kind of place that had me with my hands up the in air the whole time, like a doctor going into surgery, careful not to touch anything for fear of contamination.
It was my day off, and I had a hundred errands to run, so I was bopping all over downtown, drinking my body weight in iced coffee all the livelong day. So, unfortunately, it came to a point where it just couldn’t be avoided; I had to use a public restroom, and Liberty Place was right there. I knew from prior experience how gross that bathroom was, but it was an emergency.
I just needed to get in, pee, and get out. One hundred eighty seconds, tops. One would think. Silly, foolish girl…
I was in the stall, giving my quads a run for their money as I hovered over a most likely diseased toilet seat when I heard a woman’s voice loudly say, “Oh no! OH MY GOD, that’s disgusting. OH NO!” And naturally, I silently agreed with her sentiment. But she just kept saying it, almost to the point that a bolder version of myself would have finally yelled from my stall, “Yeah, Lady. We get it. It’s gross.”
I finished my business and, like a monkey, used my feet to both flush the toilet and open the door. As I was coming out of my stall, I hear the same voice call out, “Hello? HELLO?” I looked both ways, as if to cross the street, and saw that all of the other stall doors were partly ajar. Where the hell was that voice coming from? Shrugging it off, I continued to walk out when I heard the voice again, “Hey, hey, hello? Can somebody help me?” The voice was definitely coming from the handicap stall at the very end of the row, but the door was partially open, so I was thoroughly confused as to what was going on. But being the nice person (read: sucker) that I am, I didn’t want to ignore someone who was asking for help so I cracked the door open a little farther and peeked my head in.
Don’t ask me what I thought I was going to encounter. We were in a bathroom, after all. I guess maybe I had hopes it was a little old lady, fully dressed, who had fallen and couldn’t get up.
Not. Even. Close.
The first thing I saw was a wheelchair, just inside the stall door. The second thing I saw was a heavy-set, middle-aged woman on the toilet, pants around her ankles. I was taking it all in in slow motion and was mentally computing it all in even slower motion.
She was wiping her legs with toilet paper and said, “Ugh, I made a mess. Can you get me some paper towels?” As she finished the word “mess,” my eyes shifted down to her legs as she was wiping them. She had made a mess, alright. I stood there for a moment, like a baby deer in oncoming traffic, staring at her until a voice in my head told me to do or say SOMETHING.
“Uh, OK,” was all I could manage as I turned toe and walked down the row of stalls to the bank of sinks. It was there that I was met with the stare of another woman who had just finished washing her hands but figured she’d stick around to see what was happening. I just stared at her for a moment, gave her something of an awkward, panicky shoulder shrug and grabbed more paper towels than anyone should ever, ever need and then headed back to the situation at hand.
I pushed the door open and quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be able to just hand her the paper towels. The stall was too big, and the toilet was too far away. I had to actually to full-on join her in the stall to provide her with the paper towels she’d requested. “Oh, thank you. Can you help me clean this up?” she asked as she gestured towards her wheelchair that was still parked haphazardly right inside the stall door. It was at this point that two things happened:
Thing 1. I realized that this woman was not of sound mind. It’s not my place, nor my business to speculate as to whether she was mentally ill or perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum, but it became clear to me that this wasn’t an adult who was functioning at full mental capacity.
Thing 2. I, for the first time, gave the wheelchair a good, hard look. It was covered in shit. Actual human shit. And so, so much of it.
I have to commend myself that through this whole ordeal, I did my level best to give this woman some sense of dignity, to not embarrass her with a reaction of complete disgust. But at the same time, no. Just, no.
Again, I muttered, “Uh, ok. I’ll be right back,” and hot stepped it back to the sinks where the hand washing lady was still standing, apparently still watching this all unfold. I stared at her for a moment, and she stared right back at me. Complete silence. Finally, the words came tumbling out of my mouth. “I can’t. I can’t do this. I can’t. I’m sorry, but I can’t do this.” And I ran out of the bathroom.
Naturally, because it was the Summer of Tears, I started well up out in the narrow, empty hallway. I felt like a dick for not helping her but at the same time, I didn’t think I was being completely unreasonable not wanting to clean up a stranger’s excrement. I stood there for a solid two minutes (which is a long time, try it sometime) trying to decide what exactly my responsibility was in this kind of situation. Finally, I decided that delegating was my only option. I found a woman sweeping up in the food court and let her know that there was a situation in the ladies room that required IMMEDIATE attention. And as I was hauling ass out of the mall, I made sure I told a security guard as well, just for good measure.
I will be honest with you; as much as I know I was completely reasonable in my actions and reactions, I do still feel a mild pang of guilt for not doing more to help her. But that’s the life of a Catholic, I suppose.
And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, was my karma for hogging the handicap stall at the Ground Round.