Herb Sonic, the pizza man, was a holy man I met years ago in Boulder, Colorado. His faith in uncertainty and the uncertainty of his faith captivated me, so I began recording our conversations. There you go.
“What are you uncertain about today, Herb?”
Herb didn’t look up at me from his crouched position. I had grown accustomed to Herb avoiding direct eye contact and had assumed a sort of zoological approach with him–treating him as a scientist might treat a giant primate in the wild, for instance. That sounds negative, I know, but I mean no harm. If I had more knowledge of how cultural anthropologists approach those of different cultures, like the supposed long-lost tribes of the Amazon, I would use that as an analogy. I’m familiar only with human interactions with gorillas.
Herb was fixated by the laces on his boots–old black boots, scuffed with greys and whites, hardened dirt around the stitches and heels, scrunched tongues like paper in a holiday gift bag. He was holding both lace ends of his right boot and looking back and forth between them.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, one lace end eventually ends up longer than the other,” he finally said.
“Is that what you are unsure about today?”
“What? No. I’m sure of that. That’s just another bit of evidence in support of chaos theory. See, no matter how hard you try to exert the same amount of pressure to both sides of the lace when you’re tying your shoes, you always mess up a little. And that little bit accumulates over time until you notice it. See, one lace is about an inch and a half longer than the other.” He paused. “I guess I could say that one is an inch and a half shorter than the other.” He paused again. “Better to say that there is an inch and a half difference in the laces when they are held up like this. You know, I didn’t notice it until today.”
Herb had talked about boots and laces many times before. He walked a great deal, so they were meaningful to him. Leather, he said, had a relationship with his foot that he enjoyed. Too many people take it as a one-way relationship–the shoe conforming over time to the foot and gate of the wearer; but he liked to give back to the boot itself by regular waxing. Once he said he tried to walk in the manner the leather was urging him to walk. I’m not sure how long that lasted.
I urged him to get back on track–back on my track–and answer the question that seemed way too general and unoriginal when I repeated it. It was a stupid question. Maybe he was doing me a favor by ignoring it.
He surprised me, though, when he said, “you know, that’s a good question, but I’m not sure you need to say ‘today.’ I’m most uncertain about the same thing pretty much every day. Gum. Specifically, chewed gum that winds up in urinals.”
I laughed. Herb gave no signs of offense–either in human or ape language.
“I spend a lot of time in public bathrooms, you know.”
“Well, I never thought about it.”
“I deliver pizzas. I have to be strategic about where I pee. I’ve developed quite an extensive knowledge about where to relive myself. I can’t just ask a customer if I can use their toilet when I give them their pizza. I mean, I wish I could. I wish our society would be open enough to understand and account for basic human needs. But people are classists at heart, whether they are in India or Boulder. Some are just more open about it. Hiding anything makes it louder to me, though. It’s like if I’m trying to hold in some gas and it squeaks out in a high-pitched squeal, like a an unexpected note from a kid learning to play the clarinet or something. Concealment makes things more noticeable.
“The only real concealment, I suppose, is truly fitting in. It’s hard to see a squirrel in a tree, right? Put a squirrel on the road, though, and they stand out–even if they try to look roady.”
“Yea, I don’t know how they would do that either. Damn squirrels. You know that’s one word I never spell correctly: squirrel.”
At this point, I had really forgotten the original thought, and I was starting not to care. I really wanted to hear more about squirrels, to relay my own squirrel stories, but I would save those for another day. I couldn’t remember three steps back, though, so I settled on one. “You were saying that people are classists?”
“Obviously. I’m not judging. We’re hard-wired to be discriminating and to put things into categories. It’s key to our survival both as predator and prey. Our bad programming, though, applies the general principle to social situations, human situations, that aren’t necessarily related–at least not in the live or die sort of way. So people think they are better than others or worse than others and they give these others names as if they are other species. Add that to the automatic playback that most people adopt from listening to dumb things said throughout their lives and you get me needing to use the bathroom.”
He had given up on his boots, leaving both un-tied, and leaned back in his chair, hands gripping his shoulders, left on left, right on right. I continued to sit. I resisted the urge to fill the void of talking, as I was trying to get better at active listening. After about a minute, I wondered if this was a good time to practice patient silence. I made a preliminary noise, like “ah,” and that prompted him to continue.
“How many times do people say throughout their lives, ‘not while I’m eating’ in response to some bodily function talk at the table. Some variation of that. Are people really bothered by it? Maybe some. But certainly not all. Most everyone repeats it, though. They start to believe they are bothered by it, even if they have never thought hard about it to discover its truth for them. Eventually, food and bathrooms become mutually exclusive in people’s minds–don’t let them touch! No tocar!” He leaned sideways on the couch with head in hand as if contemplating a nap. I thought about how I have been programmed to think napping while carrying on a conversation isn’t appropriate. “So you can’t ask someone to use their bathroom when you are delivering pizza.”
He continued to discuss the common problems of delivery people, police officers, and plow drivers–ask any of them if they don’t know every little alley, dumpster, public bathroom, and friendly restaurant to piss at.
“So you find a lot of gum in urinals?” I asked, finally remembering what led to it all.
“Yea,” he said, but he didn’t explain until about a month later–when we were discussing America’s obsession with sport. Then he handed me a coffee-stained pamphlet entitled “The Gum in the Urinal Problem.”
The Gum in the Urinal Problem
A Pamphlet by Herb Sonic, Pizzaman
For your consideration: You walk into a public restroom, sidle up to the urinal, look down, and note that your stream is bouncing off a piece of chewed gum. Maybe it is pink, pale green, or robin’s egg blue. It doesn’t matter. Unless, of course, it does matter to you, in which case, please imagine a particular color. Since it has been chewed and sits in some water (and urine), it is probably lighter than it was originally. It is there, sitting atop the strainer or wedged against the urinal cake. Gum.
If you were one who thought about the color and imagined it paler than its original shade, please now imagine the darker hue staining the gums of the spitter. Yes, I’m going on a limb here and assume the gum has its origin in the mouth of a former urinal patron. Though it is possible, for the sake of this argument, let’s not suppose the gum comes pre-chewed and is distributed every morning in random urinals by janitors checking it off their to-do list. Let’s not assume that it fell from the ceiling, and that the original chewer; spit it there, hoping it’s resting place would be high above later bathroom goers. Let’s not assume that it was part of the original equipment, perhaps as a sales ploy–if you buy our product with a pre-installed porcelain gum attachment, users will be dissuaded from spitting their own gum there. It didn’t fall from someone’s mouth by accident. It wasn’t deposited there by someone who is fearful of normal waste receptacles or has been raised in a culture or religion which requires all things from the mouth be expelled into water. As fun as these potential assumptions are, they could distract from the topic at hand.
In short: there is gum in the urinal. It was spit their intentionally by someone visiting the bathroom, who went there primarily to relieve bladder pressure.
One more thing. If you are a woman or man who refuses to use a urinal (and you know who you are), imagine yourself a urinal-using man. It’s easy if you try. I can imagine myself much taller than any measurement currently indicates I am.
I know I’m asking more of you than I usually do in my pamphlets. It seems to be of utmost importance to me at the moment. UTMOST. Say it, don’t spray it. UTMOST. It’s fun.
Say it don’t spray it at the urinal.
On chewed gum.
Your choice of hue.
Are you there? What do you think? Are you angry at the person who spit it? People spit in urinals all the time, though I don’t know why. Maybe it is something to do while bowing one’s head, praying you avoid the eyes of all others in line.
If you are angry, why? I admit I have thought bad things about the “inconsiderate” person who would spit something where solid objects shouldn’t be spit. I have similar thoughts about phlegm on sidewalks, but here let’s limit ourselves to urinals. And gum. God knows I am trying. Maybe.
The gum spitter we construct may be self-aware of the consequences–someone has to pick it out of there. Even if the person isn’t very thoughtful, the story plays out the same. Who am I to determine the importance of intention? The self-aware person, aware that someone has to clean it up, may chuckle at this. He (and here the “he” is appropriate because of the particular situation but is in no way meant to limit the general disregard for the suffering of others to men) may think to himself, “It’s someone’s job to clean up after me.”
Laughing at the work caused to others–and foul work at that–or even a more passive disregard seem to us (at least me, at least initially) to be odious. We shouldn’t cause work to others. We should respect fellow humans. We should strive to ensure that everything is as good or better when we leave a place than when we found it. Pick up after yourself. Pack it in; pack it out. Thems the rules of the forest and the bathroom. Don’t throw it on the ground. Put it in its proper place.
We know this. It doesn’t matter that trash cans are just hiding places for our waste. They don’t make us less wasteful, they just make it easier for all of us to ignore our waste. Maybe if we threw everything on the ground, tossed it with glee out of our speeding car windows, emptied our garbage on the front steps of City Hall, pooped on the center stripe of the road–maybe if we did that we would be more aware of all of the ugliness we create. Maybe then we would create less garbage and poop.
But the urinal spitter wouldn’t. It would still be someone else’s problem.
The sad part, the confusing part, the part that spirals me to endless uncertainty is this: he’s right. Someone will take care of it.
If I look at this practically, the person I found to be repulsive, an affront to human decency, a toothache in the mouth of humanity, is just being efficient. He’s there. He’s inspecting the strength and perhaps coloration of his urine stream, and he notices his gum has gone stale. He saves a few steps by spitting it directly downward. At least no one will step on it. Someone comes by later and cleans it up. The next day it is as if he never made an offensive gesture toward his fellow humans. Maybe the janitor curses the spitter ghost. Maybe it gives him a sense of superiority over the less “considerate” human who preceded him. It didn’t hurt him.
Before you think I advocate spitting gum in urinals, please let me remind you that this is a thought experiment. This is a problem for which my initial reaction–my “upbringing”–leads to anger and disgust. I consider this a sort of bullying, passive-aggressive and time-delayed bullying though it may be. But when I consider it further, I have to wonder if the action and the actor are benign, or dare I say it, superior. If someone does less and gets more, aren’t they winning?
- Are our social obligations designed to keep us quiet, keep us in place, while the rule breakers rule?
- What is our obligation to the rest of humanity?
I want to say that our obligation is to behave ethically, with integrity, with concern for past, current, and future humans, and all of our fellow animals, plants, and smashed rocks around us.
Damn, though, doesn’t it seem freeing to be the spitter and not the retriever of spit?
I don’t have any answers, of course. I don’t even have inclinations at the moment. I suppose I will find once again the (selfish) joy that accompanies doing “good” because that is my nature, but I will always wonder if the more direct selfishness of others isn’t a different sort of “good” and if there is anything tangible and unending we can surely call good.
As always, I’m sure I’m unsure.