Sit or Squat: That is the Question
BY TIM SANDLIN
ILLUSTRATIONS BY BIRGITTA SIF
My first encounter with the international no squatting sign was in the national park outhouse at Kelly Warm Springs. This outhouse is something of a destination bathroom. If the Four Seasons had privies, the Warm Springs john is what they would look like.
There, next to please don’t dump trash down the hole – it is hard to get out, was a figure in a circle with a slash across the middle—universal language for Don’t. In the circle a stick figure squatted, his (or her) feet planted on both sides of the commode.
I knew what the symbol meant because I’ve been to China and seen the opposite sign: don’t sit on our toilet. Some of the higher-end hotels have segregated bathroom stalls—four squats and two sits. Always more squats than sits. Let Americans wait in line if they can’t balance like a Thanksgiving balloon over Macy’s.
What I don’t know is why the park cares. Besides seat splatter and footprints on the porcelain, what does it matter how people go? I mean, this is an outhouse.
So I drove up to park headquarters in Moose to find out, only to discover there’s a new Trump rule against the Park Information Officer giving out information. I shuffled from office to office, most of the bureaucrats afraid to even tell me what office to go to next. When I asked a secretary where the water fountain was, she ran off.
Finally, I found a man we’ll call Larry Langtree, because that’s not his name. Larry was willing to leak commode policy.
He said, “They break them.”
“Asian tourists. They stand on the rims and the rims splinter down the middle. We replaced over twenty commodes last summer. Why would a woman stand on the toity to pee?”
“They squat, and it’s a cultural deal. In China, they think we’re disgusting for sitting with our bum touching the wet surface where someone else’s bum has been.”
“Yeah, well no wonder the seat gets wet, if you hover like a helicopter filling a hot tub.”
“Once you leave the Chinese cities, a lot of the toilets are holes in the floor with yellow stenciled footprints on both sides to show you which way to face, and they have a gallon bucket for soiled toilet paper. They don’t allow toilet paper in those small-town toilets.”
Larry Langtree made a face I would call thoughtful as he worked out the nuances. He said, “We’ve had a 30 percent rise in Asian bus tours the last two years. They flood the valley in April and May when the tour operators can get cheap room rates.”
“Do the operators tell their clients the only days it doesn’t rain in May are the days it snows?”
Larry kind of chuckled. “I’ve seen waves of umbrellas and selfie sticks in front of the elkhorn arches. There’ll be even more this summer unless Trump starts a war with China.”
“Trade or literal?”
Larry went furtive on me. “I’m not allowed to say.”
Herman Walsowski-Smith, Heather Heidi’s grandson, wrote his master’s thesis at Grand Canyon University on tourist toilets the world over. I drove by to see him.
“My favorites are those spaceship things in Paris.” He showed me a photograph. “After every use they self-clean. There’s a sign in front that says unaccompanied children under ten may drown. Imagine an American can that kills kids. There would be a social media firestorm.”
As I admired his portfolio, I felt especially close to the outhouses. “When I was a kid, I was scared of outhouses. I knew I’d fall down the hole and never be seen again.”
Herman said, “Statistically, you’re more likely to be bitten by spiders or rats coming up than you falling down.”
“That’s a comfort.” I pointed to the red stenciled footprints on either side of a hole in a concrete floor. “Is this China?”
“France,” Herman said. “In France, they call these Turkish water closets. The rest of Europe calls them French thrones. Look at this thermochromatic wall urinal.”
It was a two-by-four in front of a colorful wall with a gutter running at the base. Herman said, “The wall is heat-sensitive, so when you go on it the colors pulsate and change. You can draw cartoons.”
“What’s your favorite toilet story?”
Herman considered. “Right here. In Jackson. Do you know the story of Penny Wort?”
“This is true, right? Not fake news?”
“Totally true. Charlie Craighead did the research. His cousin Karen and her friend Julia were driving from the Village to Moose, and they stopped at the Wort Hotel to use the bathroom.”
“When was this?”
“Winter of 1967. Julie heard weird gurgles in the next stall and when that woman left, Julie checked it out and found a newborn baby in the toilet.”
“Julie ran out to get cocktail waitresses, who fished the baby out and took her to the hospital where they named her Penny Wort. No one ever discovered the birth mother.
“Penny was adopted by a couple in Kansas, got a new name, then went to work in Florida, where the eerie part of the story happens.”
“The eerie part wasn’t being born in a Wort toilet?”
“This part is even more unlikely. By then her name was Wendi. Wendi met and fell in love with a man from Moose, Wyoming. She married him.
What are the odds? They live in North Carolina.”
My brain went Twilight Zone. How many men grew up in Moose? Twelve, maybe.
“Okay, Herman, that’s a bizarre story, but what I need to know, what my readers need to know, is why are the stenciled toilet-hole footprints yellow in China but in France they are red?”
Herman closed his portfolio. “Kind of self-evident, don’t you think?”
“Not to me.”
“It’s so Keith Richards can tell what continent he’s peeing on.”