I’m fascinated by how cultures handle the unavoidable daily needs of human beings; where did they sleep, how did they eat, and how did they pee. We’ll skip straight to the peeing, though where they slept and how they ate is also fascinating The photograph comes from California, where they have a sense of humor. In Maine, in the 1950s, I was ushered to a little cabin which sported a wooden board with a hole in it over a very deep hole in the ground. Even today, friends maintain an Adirondack camp on a lake where they have no running water and no electricity, though they do have a big house. The outhouse is a twin holer with a smooth wooden board, much fancier than the one in Maine, situated on a hill above the lake, with a wide picture window and ample reading matter. On a replica of an ancient ship in Roanoke, Virginia, I learned the meaning of the word “poop deck.” Very practical. Older American homes had a water closet – I had one in my apartment in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, though by the time I lived it had been converted to a cramped modernish bathroom. When it was a simple water closet, somebody had to remove the vessels and dump them somewhere, and that was the same for everyone from King Louis the XVI to the lowliest peasant. In the villages of Greece I was told that everyone had their favorite tree which they fertilized daily. The facilities in the ancient palace of Knossos on the island of Crete were stone benches with a steady stream of water flowing through a cleft in the stone. The water came from a source above the palace, so gravity kept it running all the time. There was no privacy, but there was good hygiene, even a couple of millennia b.c. It puzzled me that this simple engineering was not used elsewhere. We think we are so advanced, but it took us a few millennia to match the ancient Minoans for cleanliness. In the British Court, the “Groom of the Stool” helped the king in this most intimate of functions. He obviously needed continuous and unimpeded access to the monarch, and was a powerful member of the Court. In Vienna this year, my friends and I attended a concert in a gorgeous old church. Before the concert began I asked my Austrian friend where the bathroom was. “Churches don’t have bathrooms,” she said, “you only go there for mass, and that takes an hour.” “But what about choir practice and all the people who work here?” I asked. “There are toilets for them but in the back of the church.” An usher told me, “There are toilets in the university across the street.” Where in the university? The performance was so exceptional that it was no problem.The Austrians must be evolving into a race with large bladders. Broadway theatres were notorious for their paucity of toilets, with long lines causing many people to miss the opening of the second act. Now there are dozens of stalls, and I am wondering what people did in the old days. They must have felt the need to relieve themselves as frequently as modern people do, or have our bladders lost their mojo? Perhaps they carried little containers. The recent tv series about spies during the revolutionary war, Turn, had a party scene where servants stood at either side of a stairway in the hall with urinals in their hands. The guests would take a urinal and go find a corner somewhere to lift their skirts, or pull down their pants, to pee. I said to myself, “Aaaah, that’s how it was done” when the coiffed and gowned beauty, Mrs. Benedict Arnold, lifted her many skirts to relieve herself, then turned in the urinal to the servant in the hallway. I appreciated their including this scene. There are fortress toilets everywhere – places where you need a key, or a password to get in. One such was at the MacDonald’s on the Graben in Vienna – baffled people wandered back and forth, sharing the secret – a pass code -- to get in. One woman who had the code pulled me in behind her. One public pissoir in Europe had a door that closed after every use to allow an automatic cleansing spray, followed by a noisy drying process. It only takes a minute. That was a good idea, but I was apprehensive about entering. What if I pressed the wrong button and got sprayed myself, or got caught inside – I couldn’t even figure out how to access the toilet – did I just step in, would the door close behind me automatically? A passing pedestrian explained it to me. The bidet is one of mankind’s more compassionate inventions. I didn’t know what it was the first time I saw it and tinkered or a while without understanding its purpose. An American friend in Greece told me that the first time he saw one, he pooped in it, then he and the French ambassador stood at the door of the stall regarding his handiwork, trying to figure out how to remove it. The bidet in Venice was a bowl with a faucet that ran like water in a sink. What good is that? It was excellent for washing one’s feet. The French kind has an upward-spreading spray which performs more efficiently. I understand that the cosmopolitan Jackie Kennedy insisted on having one installed in her New York apartment, though that may be a rumor. In the Zurich airport, there is a sign “rest room” but behind the door is stairway, then another stairway. Three flights up is the toilet. This is a challenge for people with baggage; my husband and I went separately so one could stay behind to guard the luggage. I didn’t locate a handicap toilet, though surely there was one. In the ladies room of the super luxurious restaurant, La Terrazza del Casino, in Madrid, you will find not only soft music and lovely décor, but also a toothbrush and toothpaste and a sweet little towel. I stole an extra toothbrush and toothpaste because they were cleverly designed – something you could pop into your purse. It is people like me who cause restaurants to discontinue such amenities. We have advanced past the days in renaissance England where a person in a hurry would go into a tavern and find a dark corner in the basement to relieve himself. Imagine what those places smelled like. Imagine what the streets smelled like with horse poop on the cobblestones and human waste flowing in the streetside sewers. Sometimes it is hard to figure out how to flush. Airplanes have a plaque you push and there is a little explosion of water. Europeans have round flushers, divided into two parts – two-thirds of the plaque is the place you push for large deposits, the smaller luna is for little stuff. In the mountains of Vermont I heard, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” There are chains to pull, handles to pull upward or push downward, buttons on various parts of the toilet, and I haven’t yet visited Japan, where there is a whole set of instructions to use the toilet, or so I am told. The champion toilet name is “The Great Niagara,” the name of the company that provided my toilet in Athens, Greece in the 1960s. The award for the most beautiful rest room (Americans are so puritanical – they say “rest room” or “ladies/men’s room” or “bathroom,” as if anyone took a bath there. Elsewhere, they are inclined to say “toilet,” or “toilette” or whatever) goes to the restaurant Boulez in New York City. That restaurant is closed now, and I have deleted my photographs of the ladies room. It will live on in my imagination.
For a bookstore, location is important, as I discovered in Point Reyes, California yesterday. I love to visit because they have wonderful oysters and the Cowgirl Creamery. I was shopping in the market there when I saw a bookstore across the street and stopped in. If it had been squirreled away in a side street, I would never have known it was there. Point Reyes Books has been there for fourteen years, and has fulfilled its original intention to enrich the local community. One of the owners if Kate Dawson, Ph.D., herself the author of a book, Emotional Currency, is proud of the literary journal that they publish, the West Marin Review, which accepts fiction, non-fiction, art, and music submissions. The store also sponsors a conference every March, the last one themed Women and the Land. The 200+ attendees go on field trips, have dinners, and hear writers and poets speak. The most recent one featured environmental activists. The main speaker was Diana Beresford-Kroeger, who inspired an environmental movement called Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees. Her book, The Global Forest, aims to educate the world about the importance of trees. See how a bookstore can bring together local communities with some of the most influential voices in the world!!!! Kate says that over the years, they have raised $550,000 for local non-profits. I was interested to find that the number of readings and other events is going down. It takes energy and time to organize these events and the payoff is not significant enough to warrant their continuation at the same rate. From my own experience, and that of my author friends, I have found that bookstore readings often don’t pay off. They must be well advertised and supported, and it is rare that this happens. There is a tug-of-war between author and bookstore owner in this regard. The author is looking to increase sales of her book by reading to the bookstore’s clientele, and the bookstore is looking to increase its clientele by bringing in fans of the author. A well advertised and well attended bookstore reading benefits both author and bookstore, but they usually turn out to be poorly attended because the author is not familiar enough with the local territory to bring out a large number of attendees, and the bookstore is too busy with its everyday activities to publicize the event widely enough. The store doesn't want to expend precious funds on paid advertising which is not likely to pay off in sales. The good news from Point Reyes Books is that their business is stable and growing, reflecting a national trend. It seems that those data crunchers who warned that reading would soon be virtual or electronic were wrong – people like to read books, to hold them in their hands, and to talk about them with knowledgeable, bookstore staff. There’s plenty of knowledge and enthusiasm at Point Reyes Books. They are assisted in their success by the 2.3 million people who visit nearby parks throughout the year, but I also noticed a couple of shelves of books labeled for local customers who had ordered them through the bookstore. When these customers come to pick up their books they’re likely to have a conversation about other books they might be interested in reading in the future. Reading is not a solitary experience; sharing our preferences with others is part of its joy and stimulates further interest in books. If you’re ever among those 2.3 million tourists, you might like to include Point Reyes Books in your itinerary. You could eat at one of the oyster restaurants along Tomales Bay, or at the Osteria Stellina right down the street from the bookstore. What better combination -- a delicious meal and some great conversation about books.
I love European cafes. They are a place of refuge, companionship, and, most of all, escape. They are where you eat dessert. You meet new people there and if you hang out long enough, a friend or acquaintance will pass by, making you feel all warm and fuzzy, and securely connected to the world around you.California cafes are different. They are similarly sun-drenched and aesthetically pleasing. Their offerings are likely to be more eccentric than a French cafe, where croissants and Napoleons would be de rigeur. The food, however, is beside the point. They are places of business. Kibbitzing on your neighbor's conversation, you are most likely to hear about contracts, scheduling, or upcoming presentations. In Peet's Coffee in San Mateo, one venture capitalist hears proposals at his table, scheduling a half hour for each candidate (I timed him). Prospective new hires are interviewed, and networks cemented. For this reason, people might spend even longer at a California cafe than at a European cafe, though neither place will chase you out -- unless, as we did the last time we were in Paris, you overstay breakfast into lunchtime and they ask you to leave. California cafes serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner all day and into the evening, so you theoretically would never have to leave.
Surely the prison capital of the U.S. would be Florence, Arizona. (Not to be confused with supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where people like Ted Kazynski and Zacharias Massaoui are stored.) Maybe there's a town with more, or better hidden prisons than here. Florence is one of the oldest towns in Arizona, and proclaims its “historic downtown” at every turn. It has a population of 25,000+. Given that there are at least three large prisons there, it puzzles me that they should have an 8.1% unemployment rate. If prisons are the successful commercial enterprise that they claim to be, there should at least be a low unemployment rate in the town where the prisons are. Mind you, this mysterious, evil-feeling place is in the middle of the Sonoran desert, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. We were cruising along Route 79, getting ready to turn right at Florence for the last leg of a trip from Phoenix to Tucson, when I saw this enormous complex in the distance. Out in the middle of the desert – what was that? We drove closer and saw it was a prison. Wow. That’s a lot of prisoners. Building after long white building. This complex is run by the Corrections Corporation of America. It looks all spanky white and clean on the outside, like an outpost on Mars which contains its whole life inside its bubble. Then we passed another complex on the other side of the road. I had heard about the holding pens for illegals, and here was one, a sun baked jerry-rigged patch of misery. This is where the immigrants (and their children?) live, I guess. I say “I guess” because I didn’t interview anyone or do any research. I just see the sign and then the fence and then the buildings and make assumptions. At this point, I’m getting depressed. Thousands of people were housed out in the desert, but I couldn’t see anyone, couldn’t hear any children playing, nothing moved. But we had yet to get to this third prison. Yet another huge complex of prison buildings. This complex was the only one where we saw human beings. Maybe I’ve read too many articles recently about the incarceration rate in the U.S. Maybe I read too many articles and books about the desperation of immigrants. Maybe I’ve seen too much Orange is the New Black. But the sight was suffocating, even just looking at it from the outside. As we were driving, we found ourselves following an open backed truck with orange-suited prisoners seated on each side. “There’s your money picture,” Terry said. “No,” I disagreed. The point is the monotony, the punitive blankness, the size of these places. The pillow of blasé ignorance over every face hidden away in these prisons. Surely there could not be this many people so dangerous that we have to build a place like this. We’ve heard that incarceration is a business, and here it is right in front of us. Build it and they will come. We then had lunch in the Old Pueblo restaurant in downtown Florence where we got a decent chili relleno and some carne asado. As we approached the door, I was thinking that the customers would be prison guards or other prison employees who were either on their day off or on their lunch break. I was wrong. It was filled with snow birds. If there is such a thing as vibrations which emanate from humans, even from a distance, then dark things were emanating from the prisons in Florence. I have had my own days of alienation and isolation. They came back to me there. I believe that poverty, illness, or bad luck is the reason why many of the inmates are in these places. Some, maybe a lot of, people have to be locked away and removed from our sight because they are unredeemably destructive, but not this many of them. To believe that so many people need to be removed in order for us to live good life is to believe that the human race is raked with evil intentions and ill will; to lose faith in ourselves. It would be natural to believe that the governors of the town of Florence viewed the prisons as a great boon (notwithstanding the fact that as of December, 2014 they still had an unemployment rate of over 8%), but you will have to search a while before you even find a mention of the prisons on the town website. The draw there is all about the history of the town, its distinctive architecture, its country music festival, its model airplane field, and so on. If you dig around long enough, you'll discover that the town’s four major employers are the school system, the county, the town itself, and the Corrections Corporation of America, yet CCA doesn’t get any props on the website. Living in Florence would be worse than living surrounded by cemeteries, because there are beating hearts in those blank prisons. Even people who believe in incarceration as the solution to our ills must feel the grey pall. Surely we lack imagination if the only way we can figure out to live a civilized, secure life is to bury so many people alive out in the desert, and the only way we can figure out to find work is to employ another cohort of thousands keeping them there. It was like looking from the outside at a war zone. I don't know the details. I don't know the true cost, or the people who made the decisions, or how much harm those prisoners did, or what the destroyed lives used to look like. I do know that there must be a better way.