the office

The Infinite Semiotics of the Office Bathroom

Ladies room in a Park Avenue office, 1981. Photo: ©Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos

My first office job was in the Paramount Building in Times Square, which meant that every time I left for lunch, I was confronted by some manner of spectacle. One day, a woman in a cocktail dress pointed a camera in my face and explained that a comedy show needed random New Yorkers to tell jokes. I demurred. Some people are born with the joke-retention gene, and some are not. She pressed, and finally I said, “A guy goes into a music store every day to use their bathroom because the toilet is solid gold. But the next time he stops in, it’s just a regular porcelain toilet. He asks the manager, ‘What happened to my golden toilet?’ And the manager shouts to his colleague, ‘Hey, Charlie, here’s the guy who pissed in your tuba!’ ”

It was the only joke I could remember on the spot, perhaps because I related so strongly to the premise. I liked the idea that a bathroom could be special enough to seek out, a space built for bodily inelegance but transformed into one for mental respite. My office job was not going very well. I often escaped to the bathroom to sit on the radiator and stare into the middle distance until I burned my ass. It was a modest office, and there were only two stalls, which meant I never felt too guilty locking the main door. What a piece of poetry that extra lock is.

As my career became more corporate, so did the bathrooms, and I spent 11 years peeing in bright midtown meat lockers and pawing at paper-towel dispensers that offered two options: none or enough to absorb the Ganges. These are not places of respite but of etiquette. The office bathroom is an unavoidable intersection of power and poop. There’s an art to running into the head of your department in the hall, discussing a work matter, realizing you’re both headed to the bathroom, entering adjoining stalls as she keeps talking, knowing that you can pee quietly — you can open a tampon as if starring in a silent film about the opening of a tampon — but what you cannot do is flush the toilet quietly, and thus you must wait for her to flush or sense a break in her monologue. There’s also an art to ignoring the senior employee who, despite having access to an identical space on her own floor, walks downstairs to defecate in yours. Not literally. But also literally.

For as well as we know our co-workers, the office bathroom provides glimpses into their lives beyond the swinging door. I may not long for the lighting, but I do miss the indication of extracurricular fun. Someone flossing or applying makeup or changing into a different outfit, feet hopping up and down beneath a stall. Someone about to release themselves into a city that’s the antithesis of cubicles and nubby carpeting. I even miss the late nights when the midtown bathroom’s lack of humanity becomes pronounced. Once, I walked in on a woman from marketing washing a vintage radio in the sink, lathering it up like a newborn. (It wasn’t plugged in.) This, I thought, is the reason there’s no bathroom in the lobby of my apartment building. I smiled and washed my hands. Then I decided to go home and piss in my own tuba.

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The Infinite Semiotics of the Office Bathroom