Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Brown Shelf

Joscha put on his fleece hoodie, a sketchpad and ruler tucked under his arm, a sense of purpose in his bearing. "I'm going to buy it now." He'd been taking measurements all day for his new toy. Now he was all but rubbing his hands together in anticipation.

"It's 8 o'clock at night. You're going to buy a toilet now?"

"Hellweg ist still open. Besides, I don't want anyone to see me carrying a toilet around, you know?" It was this oddly demure, anal retentive quality which led him to the idea of purchasing a new commode to begin with. It wasn't that the old Klo was broken. He'd recently split with his actress girlfriend, and in an industrious sublimation of grief or sexual desire, set about making an arbitrary list of home improvements. "I want to focus on myself for a change." A few days later, a fancy new flourescent light appeared over the cooking area, and a sleek new top for the counterspace opposite.

He had a charming way of calling my attention to each improvement, like when he proudly explained the pulley system he had set up to open and shut the bathroom window, which was nigh-on unreachable by hand. Then one morning came:

"I'm going to buy a new toilet. I decided I don't want to look at my shit."

What about mine? I guess he wanted to sweep it all away, along with any traces of the ex-girlfriend's DNA. Who can blame him? It was the usual post-breakup cleaning of house, only taken a step further. A symbolic act -- a sort of mental colonic, if you will, bringing new meaning to the phrase "Get your shit out of here!". Furthermore, this metaphorical act would allow him to deal with his own shit, rather than having to pay a therapist.

The architecture of the German latrine (I can't think of too many more words for toilet...WC anyone?) is unique. Each model harbors a small abutment onto which the feces lands with a thud, direct from the bowels. Ostensibly this is so that the fresh turd can be poked, prodded and inspected in the name of Gesundheit, before being sent on its merry way with a downward flush. As opposed to the U.S. version, where we never even have to be faced with the harsh truth of our own shit if we don't want to (the insidious phenomenon of "backsplash" notwithstanding). It just mysteriously goes away, never floating, sucked into some netherworld between here and the Atlantic. In Germany they positively celebrate this product of peristalsis.

"Yeah. What is it with this shelf? Why is it there?" I asked, trying to be diplomatic. "We don't really have that in the U.S." I really couldn't hope to plumb the depths of the German psyche without some Hilfe. Joscha was his usual reticent self, yet laughed off this cryptic cultural quirk with blithe disdain, as if this attitude alone would make it go away, or somehow separate him from his scheisse-scrutinizing countrymen.

"I know, they don't have it in France either. And I don't want to have it." He shook his head. That night, he rejected his cultural mandate.

For some reason though, the new toilet sat in our hallway for several days before he ultimately installed it. Maybe he got cold feet, feeling some eleventh-hour nostalgia for this vestige of his heritage. Or perhaps he felt ambivalent about replacing the crapper he had shared with his girlfriend for over a year. She had even put next to the TP dispenser a small tab of tape with a diagram of a toilet lid, a perforated line indicating the downward motion of the seat: "Bitte die Toilettendeckel schliessen"(please put down the lid) it read.* I can only assume it was she who wrote the inscription, because if it was he, he was forever breaking his own rule and urinating pell-mell in piss arabesques over the rim and base. But hey, that's another story.

*While a perfectly reasonable request, I have encountered much more exotic and threatening rules in certain households. The ill-fated Moabit place, for example, required one, whether "Mann oder Frau", whether going number one or number two, to plant one's hairy ass down regardless. I found this to be incredibly insensitive and emasculating (and a bit rich coming from the schmutzig Frau Buschmann, who had mold growing over everything in the flat, and a collection of insect traps, completely filled up with long-dead bugs, dangling from the kitchen ceiling like Christmas decorations). Unfortunately, the problem was irremediable due to the broken state of the seat, so often I would flee to the guest toilet for a furtive slash.

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