Humanity in the Toilet

Reportage

 

BRATISLAVA – Sometimes, even a Slovak pissoir inspires me.

 

The old, no-frills Tesco building downtown was recently renovated into a hip shopping mall, with bright lights, sleek displays and basement supermarket with a hu-u-u-uge liquor section. (Not that I'm implying anything about my Slovak neighbors.)

 

The twin cafés also got a lively makeover, the upstairs one modernized with cherry-red and mandarin-orange upholstery. As I’ve written, I like both for their fish-bowl perspective of daytime Bratislava.

 

One thing hasn’t changed, though: the old woman who is caretaker of the men’s WC.

 

(If you’re in desperate need, it’s in back, on the second floor.)

 

Knowing that I’ll see her in a few minutes, I grow irritated. Not about her, personally. It’s more the idea of her. Why does management need a woman to just sit there, collecting coins on a tray? Doesn’t this place generate enough income? What's the Slovak verb for “to nickel and dime someone”? Or, is this a relic of Communist-era over-employment? (Which also would have seen someone seated at the base of the escalator, just keeping an eye on things.)

 

I catch myself. First, on humanitarian grounds: at least it keeps some poor schlub employed. Why begrudge someone just trying to eke out an existence during tough times?

 

Second, it’s really more of a public toilet. Plenty of people come to the shopping center only to browse, wet their whistle, or, depending on the season, to warm up or to cool down. Why not extract a measly 20 euro cents from their visit? (For fellow Americans, that’s little more than a quarter.)

 

These are the things I think about when walking around Bratislava, instead of wearing earphones to pipe in musical distraction. Important things, like Slovak toilets.

 

Is it really more cost-efficient for management to assign janitors exclusive to the men’s and women’s bathrooms, rather than have store custodial staff handle it? (But please seat yourself elsewhere, out of sight.)

 

Or why, during the building-wide refurbishment, did they not install the automated, pay-as-you-pee system that I now see around Central Europe in some roadside, gas-station restaurants?

 

Then, I see her, virtually blocking the narrow corridor to the bathroom stalls, with her considerable frame resting against a wide table. The piss-and-run swindlers among us stand no chance against her.

 

Her hair is a fiery auburn, presumably the result of a home dye-job. She’s immersed in a tabloid, reading glasses toward the tip of her nose. Pretty much how I always encounter her. I can’t recall ever seeing a mop in her hands. Nor mustering much of a smile for me.

 

I'm now several paces away. And while efficiency is hardly my strong suit, I reach into my pocket to fish out some coins. Let’s make this a bloodless exchange. I greet her with a merry “Dobry den!” – Good day – and place a gilded but slightly scuffed 20-cent piece on her plate. She barely looks up, glued to yesterday's fodder.

 

At the urinal, she’s on my mind. Not that way, but journalistically.

 

Two months ago, I explained to my Chinese journalism students in Hong Kong how the most ordinary of folks sometimes have the most extraordinary of stories. The students responded with a slew of poignant portraits of shop assistants, doormen, taxi drivers, and the like.

 

Well, I’ve got a few extra minutes. So on my way out of the loo, I strike up a conversation. In my mangled but endearing Slovak, I ask if I may ask a “sukromna otazka” – a private question. She agrees.

 

I had no doubt she would. A dirty little secret about interviewing strangers is that it’s a high form of flattery. After all, how often do even the people closest to us inquire with genuine interest about our lives or opinions? It’s been ages since my wife asked me sweetly, “Honey, how was your day in the cafés … while I was working a real job?”

 

The WC woman has perked up. With interest. She lays down the newspaper, and off come the reading glasses, swapped for her regular pair.

 

With a whiff of urine in the air, I give my standard introduction, flubbing most of my suffixes. On this occasion, though, I top it off with the flourish of an ass-kisser.

 

“Your language is very difficult, but it is important that I try to speak to Slovakia's people.”

 

She nods solemnly, concurring with my wisdom of the ancients.

 

“But the English language is also difficult learn,” she replies with a grin, eyes twinkling. “Isn’t it?”

 

I don’t know how she’s deduced that I’m not, say, Luxembourgian. She correctly pegged me as Anglophone. I’m impressed. This woman’s good.

 

Now, I don’t know the Slovak word for pay, salary or income. My linguistic skills stalled just north of “Survival Slovak.” So I work around it.

 

"How much money you go home with every month."

 

She catches my drift.

 

“About 300 euro,” she replies. Then volunteers a bit more: “I’m a pensioner, 79 years old.”

 

That shocks me. I repeat the number back to her, quizzically. I thought she was in the neighborhood of 55 to 60 -- still a working woman. That dye-job may be home-made, but oh so effective.

 

The average pension in Slovakia, I recently learned, is 335 euros per month, or US$450. If she receives that, yet works for another 300, how difficult is it to live off just the 335?

 

To put this 335 figure in some context – and for the very cause of journalism – I’ll divulge my monthly splurge: 69 euro per month to swim in a private health club. That’d be one-fifth of this woman's entire payment. Which must mean the few pensioners I see stroking past me in the pool probably have a successful son or daughter who pitches in.

 

Fortunately, this woman’s words are rudimentary enough for me to understand. Is she being kind, or is Slovak conversation this easy? Of course it isn’t. She proceeds to rattle off several more sentences about her hardship. I’m lost. Eventually, she returns to the simple and comprehensible.

 

“But I don’t work here the whole month. I have the weekends free.”

By Jove, I would hope that my poor grandmother, were she still alive and never to have fled this part of the world, would at least get the weekends off during her Golden Years. As it is, this woman is treated each workday to the stench of piss and … how to delicately describe what else is typically deposited in here? You get the picture.

 

I have so much more to ask this woman. Do you truly need the extra income? Why? What would your life be like without it? Or, on the flip side, do you do this just to stay active, to give yourself a sense of purpose each day? (Huuuuu-ha, deep stuff. I may need to bring in an interpreter.)

 

I’ve got to run, though. I tell her I’d like to come back to hear more. She agrees. Then it occurs to me:

 

“Hovorte po magyarske?” Do you speak Hungarian?

 

“I do,” she says, smiling wider.

 

Me, too! Or, to be more accurate, after living in Budapest during the roaring '90s, my Hungarian is less embarrassing than my Slovak.

 

This woman belongs to the Hungarian minority of Slovakia, separated from the motherland nine decades ago.

 

“Magyar lany vagyok,” she explains, cutely. Hungarian girl, I am.

 

My wife, too, I tell her. Specifically, she’s a "Pesti lany": Budapest girl.

 

Oh, are we bonding, this woman and I. By now, she’s probably pondering whether to invite me to Christmas.

 

I bid her goodbye. For fun, in both Slovak and Hungarian. Dovidenia! Viszontlátásra!

 

She returns serve in her mother tongue, with a shorter, less formal farewell.

 

“Viszlat.” See you.

 

That's right. Next time the urge strikes.

 

 

Slovakia