It was 1971. I was 21 and in the men’s restroom of the Toledo, Ohio bus terminal.
Toledo was part of my route to get home to Cleveland from Quincy College in west central Illinois. I took a bus to Chicago and then transferred to another that stopped in Toledo and continued east. When we reached Toledo in the evening, they gave us an hour to stretch our legs and eat at the terminal diner, a moniker that sounds like a lethal diagnosis for the traveling eater that was often supported by the fare.
I would have been of age for a beer, so perhaps I had one with my grilled cheese sandwich. Perhaps two. If college had taught me anything it was how to consume alcohol with alacrity, because you never knew when the dorm monitor might show up at your room. After paying, I left the diner, took a turn into the waiting area of the terminal, saw the restroom arrow, and then, due to the angle of my approach and seeing only EN on the nearest door and believing it to say WOMEN, forgetting entirely that EN was also the end of GENTLEMEN, I strode in as if I owned the place.
I’d entered an alternative universe. I’d not spent much time in men’s restrooms. In fact, I hadn’t spent any time in men’s restrooms, so I was at first mesmerized by the line of white porcelain pods hanging on the wall. Odd sinks, I thought, then a horrific dawning: Oh, God, I’m in the men’s restroom! Luckily I had it to myself, and for the briefest of moments, considered getting into one of the stalls to do my business, but I was too mortified to relieve myself, sure that people in the bus terminal had witnessed my egregious error and were laughing, telling others what I’d done, and were now jockeying for the best spot to watch me slink out. That moment felt like a microcosm of my naive, sick-of-college life at the time: Misplaced, unsettled, unprepared, apprehensive, fooled.
I turned and headed for the door. Got there. Stopped. Stood with my hand on the knob and did nothing. Maybe I needed a run at it, needed to build up some steam. I went back to the middle of the room and headed out, but again, froze at the door. I put my ear to it. Could I hear people pulling up chairs to witness my embarrassment more comfortably? On the next try, I went all the way to the back wall, so I was nearly running when I hit to the door. This time I kept going, reentering the main terminal in a rush, then slowing and attempting to look as if I intended to blow through the door like an actor arriving late for a cue.
But no one noticed. No one cared. No one even looked up. They were busy doing other things.
It was good lesson for a nascent adult to embrace, and something worth remembering now if you’re facing change or challenge: When you think the whole world is watching you struggle, when you believe they’re laughing and waiting for your next move or care about your personal journey on a microcosmic level, just remember that they’re busy with their own lives, and much like the men’s restroom in the Toledo bus terminal, are otherwise occupied.
November 30, 2022