Hustle and Flow
Okay, so maybe my dislike of public restrooms is a tad over-the-top. When I was a kid, I was convinced that every disease was transmitted in public bathrooms and I would do everything in my power to avoid them. I’ve gotten better over the years – I’m a big boy who can even use porta-potties now! – but there’s still some anxiety that begins to build when I know that I’m headed to a show with a bathroom that’s going to cause some discomfort.
What follows are some observations about dealing with your bladder and bowel while being entertained. Putting aside my male impulse to ignore everything around me in a public bathroom, I took note of all my trips to the loo during a month’s worth of shows. Because I could only report on half the story, I brought along female companions as often as possible.
I start my toilet tour at Slim's where I’m here to see to a solo performance by The Killers’ Brandon Flowers. Sold-out shows at Slim's can get pretty cozy, which means you’re likely to relinquish any prime real estate if you leave to go to the bathroom. But when nature rings, you must heed its call. While my female friend wisely goes down the stairs past stage right to use the larger facilities (one woman reportedly exclaims, “Yes!” when she sees there is no line), I choose to use the smaller room on the main floor and am immediately confronted by a rare species: a couple of guys talking in the bathroom. Apparently, women are known to share their life stories with each other from inside a couple of stalls, but guys are usually like Mad Men’s Roger Sterling when he was getting mugged: Put your head down and quickly take care of business.
“You can use the tub,” one of them says to me, pointing to the toilet surrounded by what looks like a shower curtain. He resumes his conversation with his buddy at the urinal, discussing the merits of the upcoming bands advertised on the wall.
Sure enough, by the time my friend and I meet back up, our sight line is significantly diminished.
Later the same evening, we continue our night out at SOMA leather bar the Eagle Tavern for its Thursday Night Live event with New York electro-industrial duo Light Asylum. I’ve heard stories of blowjobs (or more) on the back patio, but tonight my main concern is how my stage fright is going to handle the show-and-tell theater that doubles as a restroom at the Eagle.
Though most people’s first impression of me is that I’m gay, I’m really not, and despite the fact that I tend to crave attention, I’m not an exhibitionist. Which is why what I’m confronted with is a bit unsettling: There’s no privacy whatsoever, and there are mirrors everywhere, most notably one strategically placed over the trough urinal. All alone, I pull out my junk and am suddenly conflicted: The idea of being cruised during such a vulnerable moment is petrifying, and yet during the agonizing minute it takes for me to get a steady stream going, I keep hoping someone will show up for the sake of the story. (No, seriously, I’m not gay.)
I end up pissing alone, so the big tale of the night comes from my friend. She fights her way through the crowd during the show to get to her bathroom, which is not only located behind the stage but can only be accessed by walking across it. “Being onstage didn’t seem as intimidating as I had imagined – I felt pretty far removed from the band,” she says, before pausing. “I don’t know if that’s true or if I was just too drunk to really notice.” She reports that there’s blood on the toilet seat, which makes me throw up a little in my mouth and brings on a wave of scary childhood memories about communicable diseases.
The grande dame of San Francisco music venues, the art-deco Bimbo's 365 Club, offers one of the nicer surroundings for relieving oneself, but it comes with a double-edged sword: the attendant. Handing out towels and mints, they’re toilet tooth fairies, but if you have any extra business to take care of – as I did several years back after a disagreeing Indian meal – it can be quite traumatizing knowing that someone is sitting there just a few feet away taking it all in.
Thankfully, during the recent Cap’n Jazz show no such turbulence is experienced, but my friend and I are both disappointed at the lack of attention we receive from our attendants. Apparently they figure the audience members are as DIY as the band. Still, the spaces themselves are great: With four vanities, a three-way mirror, and a couch, it’s surprising that women ever leave their bathroom – and for anyone concerned about germs, there’s nothing more magical than the foot flush.
The Great American Music Hall and Slim's are sisters, so it’s not surprising that the bathrooms have somewhat similar personalities. The Great American facilities are adorned with the same fliers I saw at the Brandon Flowers show, though the bigger bathrooms are located upstairs. Another difference between the two venues is that due to the walkways on both sides of the floor of the Great American, it’s much easier to leave your friends at the beginning of a song and sneak back in before it’s over, especially if the single-seaters by the door aren’t occupied.
With time to kill before Jenny and Johnny play to a sold-out crowd, I decide to venture to the second-floor bathrooms and make my way over to one of the two urinals, which are too close for comfort. Happy to still be wearing my day-job douchebag outfit that includes a long-sleeve shirt that keeps my business to myself, I have a slight urge to make things even more uncomfortable by asking the guy next to me how things are going. But I really need to go and I know the interaction would kill my momentum. Besides, I don’t want to get punched in the mouth.
A week later, my friend and I are inside the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre. Since the venue is nice enough to ring some bells before the show starts, our first stop is the bathroom. It reminds me of the high-school bathroom inside the auditorium I’d sneak into for some privacy – all the way down to the single-serve toilet-paper dispensers (which are now just for show because the Palace conveniently supplies its patrons with two-ply rolls).
I assume the bathroom is empty because everyone’s early to the show, waiting patiently in their seats for the show to start, but alas,when I get to my seat, I realize that the rest of the city doesn’t share my fanaticism for Mark Kozelek.
I spent 50 bucks to sit front-row center, and after going through my mental rolodex of all the times I’ve heard Kozelek heckle an audience member (myself included), I decide to avoid a mid-show spectacle by making a quick follow-up trip to squeeze out just a little more. Even if I weren’t in the front row, I would have done the same. With insanely long rows, it’s basically impossible to get up in the middle of a Palace of Fine Arts show without tripping over a handful of annoyed people.
My john journey ends at Bottom of the Hill, which can be tricky when it’s sold out, since the bathrooms are located in an area next to stage left that can get packed with band equipment and smokers moving in and out of the back patio. Having played in Oakland the night before, Shonen Knife doesn’t draw a large crowd on a Sunday night, which means I have ample time to look around the small bathroom without being disturbed. The band-sticker wallpaper seems to suggest that by adding your band to the pile you’re only dooming yourself to obscurity, and for some reason this is the first time I’ve noticed the heavily etched mirror.
Standing here, I’m thankful to be all by myself – partly because sometimes I like to be alone with my thoughts, but mostly because these two urinals are even closer together than the ones at the Great American. With a beer in one hand and the reason for this story in the other, I’m relieved to know that I’ll never have to look this closely at a public restroom ever again.
Pretty much every venue in SF has shows year-round, and until the city passes a piss tax, once inside you can use the bathrooms for free. Following my tour will take you around the city and into some of the best live-music venues in the country: Slim's and the Eagle Tavern are blocks away from each other in SOMA, Bimbo's is in North Beach, the Great American is in the Tenderloin, the Palace of Fine Arts is in the Marina, and Bottom of the Hill is at the base of Potrero Hill.