My Bladder and the Mosque

by

11/02/2001

Atlantic Ave & Nevins St, Brooklyn, NY 11217

Neighborhood: Brooklyn

The family practice doctor I go to probably would not want to be in this piece, so let’s just say that his last name sounds like a company that makes really good frozen blintzes, or soup that, when you stick the plastic bag in boiling water and cut it open, the pearl barley and mushrooms taste as rich as a bubbe’s homemade.

This doctor is so good that he topped the list in a special in New York magazine issue about the best MD’s in town. He’s got an office in a dowager apartment building, a secretary who’s a male with dreadlocks, and examining rooms hung with pop music “theme” photos. When I brought my cute teenaged son in because he was having growing pains, Dr. Jewish-food-name put him in the “Rolling Stones” room under a gorgeous, Avedonesque picture of Mick Jagger. My daughter went for morning-after pills and was directed to John Coltrane and Billie Holiday.

But I ended up in the nothing cubicle, the one whose only picture is a chart explaining gallstones. As I stared at the sad yellow pebbles, the doctor barely suppressed a yawn. He was reviewing my cholesterol readings and listening to me complain about my constant urge to pee.

“Estrogen deficiency,” he said as he riffled through my file. “Your bladder tissue is losing elasticity because you’re nearing menopause and your hormone levels are decreasing. Still, I hesitate to start you on estrogen. The question is, how long can you wait?” (He looked like he’d rather be in the British Invasion room.) “It’s entirely up to you and your personal comfort level. You can stay off hormones as long as you can deal with the feeling of having to urinate. Get dressed, come back in six months, we’ll talk more then.” He snapped the chart shut and headed off to “Some Girls.”

“Sure, I can deal,” I thought as I pulled on my jeans. If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s shy about finding a bathroom when I need it, and barging my way in if necessary. Life for a middle-aged woman in New York City is a private, inner map. The free toilets are marked by McDonalds, Taco Bells, public libraries, Macy’s and good hotels. Certain pizza joints and most china criollas are equivalent to cheap coffee — the purchase of which allows you entrée to the can. And there is that expensive, obnoxious fallback when nothing else is available: Starbucks.

Being in a new part of town is always a challenge, but one tries to look on the bright side: the relentless urge to pee becomes part of the adventure. Not that it seems adventurous while it’s occurring. There’s the fullness, the twinge, the out-and-out ache, and the gnawing fear of being stranded in a bathroom-less outback. Yet something always comes up, because you have no choice but to let it. You have to enter the Ecuadoran dive on Roosevelt Avenue, even if you can’t bear to see another lonely Latino fellow without papers staring into his beans. And when you do go in, the waitress turns out to be from a place you’ve been in Mexico, and she likes to talk. Ditto for the fried chicken place on 125th Street, where the help look mean through window, but really aren’t once you go inside, and the jukebox turns out to have Howlin’ Wolf. Of course, at other places the help is less than nice, and the jukebox sucks, not to mention the coffee. But one’s urges become more and more urgent and they will not wait. At that point, one does what one must.

The urge was bad last year, in Brooklyn. The family and I were headed down Atlantic Avenue to Sahadi’s, the store with all the Middle Eastern nuts, dried fruits and falafel flour in barrels. We were still many blocks away when I got the twinge. It came so suddenly that I could have peed right on the street. I was swaying with shame and worry. I needed swift relief, but still had too much pride to ask for favors. I only wanted — only needed — a joint with some coffee and a john. I picked the place that looked cheapest and told the husband and kids to wait outside.

It was on the Muslim block near Nevins. Storefronts done up in Arabic line Atlantic here, their windows filled with bright liquids, black soaps, head coverings for women, and inscrutable books that appear at once frightening and holy. Unfortunately, none of these places looked like they would let walk-ins use the bathroom. Until I saw one with the word “paradise” on its sign. “All take-out $3,” a piece of cardboard said. I walked in and was hit by lamb smells, chickpea smells, olive oil smells, and — yes! — the odor of 50-cent coffee. A dark-skinned youth in a counterman’s apron grunted at me politely. I placed my order: regular, with one Sweet-n’-Low. They had the Sweet-n’-Low, which was a surprise, since I could not imagine the other customers using it. Every one of them had a beard and a fez-like hat, and each was dressed in something that hung to his knees, if not to the floor.

It was a little daunting, but then, I’ve always had a soft spot not just for frozen blintzes and soups, but also for beards and hats and long somethings on men. So, both emboldened and agitated, I made my move.

“Where’s the bathroom?” I said, in my best “I-don‘t-take-‘there’s-no-bathroom-here’-for-an-answer” voice.

“You. Can use bathroom next building,” said the counter boy. “Through back. Door on right.”

“Thank you.” I trooped past the little formica tables and their fraternity of men only, scooping various stews onto pitas. None of them looked at me — in fact, they seemed to studiously look away. I pushed through a set of cheap, Casbah-shaped doors that resembled the entrance to a Shriner’s Temple. I took a right and opened another door. And suddenly I was in a mosque.

At least, that’s what it said — “mosque” — in black, makeshift letters on a wall. The wall was unpainted plaster. It stretched down a long, bare hall into darkness. Maybe there was a prayer room somewhere to the side, but I didn’t see it. All I noticed were big posters wheat-pasted to the wall. They were all identical, and they showed a photograph of a 12-year-old named Muhammed, the boy who had died days before in his father’s arms in Gaza, after rocks were thrown at Israeli soldiers and the soldiers fired back in response. The picture was painful and awful and repetitive. The writing on the posters was mostly Arabic and thus incomprehensible. But I could tell it had nothing kind to say about people like me.

Still, the men next door were letting me use the bathroom. That was very nice of them. And what a bathroom. It had the usual stalls, but instead of individual sinks there was a large, cement trough with a water spigot that never turned off. “Attention,” said a sign, in English, above the flowing spigot. “It is the holy duty of each woman to perform the ritual ablutions to Allah, the Most Holy, the Most High” and more sacred instructions that made me wonder if it was OK for someone like me to be there. Could a Muslim use a mikvah? I wondered. But I was not there to wonder, I was there for my urge.

I stumbled into a stall and peed. My God, what relief! Then I approached the trough, did my ablutions, and got out ex post haste. On the way back were the same posters, with the same dead Palestinian child and the same unreadable, furious script. Out on the sidewalk, my husband said I seemed a little odd. I had the same look on my face, he said, as that time we went to Boro Park on Saturday and I found the kapote — the Chassidic black men’s caftan — in a garbage can.

“Yeah well, guess what? I was just in a mosque! The only woman around, much less non-Muslim woman!” I felt more like a derring doer than a middle-aged pisher. I vowed to spend at least another five years without estrogen, and made a note to myself: “Cancel six-month appointment in the gall bladder room.”

That all happened in Fall, 2000. The next time we got a yen to go to Sahadi’s was about a year later. It was Labor Day — or to be more precisely New York, West Indian Parade Day. It was a glorious September afternoon, eight days before the day that everything would change for the city. After watching the floats, we caught a bus to Atlantic Avenue. We’d barely gotten off when I got the twinge. I started my search, but this time it was a breeze. There were the Muslim stores again, and the café calling out with the word “paradise.” I had urges, sure. Terrible ones, and the only place to vent them was full of males and ritual and anger. Still, this place was on my inner map, as solid and comforting as Mount Rushmore.

So I started replaying the routine.

There was the same take out sign, the counter boy, the smells, the bearded customers, the same total absence of women. I bought the coffee and took the Sweet-n’-Low.

“May I use the bathroom?” I asked, readying myself for the mosque. But this time things were different.

“Bathroom in back,” said the youth.

“OK.”

“But no through door. Only here in back.”

“Only here?”

“Here.”

I went in the direction of the Casbah doors, but before I got there I saw the john. Nothing special, just a normal dumpy room like you find in a normal dumpy eatery. It had the international logo for “man” on it. There was no room or international logo for “woman.”

And you could tell it was a men’s bathroom. The seat was up, the toilet paper dispenser was empty, and the mirror was broken. I wondered why I could not use the mosque anymore. I missed the trough and the ablution signs with their distaff instructions. I even missed the angry, tender posters. But there wasn’t time to wonder. I had to pee so bad that when I sat on the toilet, I almost moaned.

I had barely finished and pulled up my jeans when a furious knocking sounded on the door. I unlatched it and a robed customer almost fell inside. I was shocked: here was a man in a place that was normally pure of women, yet he was so anxious to get in the bathroom that he practically pushed himself at me. What had happened to his pious reserve? What urges had obliterated his temperance? Would he find the means to express those urges? And if so, how?

I scurried from the bathroom, feeling somehow less human, even less feminine. I wondered if I should start taking estrogen. I thought about calling my doctor, whose name is like good, frozen glatt.

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