Paul Bunyan's Bathroom

It’s Charlie’s first “Paul Bunyan” weekend, living all alone in his boss’s plumbing-free trailer. He’s living like a real man, my sister says. She’s the one who came up with the Paul Bunyan thing. “It sounds manly without plumbing,” she says. “Like something a guy would like. No aiming, no flushing, no putting the seat down.”

Charlie does sound happy when he calls me while driving to work to pee. I suspect he’s secretly going out in the middle of the night when no one’s looking and peeing near the side of the house by moonlight. When we fixed up houses, I’m convinced he secretly delayed finishing the bathrooms just so he could have an excuse to pee in the bushes. He talks about those days without plumbing way too fondly.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, and I know I have but you weren’t listening, we had to cash advance our credit cards to get someone to buy our 700 square feet of fun in Multnomah Village. We have no equity and no savings and now, only a couch, bed, dining room table, and some IKEA red bookshelves we couldn’t give away, and a burned-up pot I won’t give away.

I love this pot because I can make popcorn in it the old-fashioned way and it doesn’t burn. I’ve burned a lot of pots in my popcorn past so even though people say, “Isn’t it about time you got rid of this?” it’s my pot and my it’s kitchen so no, it isn’t time. I’ve lived without plumbing but I won’t live without my popcorn pot.

I’m comfortable in our new apartment in SF, with only the smells of 79 years of peeing and eight years of bird droppings and an unknown duration of stinking cat urine. Tenants weren’t allowed to keep cats but one obviously was living here and got stuck in the kitchen cabinet (where I currently keep my popcorn pan) and peed. As far as the birds, I have a witness. Dylan, the son who lives in the clean-grouted, sunny apartment in the top back of the building, lived here at the same time as the previous manager. “She let the birds fly free all the time,” he said. “I saw them.” I see their effects.

I smell their effects still. I can sit in one place in the apartment and with just a slight turn of my head go from smelling coffee and toast to bird and shit. We’ve painted almost every inch of wall (and wallpaper, ugh) and ceiling so it’s on this side of a health inspection. Before we did that, though, Charlie took all of one morning scraping and sandpapering the baseboards in the living room, freeing the decorative indentation from the treasures of free-flying fowl.

The only remaining aviary aroma is in my closet. I keep it shut all the time and when I have to trespass into the guano graveyard to make a clothing decision, yes I keep my clothes in there, I have to move quickly or I’ll get a headache and become unable make any decision, clothing or otherwise. It’s a smell you can’t quite figure out and if it were the only smell left that I couldn’t quite figure out in here, I’d have no reason to think so much about what my nose is doing.

There are other, unknown, mysterious odors I cannot explain but about which I can certainly complain. I’ll be sitting at my table, drinking my coffee, minding my own business and certainly not telling anyone what to do with their cookware, and I’ll smell the definite odor of weed-killer. Hopefully it’s coming from outside as I keep the windows open. Even though the cold air tends to kick the heater on, I think it’s better to die by freezing than to die by paint fumes. We haven’t painted for a week but the smell won’t go away.

I look out the windows. One side of the apartment faces an interior, concrete courtyard so there’s no spraying happening there. The other side faces Golden Gate Park but it’s all the way across the street. You’d have to do a lot of spraying for me to smell it in my kitchen. I look outside and the park ranger woman who usually runs around working like crazy on the plants isn’t in view and neither is anyone with any sort spraying apparatus. I try to ignore it and I don’t smell it after a while. It’s just one more unexplained apartment mystery aroma.

What I smell now is something sort of musty and dusty, like the smell of fixer-uppers. When we fixed up houses, we moved in at closing, before they were in any sort of habitable shape. The kids refused to live in them right away for one good reason: there were mice. There were mice and rats and spiders and spider webs and asbestos and earwigs and a snake once, and a family of squirrels living under the downstairs shower and bats in the attic and peeling lead paint and a nutria running along the edge of the family room studs and out what should have been a sliding glass door. I thought I had said goodbye to fixer-uppers and this particular smell since we can’t afford to buy a house again, but we’re getting all the reward of living in a fixer-upper without the financial benefit: the sweat without the equity. But mostly, we’re getting smells.

I asked my Dad, the owner (you have to know someone to get a joblike this) if the previous manager had a cat. “Oh I think they did have a cat,” he said. “But that’s because they complained about the mice.”


“The manager said mice used to crawl out from the heater.”

The heater in the apartment is right in the middle of the hallway. You can’t see it unless you’re standing in front of it, looking at it. Mice could be crawling out from there right now and I wouldn’t know it. I move over a little to watch, just in case.

“The heater connects to everyone’s apartment from the basement so the manager put mouse traps there,” my dad said. “I don’t know what happened to the cat. Let me know if you see any mice. Meanwhile, you might want to keep watch of your recycling. They’d love that.”

Later when he left, I opened up the heater and cleaned everything I could see. It wasn’t dirty and I didn’t see any mice feces, just so you know. I didn’t see bird droppings, either. I won’t think about what’s going on where I can’t see. That’d just be paranoid.

The garbage cans are stored in the courtyard almost directly underneath my window so you’d think I’d get the whiff of rotting garbage. I clean up the courtyard every now and then, being the apartment manager, and I take a look inside the garbage cans when I’m dumping stuff inside. Doesn’t everyone do that? How else am I going to know what’s going on? Oddly, though, it doesn’t look like anyone lives here. It’s almost empty except for some laundry sheets and plastic bags with bright colored smell-less objects inside. The garbage cans don’t smell that bad. The smells I’m enjoying must be all mine.

All mine is the smell of my own bathroom. The building is 79 years old so I figure the first person living here was a guy with bad aim, or several blind guys with bad aim. The original manager must have decided instead of cleaning it up, he might as well rent to more of the same. What was once a beautiful art deco bathroom is now another reason why grout should be outlawed. There’s gorgeous green and black art deco tile decorating the lower half of the bathroom walls. I’d love to look at it without having to see a grid of gunky dark brown grout. I scrubbed at it twice with all the chemicals I could buy and now it’s a grid of gunky light brown grout. I tell myself not to look as I could really get weird thinking about how these walls got this icky.

The floor, however, is the big beast of the bathroom. I know the original grout color was white. After two serious, backbreaking rounds with Comet, grout cleaner, an industrial brush and a sharp knife, it’s still black. It’s deep, nutty black; lumpy and gross and it smells like a gas station, which is seriously the last time I saw a toilet like the one I have in this place. It has a black seat and a big pipe coming out from the wall instead of a tank and when you flush, you use at least twenty gallons. It makes a huge waterfall sound and splashes everywhere. I won’t mention the buildup of unmentionable stuff around the toilet but I will mention this is where the sharp knife came into my cleaning process. I didn’t get it all and the little art deco white and green tiles next to the toilet will never be green or white again. Let’s just say you should never see that color brown in a bathroom.

Unless, of course, you’re peeing by moonlight.