Saturday, April 30, 2016
Welcome to the restroom of Mort's Deli.
"I'm just wondering, with all this talk about transgendered people using the washroom, I want to know, who is going to be doing the checking? How do they plan on enforcing the law?"
—Phone message, April 29, 2016
"Good evening. Welcome to the restroom of Mort's Deli. Please feel free to avail yourself to a stick of Wrigley's spearmint chewing gum or Lifesaver mint. But only one, please.
"Why yes, I remember you, too. You asked for blueberry bagels last year. There is no such thing as a blueberry bagel. Not at the Steinberg Bakery which is closed for a month. Being remodeled. We are installing new, crazy expensive terrazzo counters and tile floor. The contractor said two weeks which means four. In the meantime, I told my brother Morton that I'd help him with the restroom duty at the delicatessen when I wasn't overseeing the work. You have to watch them, like a hawk you do.
"It is not easy, the rest room duty. Believe me. Now a nice gentleman like yourself, there is no need to ah ... examine the package. But younger men, teenagers, they can be very smooth-skinned and fair. The way they dress nowadays. Hard to tell the boys from the girls....
"No, I have not had a lady come in here yet a, how do you say, transgendered individual. But I've only been here a week. Morty's sister, Alice, is in the ladies room. She had someone she was certain was a man. I mean, there were shoulders, a mustache....
"No, no, we cannot touch the patron. That would be assault. All we can is ask. Insist. Alice asked the lady to ... well, see the goods. This lady, she became very offended, and left before the police could be called. Which is good, you are supposed to call the police, because it is a crime, to go into the men's room with the equipment of a woman, and versus vice.
"Turns out, Mort said later, it was indeed a woman—Mrs. Berkowitz's sister, visiting from Cleveland. She had never been here before, which is why Alice didn't recognize her. Her own fault, really, for not being a customer. Still, an unfortunate incident. Not only did the sister get mad, but Mrs. Berkowitz too. A good customer for 20 years. She'll come around. Where else can you get such garlic pickles? Nowhere. Mort makes them himself, from Polish cucumbers raised in oaken tubs.
"But the law is the law. 'The Illinois Restroom Safety and Decency Act.' It's framed right there on the counter, next to the bottle of Old Spice. Please feel free to avail yourself to the Old Spice. It's bracing.
"The law requires that the act be framed and prominently displayed, though I think that Moishe would do so anyway. He doesn't want his customers to think that he cares ... about ... you know ... what they have ... down there. He only cares that you order a corn beef sandwich, or something, enjoy your lunch, and not linger. Sometimes people linger, eating the rolls and pickles—the best!—for hours. But what can you do? You can't throw them out. Even a cup of coffee. That was the biggest problem Mort had, people who get a club soda and think they're entitled to a basket of rolls and a jar of pickles.
"But times change. Mort has had his deli here for, what, 50 years? More. Since 1964. Before it belonged to our uncle Sol. It was called Sol's. But Sol became ill, and had no children. Well, two girls, but no boys to pass the business onto. Girls have no sense for the business. The girls had no interest in the delicatessen, went to school somewhere and got jobs, one became, I don't know, a physicist, the other a pilot.
"In all that time, there was never trouble with the restroom. Well, sometimes a parent would order their kid the Jumbo Atomic Hot Fudge Sundae, and let the child eat the whole thing—it's supposed to be shared with four people—and he would rush into the bathroom and, well, let me tell you. My brother told me it was like somebody pulled the pin on a grenade in there. There was throw-up on the ceiling.
"But as far as men dressed as women lurking about the stalls, pouncing upon the customers doing their business, that was never a problem. Which is what makes the law so strange to me. Now Mort, he says it isn't about restrooms, really. Me, as a baker, I'm used to silly laws. We have to have the kitchen checked for rodent activity, as if that were possible in an establishment of such unsurpassed cleanliness as the Steinberg Bakery. But in other places, yes, so I go along. I try to be a good citizen. Which Mort does too. Though he has a theory. He says, with the Internet and cell phones and freedom, it gets harder to kick the people you hate. Time was, you could, literally, you saw somebody you didn't like, a schwartz, a fairy, whatever, you could walk over, give 'em a kick. And what were they going to do? Nothing. Nobody cared what happened to them.
"Now, oh boy. Everybody cares. They post the video and everybody cries. Suddenly there are no people ashamed to show their faces in public. They get to ride the bus, use the bathroom, wherever they please. It's a new world. But some people, they don't like it. They have the itchy toe. They're still itching to give their kick and, blocked one way, find another. Not me. I hate no one. I am a businessman. You come in, I sell you butter cookies, no matter how loathsome an individual you happen to be when you are not buying my cookies. It isn't my business. My business is selling you cookies, so give me the money, and get out. Four weeks. Six tops.
"This law. This stupid law. So now somebody has to sit in the bathroom, checking. In every public restroom with more than two stalls. Sadly, Mort's Deli has three, though he's going to hire my contractor—Sheldon Finkleman and Brothers, the best!— to rip one out. As soon as they're done at the Steinberg Bakery. By June, God willing.
"Until then, well, here I am. Trying to make the best of it. Not so bad. I got the newspaper. There's the radio, easy listening. Part of it is nice -- like the old days, when there were clubs. The Chez Paree, the Trade Winds. I once saw Tony Bennett at the Double Door. You can't imagine. There was always a colored fellow in the bathroom, handing out towels and brushing off shoulders. Mort should have an actual colored fellow, but it isn't so easy to find one who'll sit in a restroom and guard the mints. Besides, for the enforcement of the law, that requires a certain finesse, a certain authority. Which is why Morty turned to me. I am a figure of respect at the Steinberg Bakery, and run a right ship here. Still, most people are the gender that God intended them to be, and are just answering nature's call, and since I'm here anyway, I try to make it a little elegant for them, for all of us, with the fancy lotions and the music and the aftershave and the combs in blue water. Here's a towel. Please deposit it in the wicker basket. People can be pigs. I know. Here, help yourself to a stick of Wrigley spearmint gum, but only one. Some people scoop up the tray. And thank you -- some gentlemen, they take the gum but leave nothing. Which is their right, but leaves a lingering bitterness. Still, it takes all sorts to make a world. Let me tell you. A little kindness goes a long way. I wish more people knew that.