I duck into the closest public restroom. My all-access badge could get me into the shelter staff bathroom, but it’s up two flights of stairs. Last time I left the computers unattended, one of the residents starting watching porn in front of some kids. The director had the whole section shut down until they could get some filters put on.
I push through the men’s room door. The light inside is dim, the walls a dark brown tile. Some of the fluorescents are flickering. The stalls are flooded, piles of decaying toilet paper forming levees, inlets, and archipelagos in the swamp of commode water and piss. It’s hot, tropical, poisonous.
In the far corner stands an old black man: tall, wiry, graying matted hair, a week’s worth of beard on sunken cheeks. He’s completely naked, and dripping wet. He has an enormous cock, hanging halfway to his knees. I stop in my tracks for a second, a double-take.
He’s washing up in the bathroom sink and trying to dry himself with paper towels from the automatic hand towel dispenser. The machine spits out one small sheet every three or four seconds when you wave your hand in front of it. He looks up, right at me. His eyes are angry, red-rimmed, exhausted.
He waves his hand and a small square of paper whirrs out of the machine.
I try to avoid his gaze as I cross to the urinal. We’re the only two men in the room but I pretend not to see him, the way I pretend not to see homeless panhandlers at traffic lights.
“Why they shut off the muthafuckin’ showers at eight o’clock? I been on a bus twenty hours, why I can’t take a muthafuckin’ shower?”
I don’t know. I just run the computers. My shoulders tense with the effort of feigning deafness.
Whirr. I hear him tear off another towel.
“I been in that water! Why they don’t let a man wash?”
I try to piss but it won’t come. Stage fright. I can’t piss with a naked black man burning holes in the back of my skull.
I flush a few times, hoping the running water will start something. Really just trying to fake it long enough to be able to escape.
One more flush, shake it as if I’d actually gotten any out. Button my fly, brace myself, and turn towards the sinks.
He is drying under his arms with a wad of paper, wiping across his chest, which is still soapy with pink slime from the hand soap dispenser. Sodden towels mix with the grime-encrusted clothes on the floor at his bare feet, the clothes he’d probably been wearing since the day of the flood. His pubic hair shines with droplets of water, rivulets running down his legs and dripping off his bony knees.
He tries to dry his back, and the crack of his ass. I look away. I wonder how he could have become so wet using just a men’s room sink.
I wash my hands at the sink farthest from him, washing thoroughly, like I imagine a doctor would, worried about the superbug rumors that keep going around the shelter staff. The germs have yet to appear, but the rumors have infected everyone like a virus.
He’s drying one leg without much luck, muttering curses under his breath, words I can’t quite catch. Words that might be directed at the towel, at the shelter, at me.
I dry my hands and toss my dirty towels in the general direction of the overflowing trash can, catching a glance once more at his immense nakedness. Our eyes meet again in the mirror; his reflection stares back at me.
It’s my job to help him.
I look away.
He dismisses me and tries to get the rest of the soap off of his chest.
Back in the din of the main dorm, five thousand simultaneous conversations echo off the cavernous ceiling.
I could get him a real towel and some clothes from the pile of donations.
“Excuse me, sir? Do you know if FEMA was here today?”
“What?” My face is hot. I’m confused; I can’t remember what I was doing. I look down at a middle-aged woman. She is wider than she is tall, in big-legged pajama bottoms and an XXL t-shirt that is two X’s too small, emblazoned with a “Dell Enterprise Solutions” logo.
Why don’t they let the man take a shower? Why can’t somebody who lived on a roof or a bridge for a week take a shower?
“Was FEMA here today? All them signs on the walls say FEMA will be here Tuesday and today is Tuesday but we ain’t heard nothing about FEMA being here.”
I could track down the social workers in the medical area and tell them a man in the bathroom needs help.
The woman is pulling at my sleeve.
“Uh…no, ma’am, FEMA hasn’t been here yet.”
I could have asked him if he needed help.
Pee. That’s it. I still have to pee.
I excuse myself and head for the stairs, for the safety and sanity of the staff area. In the staff area they have breakfast tacos, and donuts, and coffee, and a lady who will yell at you if you don’t use hand sanitizer as soon as you walk in the door. In the staff area, they have clean bathrooms.
I could have said hello to him.
After I pee, I use the hand sanitizer. I don’t get yelled at.
I grab a donut and flop down in the nearest chair. The blonde EMT across the table smiles at me. I try to smile back. I think about saying hello.
The donut is stale, and sheds cinnamon grit down my shirt. I don’t bother to dust it off.