So I was cleaning the bathroom the other day and it reminded me of an incident from my youth on Lesbos.
When we lived in Molybos, every day when I got home from school my father and I would walk down to the harbour to see what there was to be had for dinner. The fortress loomed over us in the narrow streets until the view opened to the sea, that rare shade of blue that only the Aegean has, and we would hurry past the butcher’s down the hill to the boats. Sometimes the green-grocer would seduce us with something sweetly scented and summery, and on Saturdays my father would often buy me a piece of Turkish honeycomb to much on while we wound our way through the town.
Iceplant ran wild along the streets and sometimes we would pick the fleshy, spiky flowers and bring them home to put on the dinner table, a splash of colour to go with our fried fish and lemon.
On this particular evening, we were walking back up the hill with the fish in a paper parcel when we noticed that a toilet had entered from a side street and was proceeding briskly uphill. We must have been running later than usual that day because there was no sign of anyone else in the street, just us and the toilet. My father and I looked at each, hoping one would reassure the other that the image we were seeing wasn’t actually real. It was a bit over the top, even for Greece.
“Kalispera,” my father called to the toilet, which paused in its tracks for a moment and turned to ascertain the direction from which the sound came.
“Kalispera,” the toilet replied, gravely.
We all stood awkwardly in the street for a moment.
Finally, my father worked up the nerve to say something else.
“Lovely evening, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” the toilet said, settling all the way onto the ground. While we watched with fascination, the lid crept up a bit and a pair of somber eyes appeared. “It is a beautiful evening. The fireflies will be out soon.”
Toilets were still a little unusual in Molybos–we made do with a perfectly good outhouse, and while I was aware of the plumbed toilet as an abstract concept, I wasn’t sure that the street was the best place for one. I also wasn’t sure what the ettiquete involved in addressing a toilet might be. “What’s a fixture like you doing in a place like this?” “Nice day for a shit?” Luckily, my father was up to the task.
“What brings you to Molybos,” he said.
“The Stephanopoulos family ordered a toilet,” the man inside said, finally extricating himself and perching on the lid. He was one of the more peculiar people I’ve ever seen, being very small indeed yet entirely covered in wrinkles. He fished a pouch of tobacco and a pipe out of his pocket and sorted that out before continuing. “I came over from Athens to install it.”
The town was plumbed, naturally, although some of us still relied on public pumps for water. But most people stuck with outdoor toilets, and with good reason–plumbing backups were quite common and could have catastrophic results (which I shall have to detail in another post). Most of us sorted out our own plumbing issues, but I could imagine the appeal of a specialist from Athens along with his glistening porcelain products.
“Do you know where the house is?”
“Well no, actually, I don’t,” the man said, puffing vigorously on his pipe. “I assume I’ll find it eventually.”
“Well,” my father said, “it’s sort of on the way home, so we can take you there.”
“Excellent,” the little man said. “If you wouldn’t mind waiting a moment, I’d like to finish my pipe.”
“Certainly,” my father replied.
We sat in companionable silence, my father and I on the low sea-wall and the toilet man on the toilet, and watched the sun begin to set. As predicted, the fireflies came out in force. When the man had finished with his pipe, he tapped the ash out over the wall and slipped back into the toilet, and we continued our path up the street.
We realized that with his visibility limited, the man was tracking our voices, and we began to talk to him about his career as a toilet installer, Athens, and fishing. It turned out that when the order for the toilet had been placed, the man had been directed to Mytilene, and he had arrived earlier that day in plenty of time to install the toilet and leave the island by dusk. He informed us that he usually carried his wares in the unorthodox fashion in which we first discovered him, because it was the most convenient. Once the destination had been straightened out, he caught a ride to Molybos with a group of gregarious fishermen and there encountered us.
He traveled around the Greek islands bringing the wonder of indoor shitting to the populace, and said he greatly enjoyed his job, for the people he met and places he was able to see. He had a wife and an assortment of children at home in Athens, one of whom he hoped would follow him into the plumbing trade, which was catching on in a big way on the more rural islands.
Eventually, we reached the house of the Stephanopoulos family and after making sure he had reached the right house we continued on our way home, there to fry fish and sit out in the summer night eating it with lemon. If my father felt inspired, he might pick up the saxophone and play for a bit, or compose a new song: “Ballad of the Walking Toilet,” perhaps.