Now that the “holiday season” (Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the release of Avatar) is finally behind us, I can say with finality that I never got around to visiting the Charmin public restrooms here in NYC. I certainly had my chances, but it just would have felt too strange for me to see the final results of the process that took place on November 5th.

Let me tell you about the events of that day. What I am about to share with you is a completely true, accurate report. I know this because I was the one shady-looking participant standing around with a little notebook, writing down every single ludicrous thing I heard and saw.

Every year around the holidays, Charmin—yes, the toilet paper company—sets up these really nice public bathrooms in Times Square. They exist to serve all the desperate shoppers who can’t find a place to pee when they’re running from Bloomie’s to the M&M Store. This year, for the first time ever, they decided to hire five people to be greeters at the bathroom and blog about the experience. When I told my mother about this on the phone, she was unimpressed. But then I added, “It pays $10,000.” That sealed the deal for getting parental encouragement.

In order to choose the lucky five, Charmin held an open audition. The online posting for the job had been sent my way by three different friends along with notes like “You gotta try out for this!” I should mention here that “toilet blogging” was my own derogatory moniker for the post. The official title Charmin had adopted was a lot more highfalutin: “Charmin Ambassador.”

Charmin’s description said that Ambassador candidates should “Have a resume on-hand, have an outgoing personality, exude enthusiasm, and possess social media savvy.” I felt that I had all of these, in spades. At the very least, I was certainly capable of printing out my resume. The ad continued: “Auditions will begin promptly at 10 a.m. on November 5. Interested applicants may line up at the New York Hilton starting at 8 a.m. Only the first 1,000 candidates in line will be guaranteed an audition.” Since I’m a complete idiot, I assumed barely anyone would show up. I even laughed at their delusional hope of attracting 1,000 people.

I had forgotten about a sizable group in New York: the unemployed. Arriving at 8:25 put me at #182 in the line, which was a harrowing sight that snaked along the outside wall of the hotel. In addition, it turned out to be (how grand!) the first truly cold fall morning of my three months in New York. While I and the other 184 losers stood shivering, peppy assistants with headsets ran around handing out yellow sign-in sheets, to which they stapled Polaroid snapshots they took of each person.

I examined the form and found pretty standard questions about my profession (none), my age (young), and my agent. Wait, they were asking me for the name of my agent? I didn’t have one.

I quickly learned that most of the people in line were not bright-eyed journalism students, but out-of-work actors. In fact, Charmin had hired a casting director to run the auditions. Some people were even practicing lines from plays. I was out of my element.

“Don’t worry, lots of people here are amateurs!” a cute casting assistant told me after I expressed concern. “Yeah, I’ll bet that guy doesn’t have an agent,” I quipped, pointing to an old man leaning on a cane. I found it somehow mortifying that a person over forty was trying out to be a toilet blogger. This man looked about seventy. Sporting a giant silver beard and a trucker hat that said BEAST on it, he looked like he could have been the drummer for ZZ Top. When a cameraman rushed down the line to get reaction shots and people waved or whooped, the old man shouted at the camera, of all things, “Good to see you!” which seemed to me a bizarre choice.

Everywhere around me were more people to ridicule. The girl directly in front of me had brought along a small ukulele, and was singing a song she had written about toilet paper. “My favorite thing about the go,” she crooned, “is I get that time for me!” I should add here that the online job description instructed that applicants come prepared to explain, “Why you love the go.”

Still, I wasn’t really thinking of the audition in those terms because I assumed that they really meant, “Tell us why using a public bathroom could be a good experience and how you would make it one as our greeter,” and not, “Tell us why you love urinating or evacuating your bowels.” Of course, to my horror, a good number of people in line had prepared serious answers to that very question.

Meanwhile, a girl in line behind me had forgotten to bring a resume and was now writing one by hand, using a crayon. This was my competition—people who seemed to have walked off the set of Glee.

And boy, people were excited. A chubby, likable guy who must have been around 25 had informed everyone that he was a comedian, and from then on I took everything he said to be a shtick. He especially hammed it up as he told us about the time he took his grandmother to the Charmin restrooms a couple years ago. “Have you guys actually seen them? They’re unbelievable! My grandma said it was more fun than Disney World!” Oh, god.

We learned from our yellow info sheets, which were decorated with that adorable Charmin grizzly bear character at the top (you know, the one who adorably wipes his ass on tree trunks in the commercials), that this job would run from November 23rd to December 31st (so that’s $10,000 for 5 weeks of work) and would require 40 hours a week, including weekends. In truth, I knew as soon as I saw this detail that logistically I could not take this job, were they to offer it to me. For my graduate program I had class all day on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. Even if I worked all day on weekends I wasn’t sure I’d be able to fulfill the 40 hours. Still, I stayed. ‘Go big or go home,’ right?

We were finally allowed to come out of the freezing cold and go into the building at 10:15, but not before I had managed to successfully offend everyone in my near vicinity by announcing, “Why would actors want to try out for this?!” The answer, as many were all too happy to tell me, was money.

Once inside the giant reception room, I came into contact with a host of other misfits who seemed to think it was still Halloween. One woman had dressed in a toilet paper gown. A tall, bald guy had written ‘CHARMIN’ on his skull with a Sharpie pen.

We all sat down in plush hotel conference chairs and began to chatter amongst ourselves. The young woman who sat beside me had brought along an illustration she had done. The drawing depicted a stick version of her, standing in a room before a panel of judges. They were all holding up signs that read ‘9.5’ or ’10.’ I strongly wished that the Charmin judges would not be wooed by unsolicited artistic gifts. When this same girl looked up from her drawing, which she had been examining proudly, she asked me what I could possibly be doing with my iPhone. It had been glued to my hand for quite some time. “I’m tweeting the shit out of this,” I said. And I was.

Another good-looking casting assistant entered the room after forty minutes and finally announced, “We will begin calling numbers shortly. You will head upstairs in groups of ten. Once it’s your individual turn you will enter the room and have no more than 90 seconds to tell the casting people why you should be the Charmin Ambassador!”

After this warning terrified everyone, I witnessed several “routines” in the works, including the same comedian from outside practicing what he called “my TP rap,” a gorgeous Italian girl practicing a dance routine that looked like she had lifted it from Grease, and two siblings juggling toilet paper rolls. Their plan was to audition as a pair.

I found myself extremely fucking annoyed. I felt pretty sure that a woman using the Charmin bathrooms would not want a greeter to get all up in her face, playing ukulele to herald her toilet trip. The innocent visitor would want a warm, normal “hello” with no tiresome shenanigans.

I had a grand plan to say exactly this, to tell the casting director in honest terms that I would make the perfect greeter because I was the common man (in my Timberland boots and un-tucked flannel shirt) and that I had come with no gimmick, no song and dance, just my friendly demeanor and marketable blogging skills.

I grossly misjudged myself, and the event. By 3pm, almost 700 people had shown up. I had sat in the waiting room for nearly five hours, and had consumed two Clif Bars and a Turkey sandwich.

At last the time came for #182. After an elevator ride of pregnant silence with the other nine people in my group, I stepped into the room and a man behind a table, flanked by two women on either side, called across the vast space between us, “Hello. Please stand directly in that circle, directly under that spotlight.” It couldn’t have felt more unnatural. He pressed record on a camera and said, “Ninety seconds, and, go.”

I did not ‘freeze,’ exactly. I said what I had planned to say, but the entire speech was painfully artificial. I found myself making these strange exaggerated hand motions. I could feel that I was giving little forced laughs after each statement—ha!—and that my face was twitching with fake smiles.

I watched all of this as though through a window. It was abundantly clear after only ten seconds that it was not going well, but I kept digging myself into a deeper hole. “Welp, ya know,” I yammered, “I saw a lot of these other people out there [motioning with my thumb like a cartoon character] practicing elaborate songs and dances, and lemme just say I just think that’s kind of fake. See, I’m [pointing to myself the way one might while saying ‘this guy!’] just a down-to-earth, friendly dude. I’m a real people-person [oh no, not that] and I know how people would want to be greeted.”

It was a train wreck. I had heard before my turn that if you were chosen for a callback audition, you would find out on the spot. The man would hand you a blue slip. After I finished speaking, I said with whatever desperate energy I had left, “So that’s it; I’m your guy!” The director looked up from the camera and said sweetly, “It was nice to meet you.” I walked out.

I had spent that day ridiculing the most outlandish freaks there, but they were probably the ones to receive callbacks. Part of me—the bitter asshole part—is still sore that Charmin apparently did not want the outgoing, social media savvy everyman they clamored for, but actually was looking for ebullient, over-the-top clowns.

But that’s not a fair conclusion. Mostly I’m just humbled. I could feel a little silly for wasting a whole day, sure. But the experience was worth it, if only for this mildly entertaining story at parties. I left with a new awareness of my performance limitations. Oh, and I have that coupon they gave everyone for a free 10-pack of Charmin toilet paper. Maybe I’ll mail it to my mother.

Vaselina operates five port-a-potties next to Kazanskaya Cathedral off Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg. In Russian, she’s a Babushka, which means grandmother. Whether Vaselina really has grandchildren makes no difference. She’s one of an army of old post-Soviet women who pour down streets and sidewalks with pocketbooks clutched in one hand, plastic bags of raw meat in the other, linebackers who will, without question, run you the fuck down if you step in their path, especially if you’re inostranetz (foreigner).

 

This photograph was taken at two a.m., during the late June white nights. Operators of port-a-potties wear blue aprons. Vaselina charges ten roubles (32 cents) to use the port-a-potty and fifty roubles (the price of a cab ride) to use the VIP unit located on the far right, which is purported to feel less like slip n’sliding down Satan’s phlegmy asscrack than the port-a-potties to the left.

 

If you’re me, you’re ten shots and six beers into a bottle of Russian Standard Vodka and just tried to carry a very large and famous writer back to his hotel room, but since he’s one hammered ex-marine, and you’re a skinny Jewish boy, you left him on the Griphon bridge propped against the iron railing, legs over the side, facing the Griboedov Channel. If you’re me, your T-shirt is soaked with blood, Baltika 7, Vodka, sweat, and ripped down the middle from when said writer placed you on his shoulders, and dropped you into a mosh pit. You landed elbow-first into the forehead of a Russian Putin-youth who went to punch you, then hugged you, then bought two shots of Standard, then asked if you would like to elbow him in the forehead once again. If you’re me you’ve been looking for a bathroom since you left the bar because the line to use their bathroom extended out the door and into the local produkti (Russian 7-11). You only have a one-thousand-rouble bill, and know from experience that if you ask a Babushka for change, even if you are trying to buy port-a-potty admission, she will sigh tragically, shake her head, and call you one of the many Russian words for pedophile.

 

You could try an alley, or a bush, and before you wiggle it out, you’ll be surrounded by five Russian cops, smacked in the back of the head repeatedly, robbed, jacked, humiliated, and then have your passport held for ransom. They will tell you the penalty for being a drunk inostranetz trying to piss in their alley is a night in the drunk tank. They will tell you to use the port-a-potties like everyone else, that there are five of them located right next to the cathedral and that it only costs ten roubles.  They will tell you if you want your passport back, then come to the police station with one hundred US dollars, in twenties. Ask them what the thousand roubles bought you, they’ll tell you it was a bonus (gratuity).

 

Which puts you back in front of the five port-a-potties, penniless, bladder hot and pumping. You’re pacing. You’re ranting. You’re saying back home they’d never fuckin charge for this. You’ve used American port-a-potties and granted, several nose hairs were singed off at the root. You’re shouting where the fuck do you people get off.  You’re on about how Russian bathrooms ain’t right, how prior to tonight you found that every public Russian bathroom has been Jackson Pollocked by brown fart sprays from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Take a train from Moscow to The Ukraine and you’ll get a primer course in the fecally incorrect. Take the famed Siberian Railroad, and feel what it is to not shit for five days because you’ve already opened the bathroom door, a mistake for which you would rather be hospitalized than repeat. Ask a Russian how it’s possible for a nation to collectively decorate bathrooms so thoroughly and watch their faces contort into shrieks of wild joy and secrecy.

 

Do you ask Vaselina in broken Russian for a free pass? Say you’re desperate, drunk, tired, and will pay her triple later? That the police just strong-armed you for everything you had, stole your passport, your money, your dignity and your registration card? That you’re too wasted to remember where your hotel is situated and you won’t make it ten yards before you get a urinary tract infection? Do you say pretend I’m your very own grandchild, and look into your heart?

 

Not when Vaselina has been doing this for over forty years. Seven nights a week. Even if you spoke the language better, the chances of your breaking through that defensive line are rail-tie thin and less than shit. The pervading philosophy in this country is fuck you. Linecutting is as common as empty toilet paper rolls. You can’t walk ten feet without hearing battered women weeping behind windows. The cold, gloomy weather causes such depression and tense relations it has its own word (pasmorna). Even your Russian friends, fellows and acquaintances will steal from you and overcharge you and assume you understand this in no way affects the depth and sincerity of your relationship.

 

You watch a Russian man in a Puma running suit pay up and enter a unit. You hear the sounds of the steady stream flowing into a deep dark hole, and just like your own grandmother, who, if she could see you now, would sigh tragically, shake her head, and call you a plastered asshole, Vaselina asks Running Suit Man if he’s okay. Vaselina asks if he needs any help. Vaselina says boy, it must sure feel good to let it all go. And as she says this, she leers at you, and her lips peel back, and sun glint bounces off her gold teeth. That’s when you take out your camera, a camera so shitty the cops weren’t interested, and snap her photo for eternity as your dignity, your Vodka, and forty-five minutes of piss warm motherland bureaucracy runs down your leg.