A long-time TDE reader sent me this story about public urination in Put-in Bay. I told him it might prompt me to re-run my essay on public urination. He said he’d never seen it. I searched the Internet, and none of its catch phrases came up. I would’ve sworn I ran it, but maybe not, so here it is (a shortened version)
Stepping into my backyard, dodging behind a tree on the golf course, dashing behind some bushes: outdoor urination, for me, is one of the subtlest of joys.
One summer day while golfing I sliced my drive on the fifteenth hole into some huge pine trees. Because the hole number roughly matched my beer intake, I used the lost-ball opportunity to push into one of the conifers for a little relief. I was stunned by what I saw: A tree-made room. I stood there upright, urinating, marveling that the tree’s sagging branches made a circular room that could hold eight people.
A similar thing happened to me while visiting my cousins at their hunting camp in northern Michigan in late November. Due to the building’s poor plumbing, all men are required to urinate outside. I grimaced as I unzipped in the cold, but after a few moments, I was enchanted by the silence. I never realized winter held this treasure of quiet. Since that experience, I have periodically walked outside in the winter to enjoy the wonderful quiet of Persephone’s descent.
There is a certain amount of decorum involved in outdoor urination. First, you must be discrete. No one should be able to know what you’re doing, unless, of course, you’re in a “guy setting” and everyone has, either expressly or impliedly, waived the discreteness requirement.
The first principle of discrete urination is location. If others are near, you should refrain from outdoor urination unless you can casually recluse yourself. I say “casually” because it’s not enough that no one sees you actually urinate. They shouldn’t even know that you are leaving to urinate. Likewise, when you return, they shouldn’t know what you’ve been doing.
This obligation of discrete urination is understood by most men, hence the old excuses that have become standby jokes, “I gotta go see a man about a horse,” “I’m checking out some real estate.” It’s a venerable tradition. The manners expert Della Casa wrote in 1558, “it does not befit a modest, honorable man to prepare to relieve nature in the presence of other people, nor to do up his clothes afterward in their presence.”
Discretion is also served by the ability to urinate hands free. If you hold your hands over your eyes and look up at a tree while urinating, casual observers will assume you’re looking at a bird or something. On the flipside, if you’re standing with one hand positioned in front of your crotch, everyone will know what you’re doing.
The second principle of outdoor urination is hygiene. You shouldn’t urinate where others might see it, smell it, or step in it. That’s simply gross.
Closely related to hygiene, is respect for the elements. Never urinate in a body of water, unless it’s huge—the Pacific Ocean, for instance, or Lake Huron. Likewise, wind perception is crucial, though this is more for your protection than others. (If you’re close enough to spray others, you’re a pig.) For my own protection, I generally forego outdoor urination if the wind is blowing hard because of the splash risk and the lack of readily-available soap and water.
Also resist urinating on concrete. The back cover of The Who’s Who’s Next album features the band members walking away from a concrete wall after urinating on it. It’s a funny album cover, but that doesn’t change the fact that urinating on concrete is disgusting: the splattering, the lack of absorption and resulting rapids, the unsightly silhouette.
There are drawbacks to outdoor urination. Most of them have already been alluded to, such as the lack of sanitary facilities for cleaning your hands and the possibility of losing status in the eyes of individuals who don’t see the charm.
You also need to be aware that outdoor urination is sometimes a crime. Many states and municipalities make it a misdemeanor. In some other jurisdictions, it isn’t outlawed, but if done indiscreetly could give rise to a claim for indecent exposure or disorderly conduct.
Before the development of private privies, outdoor urination was the norm. It even came with its own set of rules, as evidenced by that Della Casa quote. Indeed, there was even etiquette required of the non-urinator. In 1731, Johann Christian Barth wrote in The Gallant Ethic: “If you pass a person who is relieving himself you should act as if you had not seen him, and so it is impolite to greet him.”
I hardly want to return to those days. When I’m taking my kids for a walk, I don’t want to turn my head because my neighbor is using the sewer drain as a privy. Indeed, the charm of outdoor urination is that it can be done discretely because it need not be done often. But that doesn’t mean it should never be done. Urinating is a natural function. To return it to its natural setting is a natural little joy we should indulge moderately and discretely.