It was December 1989. The Soviet Jewish Immigrant charter bus took us on a grueling journey that seemed like it lasted a week thought it probably took no more than a day or two. The route? Odessa>Uzhgorod (Western Ukraine)>Bratislava (capital of Slovakia). In Slovakia, we boarded what was probably the first inter-city train I ever took in my life. In the cold, dark Slovak night, my grandfather traded a box of Russian vodka to Czech railyard staff in exchange for train tickets.
The train from Bratislava to Vienna lasted one very long night. Except it didn’t. Looking at Google Maps today, it could not have lasted more than an hour or two, tops. But that’s how I remember it. Me and my extended family: parents, brother, three grandparents, an uncle and his family and in-laws, and the in-laws’ family. 15-20 of us packed into a few compartments. I remember lying head to toe with my dad’s dad, but that can’t be true. Not on an hourlong commute from, a mere PATH ride along and across the Danube, a hop, skip, and jump to Vienna.
What I remember pretty clearly is our discharge at Wien Südbahnhof. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was spending a day on a bus packed with all the food three generations of anxious immigrants could cram into their non-biodegradable plastic tote bags. Maybe it was the departure from a normal daily diet to one of indiscriminately stuffing your face with whatever your mom and grandmother cooked up and fed to you distractedly while having multiple panic attacks about the very near future. It’s hard to say exactly what was in those pots and paper wrapping 28 years ago, but the constant stench of boiled meat in the air is unmistakably etched in my olfactory memory.
Whatever it was, when we arrived at the Vienna train station, I knew that I was going to explode unless I could take a very, very large dump–and soon. As an adult, I’ve learned that the very mundane problem of relieving your bodily needs is best solved by never leaving home to begin with. Yet here we were, leaving our home in the most permanent way. There was no looking or going back–no bathroom at our lovely Odessa apartment to take a train then bus then run up the stairs to.
My parents did what any good parents would do–they looked for a public bathroom. And, after some searching–Eureka! The door of a beautiful, wonderful, capitalist bathroom greeted us. Danke Gott! My dad pulled the handle heroically. But what’s this! Door not open! Outrageous. Even in Soviet Ukraine, where bathrooms were not nearly as beautiful as this one no doubt was, the doors, they opened when you pulled the handle. And so it was that we had one of our first encounters with the West: the paid public bathroom.
My dad somehow found an Austrian cop, who very politely explained, through gestures and likely my dad’s limited memory of German-flecked Yiddish, that two shillings were required to enter. A pittance to most any Austrian or European, two shillings were two more than we had or knew how to obtain. What came next is not altogether clear. It is possible that my dad, pride to the wind, attempted to negotiate free entry with the Austrian cop. It is also possible that my family even, dare I say it, asked passersby for the cash.
All I know is that their efforts, real or not, bore no fruit. All I remember is what happened next. The family: dad, mom, brother, maternal grandma, paternal grandparents, uncle, aunt, cousin, the in-laws, all came together in a very tight circle, forming a perimiter around me. It was much tighter than any human circle you’re likely to see around street performers in Washington Square Park, or even at a compelling political rally. Bodies coalesced into a solid ring. The nuclear family had a few extra bonds. My mom stepped forward and handed me a pot. An actual cooking pot, the same one that held recently devoured poultry parts just hours ago. My pants came down and I took my seat for what was probably, at the age of nine, the most satisfying dump of my life, at one of the most public places, in the Favoriten district of Vienna. It was the only public shit I would ever take…though I suppose the night is young.
I don’t kow what happened to the pot. I like to think we threw it out and that it’s resting for eternity in some Austrian landfill. I’ll probably ask my parents about it next time I talk to them.