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January 4th, 2012 PATRICIA SAUTHOFF | Culture Features
 

Searching for Shangri-Loo

Toiling to find Portland’s Palace of Pee.

culture-feature-bathroomSEA PEE: Rimsky-Korsakoffee House’s nautical commode. - IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com
Like so many others, this voyage of discovery begins with a game of Ms. Pac-Man. I’d lost, again, and decided to regroup by ridding my body of the PBR that was surely affecting my game. Instead of discovering a well-lit restroom, however, I was confronted with the same 8-bit ghosts who made my jaw clench moments before. Only this time they were huge. Escaping into the only corner available, the stall, wasn’t going to help. It was dark and I was vulnerable. This was real life, where another quarter wouldn’t save me. I only had one choice, fleeing Ground Kontrol and seeking out a more welcoming ladies’ room.

But where to go to, umm, go? What is Portland’s Shangri-Loo?

For the next month I would embark on an odyssey to find the best restroom in town—that comfortable mixture of protection, light and pizazz that makes a trip to the bathroom an enjoyably memorable experience. You might think I’m doing what the Brits call “taking the piss,” but I assure you, I have entered every lavatory I describe here open to the experience offered by the designers, giving myself over to their aesthetic vision, or at least my interpretation of the experience they seek to offer. Through the journey I have drowned, hurtled through space and become the lowest form of journalist: paparazzi. More than a few times I found myself simply bewildered, unable to create a narrative to accompany the aesthetic choices confronting and confounding me.

Just one day after the shutdown of Occupy Portland’s encampments, with Chapman and Lownsdale squares still surrounded by riot police, I entered a strange world. Down the street from the former camps, a glow beckoned and I followed a winding hall into a rounded public ladies’ room. The smell of citrus cleaning product lingered in the air and the surface was dewy. It looked like pixilated negative film stock. I felt like Dorothy seeing Oz for the first time, except here the Yellow Brick Road was a Technicolor green, and the surrounding horizon brighter than the most dramatically orange fall leaves. The disorientation was momentary, and I set to figuring out why every surface was damp. I can only assume that with its location on Southwest Clay Street between 3rd and 4th avenues—three blocks from the former encampment—it too had been previously occupied. Sadly, calls to the Portland Water Bureau, Clean & Safe Services of the Portland Business Alliance and Portland Parks & Recreation offered no answers. The party responsible for hosing down the restroom remains hidden behind the curtain. 

Trading old Hollywood for new, I found an offer of voyeurism at Aura on West Burnside Street. The wishfully L.A.-esque club’s “W/C” is dark enough to allow for anonymity, but inside the stalls are a gossip columnist’s dream. Glass, set just below eye level, enables the occupant to peer onto the dance floor, making it the perfect hideout to watch for scandalous behavior by unsuspecting dancers.

I still felt dirty despite washing my hands in the super-cool sink. Leaving Aura for Living Room Theaters around the corner on Southwest 10th Avenue, I wanted to wash up a bit. Little did I know my spying wouldn’t end. This time, though, I was transported back to a childhood game of peekaboo with the adjacent men’s room thanks to a trick of glass and mirrors at the sink. A longstanding mystery was solved, too: Men do wash their hands after going to the bathroom! (Well, most of them.)

My quest for perfection has had a delightful side effect. Throughout my search, the sweet nectar of alcohol has accompanied me through all but the amazing Technicolor toilet. Samples ranging from beer to fancy cocktails have helped inspire me to buzz around town. But nowhere complemented my worker-bee mentality quite like Doug Fir Lounge on East Burnside. The postmodern forest of the bar holds a secret honeycombed glass door. Inside, mirrors on all sides appear drizzled in thick, sugary liquid, the reflections making even the lone loo occupant appear as one of many inhabitants of the colony.

Pollen deposited in the hive, it was time to head to the tropical land of the Alibi on North Interstate Avenue. Even in the dark, the unnatural blue of my vodka, gin and rum “neon sign” cocktail blazed brighter than the orange Oz commode. Clearly, something special was going to happen. The bar felt familiar, but I didn’t realize why until I stepped into the ladies’ room. Was this it? Was this the amalgam of form and function for which I searched? The wood gave a sense of comfort while the warm light was bright but not harsh, giving my reflection a flattering glow. I ducked into the toilet and closed the sliding door when it hit me. This is the bathroom of every old person I’ve ever known. Had there been a porcelain animal or a doily, I might have melted. 

I wanted to be sure. There were two more stops on my potty train, both devoid of alcohol and therefore perfect for clearing my head and allowing me to reflect. Unfortunately, both of their powder rooms did the opposite. At the Ace Hotel branch of Stumptown Coffee on Southwest Stark Street, I entered a bright, rounded pod that seemed to hurtle through space. The brown reflective glass on two opposing walls was etched with outdoorsy scenes, furthering the feeling that I was looking back on the familiar from far away. It’s a fantastic little water closet that’s a mixture of art deco and futuristic 2001: A Space Odyssey stylings.

How I wish I’d had that protective pod when I sank below the surface at the Rimsky-Korsakoffee House on Southeast 12th Avenue. The late-night tea spot’s upstairs restroom is decked out with fish and a mermaid. A whimsical little world if it weren’t for the broken kayak, complete with mannequin on the floor and feet dipped below the water’s surface protruding from the ceiling. Inside I was drowning in chamomile tea, but outside it was fear that did me in. My efforts to regroup, once again, were my downfall. 

I will probably return to these, and myriad other fancy loos in Portland, because of their surrounding businesses, not their latrines. No, the only comfort station I will seek out because of the blanket of tranquility is the little trailerlike toilet of the Alibi. I may even leave a whimsical little cat statue to really make it my own private “I gotta go.”


 
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