All week, I’ve had the absolute freedom to write as I please, and, thanks to the superhighwayesque technology of the Internet, every single person in the entire world has read what I’ve written. An audience of several billion is enormous power for a writer, and like Kissinger and Wonder Woman before me I’ve tried to use this power for public good rather than for selfish gain. That’s why my previous entries have been about topics of general interest—my book deadlines, the class I teach, my workout—rather than my own personal tribulations.
Well, that kind of objectivity is out the window today. This last “Diary” entry is a soapbox, dammit—my soapbox—and I’m using it to assassinate someone’s character. Specifically, the character of the ladies who work at the front door of the Aquarium at Coney Island. I hate you ladies! You are lousy! You are mean! You are mean and lousy ladies! You don’t let people use the bathroom even when they really, really need to!
Let’s back up this train a little bit, because that’s how it started. My children’s books appear under the name Lemony Snicket—not due to any shame of authorship but because the author is something of a character in the books. The elusive Mr. Snicket narrates the stories, cloaked in a shroud of mystery that extends to his carefully obscured author photos. So the charming, talented, why-not-give-her-a-plug photographer Meredith Heuer and I headed out to Coney Island, whose faded glory seemed an ideal backdrop for some obscured Snicket photos. The subway ride to Coney Island is a long one, and this time it was made longer by the NYPD, who stopped the train in the middle of what was by all appearances nowhere. “Please be patient,” the train guy said in his crackled loudspeaker voice, “We have an investigation.” The train sat. Cops took good looks. Meredith and I talked more and more cattily about people we both knew, but even the best gossip in the world couldn’t keep us comfortable. We needed to go. As the train sat and sat, we didn’t care about the N or the Y or the D that we saw emblazoned on the searching windbreakers. We thought only about the P.
Now, bathroom humor is a cheap shot, but what is Coney Island if not a cheap shot? A roller coaster covered in ivy, faded paintings of clowns stacked up behind barbed wire, some of the worst food in the world served underneath banners proclaiming it the best food in the world: It’s all second-grade irony here. But the charming and talented Meredith Heuer and I were not looking for bathroom humor. We were looking for a bathroom. “Toilets,” the signs read, but the arrow would lead to a locked door. “Bathrooms inside” was painted on the walls of restaurants shuttered closed for the off-season. Padlocked portapotties lay everywhere, mingling with the scent of people who had ignored them. We took a few photographs to take our minds off things, but we were too tense to be photogenic. We needed the kindness and mercy of the ladies who worked at the New York Aquarium.
Had my journey to Coney Island been virtual, instead of actual, I would have known ahead of time that mercy was not to be found at West 8th Street, Brooklyn, New York, 11224. “New York City is surrounded by water,” their home page points out, an unhelpful image for those seeking a urinal, “and the New York Aquarium is the perfect place to find out about aquatic life in New York and throughout the world! Come visit our award-winning Sea Cliffs exhibit, which offers fantastic underwater views of penguins, walruses, and sea otters. Or visit our Aquatheatre and get wet and wild with …” blah blah blah blah blah, but there in the bottom, the fine print: “No refunds, open rain or shine, parking not included in ticket price.” No refunds? Parking not included? If you’re driving to a carny in the greater New York area, you’re not going to expect refunds, or parking—they just tell you that because they’re mean, lousy ladies.
“But you’re the only ones open rain or shine,” we said, as one of them waved a field trip through. “The rest of the bathrooms are closed.”
“Not without admission,” the mean, lousy lady said.
Meredith Heuer tried her charm and talent. “We swear to you,” she swore, “that we’re not just saying that we have to use the bathroom as an excuse not to pay $8.75, or $4.50 if we were children or senior citizens to see your award-winning Sea Cliffs exhibit, which looks pretty lame on your home page.”
The woman thought about it for a second, and looked as if she might relent, when another mean and lousy lady appeared and wanted to know why two fully grown adults were bickering and crossing their legs in front of the New York Aquarium. “No,” she said firmly, and gave us terse directions to several padlocked bathrooms in the immediate vicinity.
As a children’s author, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to my young charges. I do not want them to stumble down the path to criminal depravity, and I tailor my own actions accordingly. But the mean and lousy aquarium ladies gave me no choice. Meredith and I walked into a distant but open Chinese restaurant and I faked a vague, foreign accent, to explain why I was ignoring the two “BATHROOMS FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY” signs plastered on the front door. The aquarium ladies’ sister-in-arms explained that we had to eat. We asked for a table for two. Meredith got up and used the facilities while the waitress brought a pot of tea that would have caused internal damage had I even sipped it. Meredith returned. I got up. I returned. Meredith held her cell phone to her ear and, speaking into it in perfect, unaccented English, faked an emergency and we rushed out of the restaurant.
The rest of the photo-shoot was a relaxed affair, but with every passing siren—and there are quite a few at Coney Island—we feared that the police were coming to arrest a noted children’s author and a charming and talented photographer, sending a dangerous message to the world’s youth, even though there wasn’t a single customer in the restaurant, so the waitress could have let two people use the goddamn bathroom. The cops were apparently too busy backing up trains to track down moral criminals, but the point is this: It takes a village to raise a child, and one villager isn’t doing her job. Her name is Fran Hackett, and according to the New York Aquarium home page she works in public relations. To close my Diary I’d like to return to matters for the public good, and I invite you—all several billion of you—to follow suit. Simply cut and paste the following message into an e-mail, and stand with me on this soapbox to help the world’s children.
From: [your name here]
Re: helping children
As a public relations employee for the New York Aquarium, you are undoubtedly concerned about the world’s youth. Recently, a children’s author was forced to lie to a restaurant employee in order to use the bathroom—an act of dishonesty undoubtedly witnessed by impressionable and imitative youngsters. The real tragedy is that this sort of transgression will almost certainly continue, particularly during the off-season when all of Coney Island’s bathrooms are locked. Why not give something back to the community and allow people to use the aquarium’s bathrooms without forcing them to pay admission? Let’s turn our backs on mean and lousy practices, and look to the betterment of our next generation. I hope you will join me in putting the “P” back in “We the People.” Thank you very much.
Thank you very much.