by thea marie
Written in response to a journal prompt for filthy restrooms
Belle Isle: Beautiful Island...
But donâ€™t use the restrooms
As a child, I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. Back then and still today, Belle Isle is the jewel of the city. If you reside in Detroit, or in cities thereabout, you havenâ€™t lived until youâ€™ve experienced Belle Isle; its beauty, its amenities, and its public restrooms.
Belle Isle is an idyllic island park on the Detroit River. From its banks, you can see across to Canada. As you sit on an ornate wrought iron bench, you can watch as great tankers from all over the world glide past, making one wonder from where they may have just come and to where they might be going.
Get past the unsightly, careless, unfortunate things people do when they get something for free, and it is one the most charming places on earth, full of weeping willows, dense woods complete with deer, and lush green expanses. The white marble, elegant Scott Fountain, the waters of which change colors at night, giving a spectacular show,and its circular pavilion serves as its centerpiece.
Scattered about are historic wood and brick Tudor style buildings. Among them, a once grand building that is called the Casino,which is now more of a meeting place for private groups. There is the now abandoned and sadly crumbling Boat Club, the Yacht Club with its eclectic assemblage of sailing vessels, an ancient planetarium with exotic plants, some of which are almost a century old and reach majestically to the frosted domed ceiling; and a creaking old aquarium full of all manner of water creature.
One can golf on the island course, play baseball on the diamonds, play tennis or handball on one of the many courts, or ice skate in winter on the pavilion. There is a bell tower that chimes once a day, a band shell, a huge play area called the Playscape, featuring the locally famous Giant Slide, a zoo, many covered sheds about the park for larger gatherings, and smaller picnic areas equipped with picnic tables and grills to cook hot dogs and nearby play areas for children.
When I was a child, you could take a pony ride through the park, rent a canoe and traverse the canals, or you could rent a bike and ride the entire island. There was so much to do, and so many ways to do it. These things are no longer available, but it remains a very special place.
If you stay off the strip where the younger, rowdier crowds now tend to gather, it the best place in the world to drive onto and park to regroup after a stressful day, to recover from a bad argument with a loved one, or just to have a quiet moment. There is a sort of peace that kind of wraps you up once you cross over the bridge from the fast, bustling city and enter the more serenely peaceful island.
When I was little, there were two ways to access the island. You could either cross the bridge which took you over the river, or you could enter via a short, underground tunnel, which actually took you from Jefferson Avenue or East Grand Blvd, under the water, and put you off on the island. As kids in the backseat of the car, we always wanted Daddy to take the darkly mysterious tunnel. I used to love the thought that we were driving through the water. Iâ€™ve always liked defying the established rules.
In the early seventies, I believe, the time-worn, leaking tunnel was completely filled in, and the bridge was given a grand makeover. It then became the only way to get onto the island by land.
As a family, in the summertime, we went on lots of picnics to the many metropolitan Detroit parks when I was a little girl. But it didnâ€™t feel like a real picnic unless we went to Belle Isle. When we went to other places, like Palmer Park, River Rouge, Kensington, or Metro Beach, it seemed sort of phony, as if it were a pretend picnic. The real ones only took place on the island.
Despite those fond memories, however, there was one serious drawback to Belle Isle. If you found yourself having to go to the restroom when you were there, you were in for an ordeal of the highest order. I am now a fully grown woman, who has had many experiences with public restrooms of all kinds, everywhere, but forty years later, the old facilities on Belle Isle remain number one in my mind as the worst. It was because of them that I learned how to squat and pee in the woods. Risking poison ivy or getting bitten on the butt by the snakes I was convinced awaited me was far more preferable to enduring those squalid restrooms.
They were usually small, windowless brick buildings, built in either the late 1800â€™s or early 1900â€™s, and fitted with inadequate ventilation. As you opened the door to go in, the acrid, nauseating smell of days and days worth of urine, and God only knew what else left to fester in the summer heat, would rush out to assault you and try to beat you back. Right behind the smell would be the flies and mosquitoes, mercilessly attacking, buzzing your ears, the back of your neck, your legs. You could only imagine that as soon as you pulled down your pants, where else they would be trying to go. Leaking pipes, roaches, and water bugs were the order of the day.
The tiled floors were always wet, permeated to the point that they probably didnâ€™t ever dry, and one couldnâ€™t be sure that it was only water. The toilets were often full of several someone elseâ€™s eliminations as if the flush valves didn't work, or people just didn't care.
My mother, the clean freak, would be frowned up and dragging me from stall to stall until she could find one that was a little less nasty than the others and that had some tissue left on the roll to go with what she had brought in with us. She would line the seat with layers of paper, and then she would still hold me up to go, not allowing any part of me to touch any part of the commode. I can remember feeling so repulsed by the sights and smells and so nervous because she would be rushing me. Both of us, trying not to breathe and her pushing to get us the hell out of there.
The sinks would be filthy, often stopped up with paper and other crud. Most of the time, my mother wouldnâ€™t let me wash my hands in there. Instead, she would bring soap and water from home for us to wash up once we got back to our picnic site. When I was older, she taught me to go in the woods. I was grateful for that. Iâ€™m telling you, even though I was a girl, it was a much more pleasant experience to go with nature than to go in those restrooms. Believe me, it was in no way a rest.
As I grew up, and began to visit the island on my own, I continued to enjoy its amenities, but I gave the restrooms a wide berth. By the time I had my own children, newer facilities had been built, but I never found out if they were any better than they had been in my day. You see, I had boys, and boys come naturally equipped to pee in the woods- or wherever.