Theory J

All He Wanted Was A Basket...


In the middle of the office, as he was eating his lunch, Jerry Frye unblinkingly studied a newspaper article about the hygiene practices of public bathrooms and suddenly became very uncomfortable. The startling statistics caused Jerry to begin to self-generating a noticeable uneasiness about the overall cleanliness of the office bathroom which he used several times a day, as well as the apparent disgusting habits of at least a sixth of his co-workers.  The article stated that only about two-thirds of all visitors to public bathrooms ever wash their hands once completing with their convenience-motivated sojourn.

As he read that paragraph, he couldn’t stop himself from extrapolating the number of times he used the washroom’s door and various handles during a week and then multiplied it by a factor of one-third and then again by the estimated number of males on his office floor. As the number ecumenically rocketed towards untold googols of exposures, he realized he was waist deep in the big muddy of filthy contacts never before pondered. Although the number was troubling, it took all of his internal fortitude not to begin to add the number of personal bathrooms into the mix or the number of people inhabiting his city, country or continent. He slowly dropped his sandwich into the wastebasket, convinced that he would never again use his fingers to eat his food; he tried to mitigate his overall vulnerability by searching his memory for acts of proactive hygiene to rationalize that he was not in as bad of shape as others.

Jerry was relieved (no pun intended) that he always washed his hands and thanks to his practice of always flushing the urinal with his elbow (his buddy Tim taught him that in seventh grade), he felt slightly better but his growing awareness of potential exposure to things unseen began to give him the total creeps. As the statistics swirled around him like a freshly flushed toilet, he had to forcibly clear his mind or the continual epiphanies would cause him to jump headlong into a vat of rubbing alcohol or bleach to attempt total body sterilization. He didn’t like to think these thoughts; but the sheer quantifiable freakiness of exposure to colitis or experience some paranormal visit by the spirit of Burrill Crohn due to someone’s lack of respect for personal hygiene was beginning to loom with extreme sticky prejudice.

As he continued to read the exposé, he tried to put the whole issue into perspective. He was a consistent but non-manic hand washer and although never thrilled about using public washrooms, he intelligently avoided high traffic bathroom hot spots like airplanes and sports arenas because he knew the numbers of non-compliant offenders increased as groups of people converged on a common need. The best bathrooms had no doors and used blind corners and urinal troughs to allow users minimal surface exposure to germs but faced with the challenge of several doorknobs, air dryers and high urban traffic, Jerry always preferred holding his looming output until he got home.

But with work’s long hours and communal realities, Jerry knew that he had to do what one has to do and he made the best of a sensitive situation. Jerry always thoroughly washed his hands (with soap) without fixating on the process and to complete the circle of moderate cleanliness, he usually grabbed an additional paper towel to open the door on the way out and deposited the spent towel in the first available receptacle outside the bathroom. This process allowed a pretty sensible safety level for him and until reading the article; a sufficient solution to a problem that was rarely dissected to this level of uneasiness. And he was no kook: Jerry knew a person who moved to Nova Scotia so she could have the safety of winter gloves for at least six months out of the year. Jerry’s Uncle Tommy always used baby wipes in his car to constantly wash his hands and he also knew of a woman on another floor that learned to do a whole visit by using only her feet to manipulate all the obstacles in and out of the restroom. How she turned off the faucet must have been stuff of estrogenical legend.

The day’s final visit to the bathroom was hampered by his hyper-awareness of the environment; studying the floor for mystery spills, grimacing at everything as he came into contact with any surface and mostly, just feeling surrounded by the legions of unseen but looming bacterium just waiting for a chance to jump into any available orifice. After a frantic visit, Jerry washed his hands vigorously and used several additional paper towels to make sure he was clean.  In fact, he took another towel to open up the door, which of course demanded him to pull the handle in versus the all too rare door that allowed you to push it out with your clothed shoulder. The article continued to gnaw at Jerry, not unlike an earwig or similar multi-legged irritant, for the rest of the day as his awareness of other people’s hygiene ignorance increasingly confronted him at every corner and exiting door handle. He found himself subtlety withdrawing from places and people that he normally embraced and as he walked to his car, people started to look dirtier and their collective habits appeared more and more off-putting. All at once, everything was dirty; his keyboard was his tenor sax, germy Armageddon his melody.

Once outside the lavatory, he breathed deeply the air of an area fairly uncontaminated with public traffic and he looked to find a nearby trash basket to drop off the now unnecessary paper towel. He looked around each corner and near the never-to-be-used again public water fountain and saw nothing else. He reluctantly wadded up the paper towel and placed it tightly in his hand and wandered to his car, the day was over at so many levels, with it secreted in his palm; germs still incubating, lying dormant amongst the paper strata. He realized that paper towel, if disposed of in a timely manner, might be exactly what he needed to mitigate the seas of mysterious and grubby germ-laded world that surrounded him at every corner. There was no wastebasket outside his usual bathroom but with a little luck, he could at least start treating the symptoms of the le monde ‘dégoûtant with some intelligent proactivity.

The next day, bright and early, he called the facilities department once he got wiped down his desk, keyboard and phone with a new jug of antiseptic cleaner.

The phone rang two times and a recorded message started.

“Hello, you have reached the Facilities hotline. Your call is very important to us so please stay on the line and respond to the prompts” said an automated voice.

“You will respond after a tone and at the end of each response, please push the pound sign on your telephone.”

An uncomfortable pause was maintained for about ten seconds and then the first of several commands began.

“Tell us your name and your department. If your department is on multiple floors, please add the floor location as well.” A tone was emitted

“Hello. My name is Jerry Frye and I work in development on the seventh floor.” Jerry then dutifully pressed the pound key.

“Tell us your request.” A tone was emitted

“I would like a trash can placed on the outside of bathroom area on the seventh floor.” Jerry then dutifully again pressed the pound key.

The recording responded, “This is the last section. Make sure you have reviewed your request and if necessary, provide us with more information that can help our team further. Make sure you use as specific locations as possible; if there are multiple or similar areas on the floor, try to differentiate between these areas with room numbers or directions such as north or south. If you are satisfied with your information, just hit the pound sign immediately upon the tone.” The third and final tone was emitted.

“The bathroom area I am speaking about on the south end of the building.” He hit the pound sign for the final time and hung up.

About a week later, he received an email stating that upon review, the facilities group was not going to place a wastebasket in the south bathroom area due to “redundant use of facilities.” It also stated that the bathroom has sufficient trash receptacles and that another trash basket was not part of the “waste template,” it was viewed as a “non-approved variation on the schema.”

Buffeted with the office nomenclature, Jerry looked at the memo until his head hurt. Once the incredulousness subsided, he deleted it and decided it was time to do something. He walked to an abandoned cubicle, took out the wastebasket and placed it near the water fountain next to the bathroom doors. Within a few hours, there were several dozen used paper towels in the wastebasket, including his two towels from the morning. The epiphany of the recent weeks about the collective sloth of the society had opened his eyes to the point of fear and he was willing to risk the wrath of an internal e-memo to keep his hands as germ-free as possible.

The wastebasket was there for two weeks and each time Jerry had dropped in his towel into the basket, he noticed numerous others were doing the same. It was self-evident that other people wanted to protect themselves from the hygiene-adverse confines and he began to formulate a theory that people, if left alone, will take the most sensible path of several low resistance path options that are presented. By providing a wastebasket and eliminating the annoyance of transporting a used towel back to their cubicle or office, more people would feel compelled to actually wash their hands and deposit the towel once it had achieved its usefulness. Some folks, who were ambivalent about cleanliness prior to the appearance of the wastebasket, might become an advocate of the hygienically enlightened because of the convenience of such a handy receptacle.

Jerry felt vindicated: he saw a problem and through his own creativity and cunning, solved the problem. Acting nobly for the borderline compliant, he provided them with an incentive to behave in a common sense way. He forgot about the ridiculous facility e-memo and went back to his non-benevolent ways.  The next several weeks were peaceful but when he returned to work after a restful weekend, he was shocked that the wastebasket was removed from its now-familiar location outside the south bathroom commons. He stood there, with slightly moist but completely soiled towel in hand, unwilling to move as if the trash can was momentarily indisposed and would return shortly. Once the shock wore off, it was obvious that someone had removed the basket and his fear of the great unwashed began to grow within him. He scurried to the other side of the building and removed another trash basket, this time from a conference room, and placed it in the exact spot of its legacy. The conference had four waste baskets and only, at best, needed two so he felt his intelligent re-distribution of the wastebasket was proactive and efficient. Jerry then deposited his original towel, now moist with hand sweat, in the basket and went back to work. The fear of a trend of the disappearing basket appearing was causing Jerry to begin to form mental fistulas and he knew he needed a backup plan.

The next morning, bright and early, he went over to the facility department and ordered up two dozen standard-issue wastebaskets on the current order invoice that was posted on the wall. The order form was routinely picked up by the local office supply house and whatever was on the form was delivered the next morning, no questions asked. Jerry had not filled out anything except for the quantity, the SKU and thanks to the sheer volume of products ordered, the incompleteness of the order was ignored. Later that day, Jerry went back to the facility department and saw twenty-four pristinely black wastebaskets stacked up in the corner, completely ignored. No one was in the department due to the lateness of the day, so Jerry picked up the stack and quietly secreted them in a storage closet on his floor. No one would ever find them there and he could use the cache as needed if the wastebasket was commandeered again by the unseen forces.  He also took the original order form and back-up copies with them so all the department would have was a raw piece discrepancy of what came in with no idea what the items were or where the items went.

Things were quiet for several weeks; the wastebasket was filled up during the day and the cleaning folks dutifully emptied it every night. The sheer volume of used towels reassured Jerry that many more people were washing their hands and that trend allowed Jerry to relax back again to a pre-enlightenment stage. With the hygienic threat level subsiding, he stopped freaking out at communal surfaces and high-traffic wear points and things got back to normal. However, one morning he began his normal meander to the bathroom and noticed that wastebasket two had been taken by someone. He knew that the heartless tyrants in the facilities department were behind this nefarious plan to infect the uncontaminated with forcing them to grab filth-ridden door handles with no legitimate chance and arcing a soiled towel all the way across the sink area for a desperate and futile free-throw attempt at keeping the bathroom clean for all visitors.

As he ruminated on the dynamics at play, his usual stochastic thought process was replaced by a far more treacherous planning. He could not reason with this group and not unlike Niccolo Machiavelli, he began to plot against the uncaring and evil purchasing agents who evidentially liked walking amongst the infected and soon-to-be infected. He didn’t know if the facilities group was behind the second basket’s departure but he couldn’t rotely replace it with the third basket without some on-the-ground intelligence gathering.

The facilities department was isolated in their own corner of the building and a security swipe card was installed for those entering or exiting the area.  Whether or not motivated by the apparent theft of two dozen undetermined office supply items, the area stood as an crucible to both the uncaring and unfeeling. Without proper credentials, Jerry would only raise suspicion if he attempted entry so he allowed this trip to be one of subtle and stealthy reconnaissance.  Good news met him as part of his exploratory survey of enemy territory when he viewed an expired invitation to a goodbye/retirement party for a long-term employee. That departed employee was the only living person who could have placed any potential responsibility on him from his original request. With the horizon clear of historical clues, he felt the game was certainly afoot to place him as the facility department’s main antagonist and the only person willing to strike a blow for public health, wholesomeness and the pursuit of uncontaminated public spaces.

Jerry knew that any indication of his opposition would be quickly discovered as well as their eventual realization that by taking wastebaskets, they could flush (this time, pun intended) Jerry out into the bright light of corporate accountability.  He might get lucky for several weeks or months but he would eventually be spotted because he had to actually replace wastebaskets and like any kidnapper, had to physically return to the scene of the crime to accomplish his mission. He might successfully sneak in late one night or early in the morning but too much circumstantial evidence would eventually accumulate and the jig would be up. He needed to enlist some friends so it wasn’t just him against the world. All he wanted to do was provide the hygienically lazy with an opportunity to literally and figuratively come clean but now found him in a triangular urban conflict between the unwashed, uncaring and the unorganized. The seventh floor south bathroom was well on its way of becoming a logistical focal point so too much activity would further draw him out into the open and guarentee a certain death from the mouth-breathers in facilities.

As he made a mental list of potential recruits, he dismissed all his co-workers. His initiative might be worthwhile and legitimate but it was still against company policy. Any chance of him getting caught would be multiplied significantly if a recruit or co-conspirator would spill the beans. Also, having another similar person would not reduce the risk significantly; their patterns and appearances would be easily traced and cataloged in a similar way to his own. He needed to get people who hated the facilities folks just as much as he did and who knew the inside workings of the building. It came to him in a flash: befriend the Ecuadorian cleaning crew and work within the system.

Jerry did some effort calculations in his head and figured the cleaning crew preferred the extra basket; they weren't wasting their time picking up discarded tissues that were lamely tossed backwards back into the rest room by departing patrons. One more wastebasket likely made their job easier and more efficient and combining that with an almost guaranteed distaste for anyone that owned a facilities template made the cleaning crew the right ally against the small-minded bureaucrats. He knew the guy that cleaned his area; he usually worked late and always made a conscious effort to offer common courtesy and appreciation for the tasks. Several times, he had left a sign on the basket if the contents were deceivingly heavy to warn the crew to lift with extra care. He never dumped half cups of coffee and only once dumped his half-eaten sandwich due to circumstances outside his control. Finally, he always made sure to leave the basket in an obvious position for easy egress and ingress for the crew.  He always acknowledged their presence as just another group of people trying to make a living.

Over the next week, he made an effort to make small talk and extend small courtesies to the crew and it didn't take long for them to offer to assist him in his battle. After broaching the subject subtlety, he was relieved that the crew did in fact appreciate the extra basket and told dozens of stories of sanitation horror of people leaving things in and around the bathroom. The extra basket reduced these little surprises considerably so from both a commercial and moral ground, the crew was his ally. They would let him know when an inspection was due so he could remove the wastebasket and thus reduce the fixation the rogue receptacle in the narrow and beady, small eyes of Facilities Management. They also scrounged up other abandoned wastebaskets to supplement his cache; no sense giving out any clues to their origins or whereabouts and the mix of old and new baskets would further mask their true intentions. They were also guilty of dropping additional baskets in other areas but the ability to come up with new baskets was always a challenge. Jerry’s acquisition of two dozen new baskets would keep them all in efficient hygiene practices, regardless of the facilities bastards and their heartless template.

His theory continued to take shape with further iterations from the cleaning crew; they confirmed that people were reluctant slobs but slobs nonetheless so anything that could aid in the compliance of hand washing would be a plus for all concerned. He knew that people took the path of least resistance when it was coupled with other reasons of participation; there was a chance for a less slovenly workplace for all concerned. Occasionally, a basket would be captured by a non-scheduled raid but for the most part, things got back to normal and Jerry had avoided reliving his fears of moist door knobs and troubling-looking tissues strewn around the common area. For the cost of one wastebasket, he estimated he reduced the amount of disgusting exposures in half and had struck a blow for common sense along the way.

Time continued to allow Jerry to fight for more enlightened co-workers. In another strict violation of facilities dogma, Jerry posted several articles on the floors detailing, complete with highlighted passages, similar statistics that originally repulsed him earlier. Slowly, practices began to improve with less obvious violations of public trust; flushed toilets, less debris around receptacles and other signs that implied common courtesy amongst the anonymous members of the shared obligatory clubhouse of necessity. He rarely preached; as preaching to the ignorant only confused but he did continue to encourage a basic understanding of immaculate consumption. And as time continued, Jerry still avoided most public areas and made a conscious effort to avoid areas of particularly disgusting opportunity but for the most part, fell back into a pleasant but dulled ignorance about the perils that await us all at every turn. 

The victory felt good but more importantly, it was sanitized for everyone's protection

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