Thursday, January 17, 2008

Potty mouth

A tale that proves the classic adage that things are not always what they seem:

A while back, my duties as a scrappy journalism intern took me to the headquarters of a major Chilean political party. The people there were surprisingly accommodating to me and the other journalists who showed up, so I'll express my gratitude by leaving the party nameless.

One of the party's leaders, an extremely well-known public figure here in Chile, was to give a presentation, and I had been sent to cover it. Having attended very few press events before, I was almost laughably nervous, especially when I saw the party headquarters itself. It was one of those buildings that had been pruned to impress: stately facade, slick paint job, and really spiky plants. The building achieved its intended effect on me--at least initially.

My anxiety began to mount when I entered the building and realized that I was the only person there who had no idea what she was doing. A number of journalists conversed casually with the receptionist, whom they already knew, and disappeared into back hallways with the familiarity of people visiting their parents' house. At one point, I heard someone mention a "press room," but I felt too self-conscious to venture into the hidden realm reserved for "real" journalists.

Eventually, I meekly followed these real journalists into the party's auditorium. Once inside, I recorded the politician's presentation and snapped photos, all the while feeling intrusive, out-of-place and hopelessly amateur. The one thing that weakened the spell of inadequacy was the fact that the politician, a household name who probably doesn't go a day without being mentioned in some capacity by the Chilean media, gave his talk using a Power Point presentation similar to the one my groupmates and I put together for our final project in Sociology 101.

The spell was broken completely when the presentation ended and I had to go to the bathroom. The bathroom--or at least the one they let visitors use--was a dingy little room with no toilet paper, ventilated by a fan with rusty exposed blades. In order to flush the toilet, I had to remove the lid of the tank, plunge my hand in and remove the stopper. In the absence of a drier or towel, I wiped my hands on my pants to dry them off after washing them.

Don't get me wrong. Compared to the gnarlier bathrooms I've come across, the one at the political party was luxurious. When I went to French camp when I was nine, the communal bathroom was crawling with daddy longlegs that clung to the toilet paper and would settle in on your toothbrush if you left it unattended. A few summers ago in Italy, I paid one Euro to enter the public bathroom and was dismayed when all I found was a hole in the ground. At a bus station in a coastal town in Ecuador, my friend Charlotte and I had to grit our teeth and use a bathroom where you had to dump a bunch of water in the toilets to make them flush because there was no running water. The bathroom attendant, who was in a wheelchair, hadn't been able to flush the toilets in some time and asked Charlotte to do it for him.

Despite the fact that the restroom at the political party was far from the bottom rung of the grand scheme of bathroom things, it was gross enough to snap me out of my inferiority complex. Why on earth was I so nervous about going to see someone's Power Point presentation in a building whose bathroom resembled those at cheap dance clubs?

I walked out of the party headquarters propelled by a new surge in confidence. I even had the guts to strike up a conversation with a pair of "real" journalists, who turned out to be students. While I don't consider the article I wrote about the presentation to be anything too exciting, the experience had lasting effects. I don't freak out anymore when I have to interview public figures on the phone or attend events by myself. I figure that if a bathroom at such a supposedly stately place can be so nasty, I'm a "real" enough journalist to cover whatever I damn well please.

1 comment:

Noel said...

...and, to quote a certain someone, "to do what you WAAAAANT!"