MLK's Very Public Restroom

It doesn't take long to figure out that the young man wearing headphones, tan jacket, and Timberland boots has not come to the A-level bathroom at the Martin Luther King Jr. public library to wash his hands or relieve himself. As he sidles up to a urinal, he makes little pretense of pissing. He places his right hand on top of the urinal and pivots left and right, his eyes drinking in the splendor of the MLK bathroom.

After a few minutes of scoping, the man flushes the urinal but doesn't even bother with the standard preflush rituals—sighing, jiggling, zipping up, and so on. His next move is to the anteroom, where the sinks, mirrors, and hand dryers are located. On his way, he deliberately brushes by the three bathroom stalls. He pauses before each stall, gazing over the low-rise door at the occupant long enough to make eye contact.

He enters again a few minutes later, this time showing even less interest in traditional restroom activities. Still nodding his head nonchalantly to the tunes on his headphones, he alternately walks in tight circles and leans against the bathroom's back wall. He wastes no time in making another pass by the stalls and this time motions with his eyes and a jerk of the head to the occupant of the second stall to follow him out of the restroom. A man dressed in blue janitorial garb bolts from the stall, and the two disappear into the bowels of the library.

Twenty minutes later, a rhythmic moan echoes into the hall outside the library's third-floor bathroom. As I enter, I hear a scuffling in the back of the bathroom and espy the man with the headphones in the mirror. This time, he's scrambling to get a grip on his underwear and pull up his pants.

"Are you all right?" I ask him. He nods nervously and motions for me to join him and his friend, who is hiding behind a urinal separator, in one of the stalls. I decide not to join the fun.

MLK is the most public of public restrooms. The library is a place where anyone can go to escape from the elements, take a seat, pretend to read, and sleep until closing time. But for years, a few library patrons have been trying to turn the men's bathrooms into their own private sanctuaries, where they do the things that most people do in their bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms, or studies. The result is a chaotic, smelly, and often repulsive nook of the District.

Emerging from a brief visit to the third-floor bathroom, "Ricardo El Don"—as he asks to be called—is a slight man in a jean jacket and two layers of sweaters tucked into tight-fitting jeans. He says MLK takes the rest out of restroom. "Never can tell. You take your chances every time you go in," he says.

El Don says that back in the the good old days MLK stalls were outfitted just like any reputable stall—with long, sturdy doors that made peeping a very difficult matter. But patrons regularly abused the privacy afforded by the stalls. Library security officials received frequent complaints that men were having sex and masturbating in the stalls. So a couple of years ago, MLK officials opted for the Army boot-camp approach—which makes humiliation an element of every chore—and tore the doors off.

El Don sees a racial dynamic in the redecorating. "White supremacy has inculcated the mentality of black Americans to the point where the interest in security is allowed to compromise intimacy and privacy," he says.

The open-stall model, not surprisingly, didn't sit well with the patrons. "We got a lot of nasty complaints," says a library official.

The solution, MLK management decided, was to install half-doors, which would guarantee the user a measure of privacy but would not hide illicit acts. Security officials say the compromise has helped deter unseemly activity, but there is a cost: Everything that happens inside the stalls is now a matter of public record.

Catching a glimpse of a man, any man, backing one out is not one of the more inspiring scenes you can catch around the District. The angle of slouch, the grimacing effort, the chest and abdominal contractions, and the subsequent look of relief are all proprietary mannerisms that don't benefit from public view.

Of course, answering nature's call is only one of the reasons why MLK patrons squat in the stalls. On a recent evening, for example, a man sat in a stall for over 40 minutes, clipping his nails, picking his nose, brushing lint from his clothes, and relaxing. Although he didn't appear to have his pants down, he flushed the toilet three or four times—perhaps just to convince others that he was indeed doing his business. On inclement days, the turnover rate in the MLK stalls is slower than for Redskins season tickets. The homeless pour into the bathrooms and don't leave until library security uproots them.

"I've heard all the complaints from these guys," says security officer Lt. Ronald Cunningham. "They say, 'Oh, I have a urinary infection,' or, 'My bladder's weak.'"

After serving for a few hours as a haven for the city's most unkempt folks, the MLK restrooms take on a filth all their own. Grainy yellow spots all over the floors are the first clue that aim is not a priority for the clientele. Bottles, plastic bags, used tissues, nail clippings, and hair crowd around the urinals. And if your timing is on, you'll catch the vomit left by a wino, the placement of which is always random—on top of the urinal, in the sink, on the stall door.

"Clearly there needs to be some attention paid to cleanliness," says City Administrator Michael Rogers, who ducked into the A-level restroom at one of its hygienic low points.

Kenny, a 39-year-old MLK regular, has no problem with the upkeep of the library's bathrooms. Dressed in a black knit hat and a huge brown overcoat, Kenny stands at the entrance of the A-level bathroom, kvetching about how other restroom users look at him when he goes in to take a leak.

"Let's say you're sitting around drinking a six-pack," says Kenny, smelling as if he just drank a 12-pack. "You come in here the first time and there's a person standing around not doing anything in particular. Twenty minutes later, you come here again, and that person is still around. You put your dick out, and there's a motherfucker hanging out looking at your dick."

Kenny and library insiders insist the dick watchers have developed a few catchy lines to help the transition from ogling to trysting. "Can I crank it for you?" is among the most common. "Can I squeeze your chicken?" is another standby. And clever suitors opt for, "May I pat old Henry?"

Homosexual encounters in the D.C. bathrooms have a long and shifty history dating back to the 1950s, when D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Barrett complained that the city's public comfort stations had gained "international notoriety" as homosexual meeting places. In 1961, however, the city closed down the comfort station near the D.C. public library, which was then located on Mount Vernon Square. Deprived of their main hangout, the trysters sought refuge in the library. And they didn't skip a beat when the library moved from Mount Vernon Square to its current perch at 9th and G Streets NW.

Today, library security forces say that bathroom sex is MLK's No. 1 scourge. To combat restroom trysting, library security officials sweep through the bathrooms constantly and have even developed SWATlike tactics to catch patrons midcrank. For instance, the stall area of the A-level bathroom has a locked back door that security officials open for surprise raids. (In fact, three security officers used this tactic to surround me when I was interviewing a bathroom user. They asked for identification and demanded to know what I was doing in the bathroom.)

The raids wouldn't be necessary, say the officials, if the bathroom users hadn't developed schemes to tip off their buddies that the fuzz is on its way.

"Look at these guys out here," says a security official. "They're not here to study." The men, he says, stand at outposts and send hand signals—"just like in the service," according to the official—that arrive at the stalls minutes before security. By then, the trysters are duly straddling the urinals and washing their hands.

No one played the game of cat-and-mouse with library security more deftly than a mythic character named "the Professor," according to security officials. The Professor was a middle-aged man who walked the library halls in dark three-piece suits. With his dignified look and gift of persuasion, he lured younger men into the stalls for tryst, officials say. Hard as they tried, though, security for years failed to catch the Professor in the act.

"If we went up the stairs, he took the elevator. If we took the elevator, he went up the stairs," says a library official. "I have to take my hat off to the Professor," he says. "He was the swiftest cat I've ever seen." After years of pursuit, a security officer caught the Professor red-handed.

Library police penalized the Professor by barring him from the library for a couple of years—a form of punishment as limp as it is difficult to enforce. Since the District took its sodomy laws off the books in 1993, bathroom trysts are punishable only as a public-sex misdemeanor—a charge that the U.S. Attorney's office frequently declines to prosecute.

In the past year, the library has barred nearly 60 patrons for restroom sex offenses. Security officials use an index-card file to keep track of barred patrons. Each card lists the offense and period of suspension and includes a Passport-size photo of the offender. But like first-rate fugitives, MLK outcasts shave their heads, grow beards, and make funny faces to sneak back in. "They'll do anything to change their appearance," says a library officials. "Some of them have really got some hot dates there."CP

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