Take a trip with me to Eugene Oregon, 1987.
I was putting my then-fiance through grad school. I came from several years in Montana, and small-town Eugene felt urban to me. I applied for many jobs, and in my youthful enthusiasm, made some fatal interview mistakes that prolonged my job hunt.
To keep us eating while I kept hunting for a good job, I fell back on my skills in fast food and started working the breakfast shift at a McDonald’s in the neighborhood locally known as Felony Flats. I started at 3 AM, when Linda, the morning manager, unlocked the door with a cigarette in her hand that she did not extinguish as she started making the morning McMuffin batter.
I was off work by 11 AM, which allowed me to run home, shower off most of the grease smell, put on my green (always the same) dress, and start pounding the pavement. It was in the pre-internet days, when you walked from business to business with a folder full of resumes and actually introduced yourself.
One night a friend from college came to visit from Olympia. She stayed on the pullout couch and we drank champagne long into the night. I went to work without ever having been to bed. Don’t judge me, I was 23.
My night of misspent youth caught up with me during the breakfast shift. We had a “window contest,” where the cashiers competed for the fastest service times. This was judged by Anita, the host. McDonald’s often had elderly hosts at the time who functioned much like Walmart greeters. I excused myself twice during the 30-minute race to go throw up—once in the middle of taking an order. I still won the contest in the complete absence of effort.
Anita came to me with a pickle bucket full of toys and told me to reach in and pick a prize. I withdrew the plastic toilet on a clip that you see pictured above. (Why is there a jingle bell?) Anita said, “That’s a terrible prize, you can pick something else.” I sighed and said, “No, this is perfect.”
In every job I’ve had since then, I’ve hung that plastic toilet over my desk. It dredges up many lessons. It reminds me to do my best, even when I’m doing something I think is demeaning. It reminds me to protect my dignity and value myself. It reminds me that even if I don’t like where I am now, I’ve had it worse.
Since getting hit by a car on my bike, the plastic toilet has taken on a darker meaning. I went two months without being able to wipe my own bum. For months after I went home, I had to use a tool called the “Bottom Buddy,” and take it with me in a bag when I left the house. Dignity was a precious commodity then.
It’s time to let go of the plastic toilet, but I wanted to share its story with you. Those of us with invisible disabilities face indignity often. We are challenged for using handicap parking, denied seats on buses, and not believed by friends and employers. Some us still hide Bottom Buddies in our handbags, or worse. Do you have a symbol that reminds you to hold your head high? Tell me about it.