Many years ago I was living in Amherst, MA and at my regular haunt—the café on Main Street. I always walked by the Emily Dickinson Museum first for inspiration before I began my scribblings.
The truth is that I’d just come out of the bathroom and could hear a cluster of teenage girls sitting in the back of the café laughing.
It’s important to note that this is before cell phones and gasp! and social media so the girls were not all texting each other. As the giggling got louder, I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up to see one of the girls standing at my side. She seemed nervous and constrained, like she’s smothering a guffaw while trying to keep it together.
“Excuse me, Mam.” God, how I hated being addressed like I belonged in a museum. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings and please don’t get mad, okay?”
Now I was really curious. “Get mad at you? About what?”
She leaned over and almost a whisper, but not quite said, “You have a long piece of toilet paper coming out from under your sweater.”
This is where a string of emojis would come in handy or all caps OMG across this page. I reached back and could feel the Charmin streamer.
“Thank you,” I managed to say as I slid my chair back and almost knocked her over in my rush. “You were very brave, and I am very grateful.” I grabbed my purse (no laptops either back then) and headed for the restroom, past the girls who were about to explode with laughter, but also searching my face to see if indeed I was mad. The good news is that there was nothing on the paper and even better news—there was no one else in the café to witness my humiliation. When I came out of the bathroom, the girls had had another round of laughs; one was wiping the tears from her face with her sleeve.
Unknown girls but you get the picture!
I admit to having a hard time concentrating on my writing after that, reliving the what ifs: What if I’d walked down Main Street with my “flag flying?” What if the streamer wasn’t pristine? What if I see these girls again and they collapse in laughter?
I waited until the café was completely empty, put my notebook and file back in my bag, and departed with my dignity nearly intact. It would be years before leaving a restroom I didn’t take one final glance back in the mirror to make sure I was without a streamer. And want to give a decades-late shout out to the nice teen who either drew the short straw of who is going to tell her or was ready to be brave and kind.
Why am I telling you this?
I believe that there is an unspoken social contract we make with our fellow humanoids. We either tell them that—their pants are unzipped, they have a bit of spinach in their teeth, or a toilet paper streamer is waving in the breeze. Or, we don’t mention it. We, the social contract keepers are a noble bunch, even fearless. Who knows how someone will react? Those who don’t keep up the social contract, should suffer spinach in their teeth or sit on a barstool with their fly unzipped! There are even books about the social contract and spinach.
Thank goodness for brave people who know it’s helpful to let others know if they have spinach in their teeth or toilet paper in their pants. So sorry for your embarrassment, but thanks for sharing a teachable moment.
The key in telling someone is to do it discreetly just as that young lady did. Great post!!
Thanks so much Arden for your reply. I only wish I’d had your book when back in the day one of my bosses often forgot to zip up his fly. He was affectionately known then as Zippy. Now, however, we’d be having long discussions about innocent or intentional? Back then, not even his secretary had the nerve to tell him.