Friday, May 8, 2009

Bathroom Breakout


Another lunch, another memory. Today I was with my mom in a fantastic new tea house in Manhattan (though really it's much more than that; the name is accurate but misleading). Great tea (and other drinks), wonderful food, relaxing atmosphere. One drawback: a bathroom with a sticky lock. After a minute, increasingly loud banging from within got my mom the attention she deserved; I (plus an employee) went to her aid. Because we knew it wasn't an ordeal that could have lasted long, it was more humorous than harrowing. We laughed about it once back at the table. But the incident brought to mind a powerful memory of another bathroom, another lock—with potentially dire consequences. To this day I don't fully understand the stupidity and dumb luck that conspired to make the entrapment possible. The location was our former apartment, on West 59th Street. We (my husband and I, with our one-year-old son) moved into the apartment in April 2004, and this was quite a few months after that but still within the first year of living there. At the time, my husband was working in a celebrity restaurant of high standing, and he had no control over his schedule. He was on the floor six days a week, and he always worked until quite late. Late being something like two or three in the morning most nights. I, of course, was on a different timetable. I was on baby time. My evening routine was to start dinner, do a bath for my son, finish dinner and get on with an extended bedtime routine. I had put a kettle of water to boil on one of the large gas burners, cranked the flame to high, and then set about the bath. Mind you, this is a New York apartment, so since the bathroom was practically in the kitchen anyway, it's not like I was leaving anything unattended. Now, about the bathroom. We had been worried for some time, once my son was walking freely about and also getting tall enough to reach the doorknobs, that he would somehow lock himself into the bathroom, and that because he was so young, we would not be able to talk him through the process of getting out. The idea of a locked door separating me from my son was at this time unimaginable to me. Somehow—and I will just plead the excuse of extreme chronic fatigue on both my husband's part and my own—we got to talking with maintenance about possible remedies. We wanted to exchange the doorknob to the bathroom for one that had no locking mechanism at all, and for some reason this proved impossible. As an alternate solution, someone (could it have been me? please, God, no!) suggested flipping the knob, so that the lock was on the outside. Somehow, it seemed less troublesome this way. Also, we must have assumed (without testing?) that these kinds of push-button locks could only be engaged once the door was already shut, and since we never shut the door ourselves, I guess we also figured that our son, if he shut the door, would be the one on the inside and an adult would therefore be on the outside to open up the bathroom. Really, I'm grasping at straws, trying to find logic where none existed. This is a classic example of how basically intelligent people can make exceedingly stupid decisions. Regardless of who came up with this idea, it was agreed upon by two others, so we were all at fault: my husband, myself, and the maintenance guy who took care of the knob. Back to dinner and bath time. I don't know how the lock got tripped. I don't know how the door got shut, but I do know that it happened accidentally, and fast. (I think I may have leaned against it by mistake as I was getting my son out of the tub.) In any event, I suddenly discovered that, in fact, the lock could be activated with the door open and remain that way as the door closed. Before I knew it, my son and I were locked inside the bathroom with no one else in the apartment to let us out. It may have been around five o'clock, six at the latest. With my husband not due home for another seven or eight hours, waiting for him was clearly not an option. I began to curse myself for not being the sort of person who has a cell phone on her at all times. I remember my mind racing in a time-lapse way, my inner eye seeing the complete evaporation of the vigorously boiling water on the stove—how long would an empty pot on a full-tilt burner last before it started to blacken, burn, burst into flames? (If such is possible, which I figure it must be, given enough time . . . and we had plenty of that.) For my son's sake, I tried hard not to panic. Panic helps nothing, I know. But I also began to imagine how idiotic it would be for my life to end that way, and how tragic. How criminal if my son were to die with me in some conflagration as a result of being locked in a back-assward bathroom. I jiggled the knob lightly, forcefully. Took deep breaths and tried again. I worried about scaring the daylights out of my son if I screamed, but knew that it was better to scare him that way rather than not. He was pretty calm, though I was fighting off an inner, approaching hysteria. I told him that he might want to cover his ears, Mommy was going to shout and make some loud noise. Then I screamed like the dickens. I stopped, tried the knob again, began looking through the medicine cabinets and under the sink for a tool of some kind. I saw what looked like a tiny hole that could have been some kind of lock release—you know, the same size hole you find on some electronic devices, into which you can insert a pencil tip or a paper clip to cause a reset. Well, there were no pencils, ballpoint pens, or paper clips in the bathroom. I thought of needles, but my sewing kit was in the bedroom. There was nothing small enough to go in that hole, if that was even a "reset" mechanism I was looking at. I screamed again. I screamed once more. My son, bless him, was so trusting that since I'd warned him and I also kept my voice even (miraculously) as I told him not to worry . . . he appeared to be unshaken. It is a well known fact that, in desperate circumstances, people find strength they didn't know they had. Persistence helps, too. I did find a metal nail file in a manicure kit, and I began to see about jimmying the lock. I also kept hollering from time to time, plus banging on the door. Hard. I guess between the nail file and a lot of vigorous twisting of the knob, plus a series of ill-defined motions that resulted in severely scraped knuckles . . . it was all, at last, enough. I am also not embarrassed to say that prayer went into the mix. The door sprung open, finally, and I ran to the kitchen. I was turning off the gas (there was still plenty of water in the pot), when the intercom phone in the apartment rang. "Everything OK up there?" came the voice of one of the guys from the reception desk. "Yes," I said, "now. I was locked in the bathroom." The building employee told me that my neighbor across the hall had called down. When I went to thank him, I found out that at first he'd thought my voice was coming from a television set at high volume, but then it all went on just a bit too long. I remember telling him that in fact we had no television, so if he ever heard screaming again, he'd know. I told him how grateful I was that he took action. Then I went back in to my apartment, shook it all off, and finished cooking supper. It was a meal I'll never forget. Sweet tasting for having life and liberty, the comfort of safety, rush back in to our crazy, cock-eyed New York life. The bathroom door? It never could lock again after that, neither open nor closed, and I remember thinking that was more than fine with me. After all, hadn't that been the objective in the first place?

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