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Oh Shit

This is the story of how a bookstore briefly became a shrine. But it doesn’t go the way you think. Listen and wonder at the tale I have to tell.

Nothing in this world had prepared him for what he found that afternoon at The Strand. He eyed the featured titles on the tables up front as he passed, but didn’t stop—he wasn’t there for them. Nor did he make his way, as he usually would, to the high shelves of fiction in the back, or to the academic section downstairs. He wasn’t there for books at all. This was post-renovation: the old cave, risky for even the direst of emergencies, was long gone. The new bathroom upstairs, a symbol of the Village’s complete surrender to gentrification if ever there was one, was as reliably clean as any free one in the city, and he would swing by to use it whenever his wanderings took him nearby, even when he didn’t particularly feel like browsing the shelves. Still, he entered cautiously. Among his most deep-seated fears was to come upon an out-of-commission toilet and not have time to flee before being mistaken for the culprit.

Shouldering open the stall, he balked, kicking his foot out at the handle to flush before he even knew what he was doing. This had no discernible effect on what was before him, a mass meant for erosion on a geological time scale. A demi baguette, an extra-large burrito, an infant’s—no, a toddler’s—thigh, perfectly cantilevered across the inner mouth of the toilet bowl: a thing of integrity, structure. Coming to his senses, he felt something like relief at his flailing flush’s lack of success. Imagine the size, the effort, the pain of he who had produced this. Instantly, he dismissed his own lifetime of efforts. He stood rapt, understanding sublimity for the first time. If someone stumbled in on him, he would be honored to accept any mistaken attributions of responsibility.

He knew not how much time passed, and his sense of wonder did not diminish, but eventually it left space for another thought: this had to be shared. Thusly did he become the prophet of the stall. It was the booksellers in the children’s section that he had to convince, as that was where the bathroom was situated. “Everyone poops, yes,” he said to them, “but not like this. Tarō Gomi freed us from shame. But let us now go further, and celebrate those who defecate with excellence!” Won over, they served as gatekeepers, employing the out-of-order and cleaning-in-progress signs with sage discretion, letting through only those who showed on their faces the potential for discipleship. The cult grew.

Did they charge a fee? No, theirs was a labor of love. Did they accept offerings? Yes, but only as handmaidens. Coins and bills were carefully deposited around the relic, and then rendered unto the plumbing. The most pious were granted the honor of flushing these sacrifices, as witnessing the relic’s resilience as it was buffeted by waves of water at the center of the whirlpool that represented time’s inexorable churn—this produced the greatest wonder. Neither fainting, nor glossolalia, were unknown.

But the holiest things of this world are not long for it. For a time, the flushings appeared rejuvenating, smoothing the relic’s furred edges. But eventually even the original prophet could not deny that its size, and thus its power, was diminishing. No one was there when it finally broke, and eventually it was flushed—without ceremony, perhaps even with ignorant disgust—by an unwitting customer as the priests, distracted, argued amongst themselves over the tables of children’s books. Within weeks, there were those saying it had never really been anything special at all. Do not believe such doubters and blasphemers. Should you ever find yourself in the second stall of the men’s bathroom at The Strand, know that you occupy the site of a true miracle, one of the rare holy places of this earth.

–Ben Roth


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