Why do they lock gas station bathrooms? Are they afraid someone will clean them?” Anonymous
Growing up in the era of “Walk It Off” parenting, I was never allowed to get too in touch with my hypochondria. Occasionally, I might get my hands on a National Geographic magazine that would feature Amazon explorers, tribes that had never been touched by the outside world or an expedition into the heart of darkest Africa. To properly frame the perilous nature of uncharted corners of the world, the articles would relate the hazards associated with indigenous people, nasty flora, unpredictable fauna and myriad microscopic predators that could all kill a man – often in bizarre and horrific ways.
I did not just want to know about the 1000 ways in which I could die – – I wanted to witness them. The fact that most of these diseases, parasites and insidious bacteria were transmitted through unclean drinking water, monkey bites, and unnatural encounters in dark, forbidden places did not matter to me. I was certain these germs were lingering everywhere.
These were the days before Purell and the bathroom at the local Shell gas station seemed the perfect breeding ground for microscopic predators waiting to hitch a ride home on an unwashed hand. The public restroom was an essential pit stop for any kid on a long bike ride from home. I tried to hold it to avoid the dimly lit, gray tiled stall that seemed to radiate filth. Truthfully, I’d rather risk getting caught in the bushes but sometimes nature left you no choice. I was fairly convinced that Lenny, the grease monkey who changed oil and pumped full service gas, had contracted some kind of brain parasite using his own bathroom. Perhaps it was the fact that he always called me “Bubba” regardless of my repeatedly telling him my name was Mike. It might have been his perpetually filthy hands or his facial tic that would whip his head sideways as if a naked super model was riding by on a unicycle.
I did not appreciate just how microphobic I had become until I “stole” a free venereal disease pamphlet in the local pharmacy, went home and committed it to memory and then proceeded to contract the disease over the course of the next 24 hours. I rationalized I must have picked up the STD from the Shell station toilet seat – even after using the wax paper seat cover that would always stay in place and then float away mischievously just before you sat down. I distinctly remember my mother suffocating her laughter as I came clean about my condition. She suggested that if I did not scrub so aggressively with the Dial soap, I might not have the “burning “ sensation. I dialed down the Dial and things did improve. However, I was wary. I understood this ancient scourge could incubate for years and lead to insanity. Just ask King George III.
Things only got worse after seeing the movie “Hawaii” with Julie Andrews and Max Von Sydow where people stricken with the dreaded tropical disease leprosy were forcibly relocated to the island of Molokai. The initial symptoms of leprosy might be as simple as a slow to heal lesion or cut. My scraped knee that would ripped back open each week when sliding improperly in baseball might as well be a motel with a big neon sign saying “ vacancy “ to any tropical disease. Before I knew it, my fingers would be breaking off on my pencil in geometry class.
Just a few months later, the film Papillion debuted with Steve McQueen starring as the convict determined to escape from French Guyana’s Devil’s Island. In a particularly disturbing part of the prison escape adventure, Papillion attempts to enlist the help of a local leper colony to make his escape from captivity. The head leper was grotesquely afflicted and eager to test Papillion’s willingness to accept the lepers as equals in exchange for their assistance. “ Care to have a smoke?” The leper asks as he hands the Papillion the cigar he has just been smoking. As Papillion takes the smoldering Cuban, he notices that the leper’s finger has come off and is clinging to the cigar. As only Steve McQueen would do, he unflinchingly takes a deep satisfied puff.
It was about this time that my knee started to itch again. The scab had healed but just one unclean cut and I could be easily transformed into one of those legless guys who pulled themselves around on skateboards begging for quarters. My mother once again intervened to explain that the incubation period for leprosy was three to five years. If memory served, she was quite certain that I had not been in the tropics during my third grade school year.
Years later, I realized that my older brothers had much to do with my bacteriophobia. It was always the same scenario – – a summer campfire and a tall tale about the guy who became a zombie from tsetse fly sleeping sickness. Or he might describe the sad life of Jo-Jo, the Wolf Boy, afflicted with hypertrichosis also known as “the werewolf disease”. Yet, the most indelible of all stories involved the dreaded intestinal tapeworm.
As the fire cast ominous shadows across my brother’s concerned face, he whispered. “You know how they would they would get rid of your tapeworm’s in the Middle Ages?” He would ask rhetorically with his face screwed into a grimace of false empathy. “They would starve you, and then make you sit on a chair covered with honey. The tapeworm would roar out starving for food and then five guys would pull and pull and pull. If they got it all, you were cured. If it broke off, forget it.”
Yes, it was very gross. And yes, from that point forward I ordered well-done meat, compulsively washed my hands and refused to visit any country that had not been independent for at least 50 years. My sib’s hyperbole included the description of a record-breaking 34-foot tape worm taken out of a man in the Philippines.
I suddenly began to suspect that our refrigerator was a youth hostel for killer microbes. Raising boys had my mother permanently behind on household hygiene with our Frigidaire serving as the greatest living monument to this fact. We were trained to check the expiration date on any perishable food item– lest we get a mouthful of lumpy milk, fuzzy gray piece of bread or cheese wedge with great blue mold spores blooming like spring forget-me-nots. She did her best, but it was a losing battle attempting to clean up behind four thoughtless primates.
In a brief and paranoid span of a week, I began to hint at the lack of sanitation in our house. As she wiped the counters with the sponge that smelled an old Gym sock, my mind’s eye saw our eating space as a massive Woodstock of breeding bacterium. She would have been better off just wiping everything with a raw pork chop. “ I heard you can catch a tape worm from eating off a dirty counter top.” I said with my most official sounding voice. “ Hmmm” was all she said, absentmindedly continuing to load the dishwasher. “I heard a kid from Pasadena got one that was 25 feet!” “ Really.” Again, no reaction. “Yeah, and they had to tie him to a tree and starve him. They put a jar of honey ten feet away and during the night the tapeworm crawled out to get the honey. They caught it and it’s going to be in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” That got her. “Michael, who have you been talking to?”
I survived my Andromeda Strain childhood somehow despite the imminent pandemics of flu – swine, bird and Spanish influenza as well as legionnaire’s disease, AIDS, Hantavirus and Ebola. Years later, in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel, award winning author Jared Diamond confirmed just how close to death I was sharing that most of the world’s pandemics initiated as a result of people living in proximity with animals. Apparently, dogs came with ringworm, tick bites and rabies. The cat was memorialized by singer Ted Nugent for his ability to afflict a person with Bartonellosis also known as Cat Scratch Fever. I shuddered at the millions of microbes we must have ingested as we handled rats, turtles, lizards, gerbils, hamsters, snakes, birds, rabbits and guinea pigs. As more evolved warm-blooded hosts, I was amazed that we did not become a hotel for hidden organisms. Perhaps, all the nitrates and red dye #2 we consumed in hot dogs neutralized the sexual reproductive capabilities of the germs.
In my late forties, I had more or less subdued the demons of my mysophobia – fear of germs. However, society has changed. The world has become flat and the numerous filters that once spared our adolescent minds from the media blitz of fear and loathing have been stripped away. The media cannot wait to rub your nose in these terrible afflictions. If it bleeds, it leads. Even educational channels have sold out to our fascination with stories of the bizarre.
Recently, my brother alerted me to a new Animal Planet television show called, “Monsters Inside of Me.” Ever the helpful sibling, he had pointed me back in the direction of my childhood fears. I tuned in one evening just in time to watch a young American afflicted with botfly larvae (literally crawling out of his back) and a woman whose brain had been infested with maggots from eating raw pork. The show went on to describe how fast these flesh eating, blood sucking, brain damaging, and lung leeching parasites can kill their hosts. Worst of all, it was all happening in America. (My theory was they all used the same restroom at a New Jersey roadside rest stop. Those bathrooms, I’m telling you are killers.)
I now try to stay away from Animal Planet but it calls to me at night. The organisms are once again on the creep and coming to a theatre, hospital and public restroom near me. I must be ready.
And the weirdest part of all is my knee – – it’s started itching again.