An Encounter with EHS

"Can you flush that please?" he said sharply as I returned from using the urinal to wash my theoretically soiled hands in the sink next to him.

"Are you with EHS*?" I asked suspiciously, looking at him sideways, mistrusting. He was fairly tall, short, straight red hair with a dark olive green button-down shirt tucked into dark grey pants. A rectangular Cornell University name tag hung from his shirt pocket as he bent over the sink, washing his hands even though he had just entered the bathroom, the red block indicating "Staff" clearly visible. The neatness of his appearance was impeccable. He had to be an EHS Agent.

Eyes quickly opening in a show of defense against a possibly impending afront on his authority, "Yes, I am," he said agressively, his tone definitively labeling him as anal-retentive.

I breathed in in sign of reluctant surrender, walking to the urinal to pull on that dirty handle, an act I had not committed for years.

"I bet you think it saves water," he began, lecturing, drying his hands thoroughly with a brown paper towel, the coarse sound scratching at my ears "but actually-"

"Actually, I didn't think about it man," I passively cut him off before he could start on a rant about how not flushing toilets actually saves water, not in fact the want of flushing them. Indeed, part of my reason for neglecting to flush is rooted in environmental concern. But it has been so long since I actively thought about water saving pratices that now I simply avoid flushing out of habit. The handles are rather unappealing as well.

"Oh... well," he released, visibly disappointed at no longer having sufficient to deliver his disteration on the water saving practice of flushing urinals, "it makes the room stink and the janitors have a hard time cleaning," he said satisfactorily as he started to leave the room, continually looking at me, his victory regained after the tragic demise of his water saving line.

"I'll remember that," I mumbled somewhat inaudibly, thinking only on his imminent departure.

"What's that?" he asked intensely, having apparently understood the meaning of my locutiom without hearing the words: whatever, thank god you're leaving.

"I'll remember that," I said more clearly and loudly, making better eye contact with the man, the message even clearer: get lost you facist pig.

"What's your name?" just like a cop who's about to tell you that you better watch yourself or you'll have trouble. His eyes focused on me even more intensely, but his face held a perfectily practiced smile that said 'I'm your buddy, you can tell me, you should tell me, you want to tell me - don't you?'



"Jesse," I said again loudly.

"Who do you work for?" By this time the used paper towel was tucked tightly in his hands, waiting only for the blessed end of the conversation to eagerly accept its already quite delayed fate in the trash can.

"I just work across the hall," I said somewhat meekly, the possible extent of this interegation finally appearing to me as when a border guard tells me I had just better step pull the car over for a moment.

"But who do you work for?" he said excitedly, joyfully sensing the vulnerability of his prey, the caving in of resistance, the satisfaction of breaking down the dissident. I could almost see his teeth watering from the anticipation of the kill.

"Why are you inquiring so much about me?" I said, desperation and annoyance rising in my voice. I was sticking up to the Man, not always an easy task. But I was going to hold through this one. What I wanted to say was 'I am not going to answer anymore of your questions, I have the right to do as I please.' However, I was not feeling that good at sticking up to the Man on this occasion and fell a little short of my desired effusion. Never the less, my shortness and mal tempor seemed sufficient to dissuade the inquisator from much further digging.

"I just need to know what you do."

"I'm an office guy."

"Summer work?"


"Ok, that's all I needed to know." He finally whipped his eyes away and focused them through the door which he immediately opened, and exited.

'Well, at least he probably won't make a fuss about it with my boses,' I thought to myself, 'they don't use urinals after all.'

But maybe one of these days I'll get a message from one of them that she wants to see me, has something important to talk to me about. Or maybe I'll have to go to a special EHS training seminar on 'Proper Use of Bathroom Components and the Water Saving Practice of Toilet Flushing.' Or maybe my name is now on a list somewhere, the EHS Agents watching me wherever I go. It's possible he'll just report me as a statistic to the University, if in fact his whole act wasn't simply an attempt to uphold his empty authority and ego. In anycase, from now on I'm going to watch those around me with a wary eye when I visit our bathroom. If I see them looking, maybe they're just interested. But maybe they will walk over to me, my face to the wall, slowly extend their arm and place it on my shoulder, and say, "Are you gonna flush that son?"

*EHS - Environmental Health and Safety. Apart from other duties, they are in charge of alcohol policy, fire rules, and sanitation at Cornell University.

Jesse Strock
Ithaca, NY (2002)