A Urinal Cake Was The Only Souvenir I Could Afford
I grew up poor.
Mom was young when she birthed me and then my sister. She was without a high school diploma. She was frequently on her own and had to use the fact that she was both smarter than most and a real beauty to make enough daily bread to feed her hungry children.
And while we weren't living in abject poverty — we were low on the ladder but we were white so weren't on the bottom rungs — we were definitely not living the middle-class lifestyle.
A thing to understand about the Poor: growing up in deprivation establishes a different set of cultural priorities than growing up with stuff. Things like watching your language, dressing up for church, eating from the four food groups, and not playing in the septic ditch are just not as important to someone who needs to shout to be acknowledged, is wearing his cousin's old cast off clothing, is happy just to eat anything, and had no opportunity for summer camp.
At a certain point, things began to look up for my little family of three and I often found myself thrust in situations where I ended up being the Poor Kid among the Well Off. And, because my cultural leanings were less... I don't know... civilized, my behavior, while making perfect sense to me, was often looked upon as savage and unacceptable.
In the fourth grade, I wanted a bike. All my friends had motocross bikes and would ride and jump mounds of dirt and boxes and whatever they could build a make-shift ramp out of. My mother went out and bought me a bike: an Aquamarine girl's bike with a worn banana seat that she got at the flea market. Instead of accepting the shame of not having the cool bike, I compensated by being more reckless, more brazenly stupid than my friends, and practically killing myself jumping my crappy girl's bike higher and higher.
In the fifth grade, my mother couldn't afford to pay the dues for me to join the Boy Scouts. I really wanted to wear one of those nifty uniforms, but mom had just had her car repossessed and there was no chance I was going to get into the exclusive club. So, I took to beating the crap out of any Boy Scout who came across my path. Not because it solved any problem or was the right thing to do but because it just made me feel better to exact some sort of punishment on the kids whose family had the money.
In the seventh grade, I had the opportunity to go on a field trip to Silver Dollar City. Mom scraped and saved and managed to pay my way. We boarded a school bus at 6 a.m. and headed to Branson, MO to see the world through a glazy, theme-parked version of the old mining towns of days gone by. Sort of like if Disney made Deadwood.
As I recall, I was pretty much on my own. None of my school friends could (or would) come so I tooled about the park, looking at fake stalagmites and riding fake mining cars through antiseptic waterfalls. On the whole, it was fun. The only negative was the shops. Every other area in the park was selling souvenirs — souvenirs I couldn't buy. I thought about shoplifting something but I didn't. At one point during the day, I had to pee. In the urinal was a disinfecting cake of bright blue.
It smelled really good — clean and pungent. No one was around. So I grabbed some paper hand towels, reached in, and grabbed it.
Yes. I know. Someone from a more genteel and well-mannered upbringing might pilfer or steal but almost never out of a urinal, let alone something so odd and gross. But I was not from that upbringing — remember that septic ditch I used to play in? — and I klepto'd out of a toilet, and stuffed it in my pocket.
Did it occur to me that I would be suspect for no other reason that I would immediately smell like a fucking urinal cake? Nope. Did it occur to me that urinal cakes have a high concentration of ammonia and that ammonia would seep through my jeans and etch a perfectly round ammonia burn on my upper thigh? Nope. Did I care? Not at all.
I got rid of it reluctantly on the way home as I realized it was scorching my flesh. I didn't tell my mother as she raised a child in near poverty but thought she had not raised a fucking moron. I didn't have the heart to tell her that her 13-year old son was a dimwit. But I've never forgotten how I felt once I realized how not cool the act was. Embarrassed that I didn't know. Humiliated that I had done something so outside the norm. Did it matter that toilet water is exactly the same water that we get from the tap and drink and that urine has no germs and that the urinal cake definitely had destroyed any nastiness pee'd on it due to the extreme nature of a cake of ammonia in water? Not even a little. I had stolen a urinal cake from a theme park in Missouri and stuffed it in my pocket.
Insert your own metaphor HERE.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Do, please insert your own metaphor in the comments section of this piece. —DH)