Pittsburgh Potty



I’ll never forget it—ever.  There. In the middle of my grandmother’s basement laundry room in her Bridgeville home, a home she shared with my grandfather until about a decade ago.

There. With no walls surrounding it and no privacy screen or veil of any sort.

There. With a window directly behind it.

There. To the right of the clothes dryer and to the left of a shelf full of non-perishables.

A toilet.

A real, working, flushing TOILET, sitting in the middle of my grandmother’s basement.

Growing up, I will admit, I used that toilet on occasion. Four sisters and lots of cousins regularly descending upon my grandmother’s house for dinner every Saturday meant it would be a rare occurrence when you would find the lone furnished, wall-enclosed upstairs bathroom available and/or devoid of noxious fumes.  So there we would sit on the basement potty under lights so fluorescently bright you could do surgery under them, willing our little bodies to empty as fast as they could.  Wondering if there was a cousin or a stray dog watching us from the window. Praying Grandma wouldn’t choose that particular second to retrieve a can of sauce from the shelf.  Thinking this must be what it’s like in jail. Wondering why the heck doesn’t Pap-Pap put some [darn] walls around this thing. And then we’d feel guilty because we thought a swearword in our heads.

I spent the next two and a half decades thinking my grandmother’s house was the single house built by the crackpot crew that decided to punk them by putting a wall-less potty in the middle of their basement. Until I bought a house.
My husband and I visited house after house, and in every fourth basement—a potty! Out in the middle of nowhere! Potties haphazardly strewn about basements of every shape and size. Potties with handles and potties with pull cords. Potties with lids and potties without.  Potties so small you wonder if chipmunks use that potty at night. Potties so loud and big and water-wasteful, you fear they could suck the space/time continuum into them.

That was when I came to assume that these potties must be all over the country, not just in my grandmother’s old basement. We purchased a house with a stray potty, and we’ve given that potty a warm home. But we simply pretended as if the stray potty didn’t exist, and we certainly didn’t make eye contact with the potty when we walked past it to do laundry.

Then, very recently, a conversation began on Twitter in which Doug (@douglasderda), an Erie native now living in Pittsburgh, asked, “What is a Pittsburgh Potty?” Without even reading the answers, I knew: “IT HAS A NAME!”

The Pittsburgh Potty!  The lone, sad, old, stained but useful basement toilet found scattered throughout the homes of the Pittsburgh region.  I immediately took to Google to learn more about this phenomenon and discovered that WQED’s and Pittsburgh Magazine’s Rick Sebak featured the Pittsburgh Potty on his show “Pittsburgh Underground.” I learned that the toilets were originally installed for steelworkers to use upon their return home from work and before heading upstairs for dinner.

Fascinated with this new historical knowledge about my beloved Pittsburgh, I returned to the Twitter discussion to find that the catalyst for the original question was a real-estate ad for a local home featuring “a walkout basement with a Pittsburgh commode.” Doug wondered is that something a person really wants to advertise when selling a house, that there’s a place with no walls should you decide to relieve yourself sans privacy?

Apparently so, because Twitter responded to Doug with the following responses:
• “Hey, my house also has that feature!”
• “I told my wife I wanted to put ours back in, but she refused. I threatened to use the stationary tubs.”
• “Everyone I know has one!”
• “In my house, that would be known as my husband’s bathroom.”
• “It’s a huge selling feature for PGH natives. I’m not kidding. We weren’t so lucky in our SS home.”
• “We’re high class people. Our Pittsburgh Potty has a bidet.  Well, it’s a hose mounted on the bottom, but still ….”

And suddenly, just like that, I became proud of my Pittsburgh Potty. It is a treasured, historic artifact! We Pittsburghers take pride in what makes us unique, even if they are ridiculous things like salads made unhealthy with french fries, chairs that reserve parking spaces, our utter inability to yield, Steelers jerseys in church, or yes, that odd toilet in the basement that despite our best intentions, we will probably never enclose.

That means someday soon, during a large family gathering at our home, in a moment of urgency and necessity, my son will find himself down there, wondering, “Why in the name of all that is Pittsburgh doesn’t Daddy put some [darn] walls around this thing?!”
And if I’ve done my job well, he’ll feel very guilty for thinking that swear word.

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