Peeing with Robertson Davies

Many of the monumental events in my family appear to happen while peeing.

All this talk about working at home got me thinking back to when I was doing my apprenticeship in the Composing Room of the Peterborough Examiner. This was pretty well the only work experience I’ve ever had which took place in a Real Workplace, complete with all the usual workplace rituals (Christmas parties, coffee breaks, co-workers, etc.).

Most of the people in the Composing Room had been working there just short of forever. They weren’t progressive people. They were incredibly generous, patient, kind, funny, compassionate. But coming from working with anarcho hippie freaks to working with these guys was a big shock to my politically correct system. When all was said and done, I loved working there. But it did have its challenges.

The Composing Room was housed on the second floor of the paper’s offices on Water St. While at one point Composing had taken up 3/4 of the floor, the reduction in the size of page production technology meant that much less floor space was needed, and also meant a reduction in workforce from 90 to 9 over twenty-five years. So by the time I arrived, we were all gathered in the corner of what used to be a large open space.

One vestige of the larger workforce was the employee washroom: a vast room with a big foot-operated trough-sink like the kind you might remember from elementary school. There were a lot of rituals associated with the Composing Room washroom: when you could go, how long you could reasonably spend there, etc. And there was a very specific way you were supposed to leave that day’s paper tucked into the stall doors (for the next guy) if you took it in with you.

The best story I ever heard about the washroom was this: Robertson Davies, noted Canadian author, was Editor of the Examiner from 1942 to 1955, and then Publisher from 1955 to 1965. His tenure at the paper overlapped with that of almost everyone I worked with in the Composing Room, and there were many stories about him.

Davies has been described as a “gentleman in the old-fashioned sense of the word.” The story goes that when he was Publisher he arranged to have his office extensively renovated; one aspect of this was rather extensive renovation of his private washroom (including the installation of a bidet, something which, 20 years later, the guys in the Composing Room still thought was weird).

Because his private washroom was being renovated, he obviously needed the use of other facilities, and the Composing Room’s being the closest, this is the one he choose. The kicker was, however, that it was deemed inappropriate for the Publisher to use the same stall as the Composing Room guys, so a particular stall was choosen to be temporarily taken out of general service, a lock was installed, and this stall became the private domain of Davies.

When the renovations were completed, Davies returned to the comfort of his bidet-strewn palace, and the stall was returned to its rightful users.

Twenty years later I came along and used the stall in question every day to do my own peeing and worse. I will leave the osmostic possibilities to the reader’s imagination.

One of the great regrets of my time at the paper is that I didn’t steal Davies’ thesaurus.

The Examiner, you see, had a small library off the editorial offices. This library, with the exception of the morgue, was little-used and most of the books hadn’t been read in years (you could tell from the cobwebs). One night I was creeping around the paper at 2:30 a.m., waiting for the Saturday paper to come off the presses so I could go home. I wandered into the library and picked a random book off the shelf: it was a Roget’s Thesaurus. I opened it up and on the flyleaf was a bookplate printed “Property of Robertson Davies.”

I thought, for a moment, that I should liberate the book for my own library — it wasn’t being appreciated in its hiding place in the library, my thinking went — by my upbringing got the best of me and I returned the book to its place on the shelf. I fear that when the Examiner picked up and left for the suburbs several years later, the book ended up in the trash.

Those were wonderful times.