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Sunday Journal: Amazing grace in the men's room

By Roy Peter Clark, Special to the Times
Published September 30, 2007


I'm finally ready to write about an incident that happened to me a few years ago in the men's room in the back of a St. Petersburg Catholic church.

It is a Sunday Mass at Blessed Trinity, after the communion, and I am growing restless and leg-itchy. Under the pretense of having to use the restroom, I excuse myself and head for the back of the church.

I walk into the men's room in the vestibule. The fluorescent light is already on, and I can see that someone has occupied one stall, so I head for the other. As I sit there in contemplation, I hear a peculiar sound next door. It sounds as if he is straining, but not in a trying-to-do-number-two sort of way.

I exit the stall and wash my hands, and the straining sound has become more urgent, and it's clear now that it is coming from a child. "Are you okay in there?" I ask, puzzled beyond imagination.

The stall door swings open, and out comes a boy - maybe 8 years old - all dressed up in his Sunday suit: white shirt and tie, dark blue slacks and jacket, a right proper little lad. But he has a problem. For this young man has clearly outgrown this outfit, so that his pants barely contain his lower frame. "Mister, I can't pull up my zipper. Can you help me?"

I'm in a Catholic church, in the middle of the greatest sexual scandal in the history of Catholicism, in the men's room, with a boy who wants me to help him with his zipper.

What would you do?

I've asked this question to many friends and co-workers and have been surprised by their answers:

- Under no circumstances would I have touched him.

- I would have gone and found his parents.

- I would have passed a note so an announcement could be made from the pulpit.

And my favorite:

- I would have found a woman to help him.

In other words, men cannot be trusted with little boys.

That's not the way I saw it. No, I believed with all my heart that helping him would be an act of male solidarity. I knew, in a pure way, what he was suffering. The frustration. The embarrassment. The desperate hope that a stranger could help. And didn't Jesus prove in the story of the Good Samaritan that the stranger could be your neighbor?

Hey, I was in church.

And then the what-ifs. What if someone comes in and I'm holding this kid's zipper? What if it's a priest? What if it's the kid's brother - or his beefy father? Am I willing to take a beating to help junior with his pants?

Ah, what the hell.

It is at this moment that the door swings open. It's an old man, maybe in his 80s, probably hard of hearing. He steps up to the urinal. Now I know that an old man at a urinal has time on his side. He is in no rush. So I move right to the boy.

"Okay, son, you want me to help you?"

"Yes, sir."

"What do you want me to do?" Actually, I say it loud: WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO?"

"Pull up my zipper."

"YOU WANT ME TO PULL UP YOUR ZIPPER?"

The old man stands facing the wall, stoic, focused on his task.

"Yes, sir."

"Okay, here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to grab your belt and your zipper. Then I'm going to count to three, and you're going to pull in your stomach. Okay? One, two, three . . ."

So there you have it. The boy leaves the restroom well-zipped, buttoned up, and smiling. He doesn't even say thank you, but doesn't have to, because I know that when he grows up he'll one day encounter a child in distress and pass along my kindness.

As for the old man? I have this fantasy that I could return at any time to the men's room in the back of Blessed Trinity, and he will still be standing at the urinal, peaceful, but determined. Maybe he was an angel.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times. He is the author of "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer."