“Won’t You Sit Down,” by Rick Bailey

Mar 6th, 2013 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

However much we stain the world, spatter
it with our leavings, make stenches, defile
the great formal oceans with what leaks down,
trundling off today’s last barrowful,
I honor shit for saying: We go on.
—Maxine Kumin, “The Excrement Poem”

 I’ve had sewage on my mind since watching the Cohen Brothers True Grit. Early in the movie, Matty Ross’s search for Rooster Cogburn leads her to an outhouse.  When she knocks on the door, we hear Jeff Bridges’ Rooster growl from inside: “The jakes is occupied.” She knocks again, and he says again, with even more gravel, “I said the jakes is occupied.”

“The jakes” is a term I remember from my Shakespeare. And here it is, in a Hollywood movie. It is just the beginning of the linguistic weirdness of True Grit. (The lingo they use. And where’d the contractions go?) For me, it is love at first shite.

But then I started wondering: Would Rooster Cogburn have used the word “jakes”? Instead of outhouse, let’s say, or crapper, crib, earth closet, hutch, john, latrine, privy, shitter, or toll house? It got me thinking, too, about how pungent life must have been–especially city life–in Rooster Cogburn’s time, and in most of history before his time.


I have been acquainted with the jakes.  My paternal grandparents lived on a farm with no indoor plumbing. The outhouse sat at the edge of the back yard, a few feet from the corn crib, across the drive from the barn, where cows often did their business while being milked. (The outhouse smelled way worse than the barn.) Against my will, when nature called I used the outhouse, pulling the door shut, looking down through that zero on the seat as if into a smelly abyss. When I spent the night, my grandmother pulled a chamber pot from under the bed and invited me to make water. It was unbearable. I was so modern, and so Puritanical in my upbringing, I could barely bring myself to say the word “toilet,” and I had to tinkle in that thing?  Then there were the outdoor toilets at the campgrounds where our parents took us for vacation. Someone in the state of Michigan had decided, in a stroke of genius, that a good color for them was shit brown. In some of the forest camps, there was a cement slab, walls, stalls, and very bad smells that were vented into the external air. (I’m convinced these vents were merely ornamental.)  At the more primitive campgrounds, there were even more dreadful offices. One of my most traumatic memories of the jakes is from college days, tramping out to the shitter at Dennis Vickroy’s cottage in West Branch one sub-zero morning, sitting on a very frosty seat, worrying my ass would freeze to it.

The outhouse was where man met beast, and the beast was himself.


The Romans, true to form, were on top of things. The Cloaca Maxima, a giant civil sewage system, went online around 600 BC. Initially an open-air canal (essentially a ditch) during Etruscan times, it was covered by the Romans, which must have contained the stench. The Cloaca Maxima conveyed rain water and runoff, along with chamber potage, to the Tiber. Then came aqueducts, eleven of them, that brought fresh water to the city. By 100 AD, there were latrines in some homes, some with running water (recycled from the public baths). In 315 AD, the city had 140 public latrines. These were sanitary people.

It would seem the latrine (from the Latin “lavatrina,” meaning “a place to wash”) was a social place. Romans who gathered there to make deposits also exchanged gossip and talked politics. Sewage literature speaks also, almost too revolting for words, of a “communal sponge” in the Roman latrine. These were sanitary people?


The loo (from Room 100 or “Waterloo”?) continues to be a social place. Ladies, the cliché teaches us, like to go together. My wife recalls coming to Freeland for the first time, for a romp at the Rathole bar, and overhearing a girl in the john. “She was going on and on about beer piss,” my wife said. Then she quotes: “‘I try to delay going as long as I can. Sometimes I’ll wait for hours.  Because once you start, you’ll be pissing all night.'” It was common knowledge among my friends, but to my wife, not a beer drinker, this was a rustic tidbit. We turned together and looked at the dance floor.

“Her,” she said.

Wild hair. A rhythmic flopping dance. It was Bonny. I knew she knew her piss.

The summer before, we had occasionally taken long drives together, with six-packs of beer. We had long conversations about friends, about life, driving 25 mph past farms and fields. At length, one of us would have to go.  I’d pull over, stand at the edge of the road, and relieve myself in the direction of the ditch, watching the cattails sway in the moonlight. When I’d finished, while I waited in the car, Bonny would get out and sit on the bumper of my VW and do her business. I have to say, I loved her for that. It wasn’t enough to base a relationship on. But almost.


I thought “the jakes” must be in, around, and all over Shakespeare’s corpus. It’s not. It appears only once, in King Lear.

Thou whoreson zed! thou unnecessary letter! My
lord, if you will give me leave, I will tread this
unbolted villain into mortar, and daub the wall of
a jakes with him.

Daub the walls, fill the cracks, keep the wind out, keep the bad air in. So it’s not all over Shakespeare, but “jakes” appears to have been a popular slang word for the outhouse. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example of its use dates 1438. My old Webster’s labels it archaic.

I am happy to have found a lengthy disquisition on sewage in Elizabethan times, John Harington’s A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called The Metamorphosis of Ajax (“Ajax” being a play on the term “a jakes”). Harington is the inventor of the flush toilet. He is the John who gave his name to, and is honored by, our visits to the john. Gail Kern Paster, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, sees in Harington’s work–his discourse, not his toilet–an “elaborate attempt to reconstruct his audience’s orientation to dung and excretion in general.” In her scholarly reading of Harington, Dolly Jorgensen, professor of ecology and environmental science at the University of Sweden, notes with appreciation that Harington “understands filth from privies as a particularly urban phenomenon and one with health consequences.” No one can say it quite like Harington:

When companies of men began first to increase, and make of families townes, and of townes cities; they quickly found not onely offence, but infection, to grow out of great concourse of people, if speciall care were not had to avoyd it. And because they could not remove houses, as they do tents, from place to place, they were driven to find the best meanes that their wits did then serve them, to cover, rather then to avoyd these annoyances: either by digging pits in the earth, or placing the common houses over rivers…

Flash forward to the privy in the back yard, to the frosty jakes behind Denny Vickroy’s cottage. The problem was and is always the same: what to do with poo.


Some time after we were married, my wife and I camped at one of those campgrounds. Make that “camped.” We stayed in my parents’ house trailer, a moveable Hilton on Higgins Lake. One night before turning off the light, I suggested we walk to the restroom. She said no.

“I’m using the bathroom in the trailer,” she said. This made sense. It was a space smaller than a phone booth, but it was clean and odor free. On the other hand, our using the Hilton head meant my father would have to transfer, by way of gravity, our “black water” to a pit in the earth near the camp exit. I thought we could save him the trouble.

“Why don’t we just walk over there?” I said.


“It’s totally modern now.”  Concrete floors. A strong antiseptic smell. The detritus of many, many users.  “They’re nice.”

“You go.”

There was no persuading her. I knew that. “Okay,” I said. “I will.”

I stepped out of the trailer and shut the door. It was a cold, moonless night. I should have waited a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dark, but I didn’t. Instead I stepped off purposefully in the direction of the new and improved jakes and walked right into a tree.


In Harington’s time, in keeping with miasma theory, people believed disease was transmitted through bad smells and stench. As Harington writes, “They quickly found not onely offence, but infection, to grow out of great concourse of people.” I don’t know if Harington’s invention prevented a single case of bubonic plague, but I’m quite sure it prevented a great many people from walking into trees.

Would Rooster have called the privie “the jakes”? I’m beginning to doubt the term had wide use among speakers of English in west Arkansas in the 1870’s. I stood in the library and took down regional dictionaries and tried to learn the truth. The more I read, the more I thought about my orientation to dung and excrement. Jorgensen’s treatment of “The Metamorphosis of Ajax” suggests there’s a deep literature to wade through: “In spite of anthropological literature such as Elias’ Civilizing Process, Duby’s A History of Private Life, and LaPorte’s A History of Shit that stress the late medieval development of privacy and shame associated with biological functions, privies as property were very much a public matter.” These must be tomes, heavy reading not available in paperback. Something you take with you to the jakes, where you sit, alone and unburdening, reflecting on what you’ve become.

And what have we become? Pretty much what we always were. We go on. We live, we go to the latrine, the jakes, the john, the head, asserting, as we do, our kinship with everything that lives.


Defenestration-Rick BaileyRick Bailey’s work has appeared recently in Writer’s Workshop Review, Fear of Monkeys, and Skive Magazine.

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