Many times I’ve daydreamed about what I would do if, one day, I magically woke up with a penis. I’d go out for a bit of a jog, just to see how well that goes with all that business flapping around down there. I’d go shopping for pants that would provide adequate breathing room and offer a flattering silhouette. But priority numero uno: I would head straight to New York City so that I may finally step foot in the legendary men’s room of the Old Town Bar, which celebrated its 125th anniversary this year.
In New York, a city that’s perpetually erasing itself in the name of progress, Old Town, open since 1892, is a sacred shrine. It’s the kind of joint where you can slink into the shadowy recessed corners of a high-backed wooden booth and sip on a Jameson straight-up til you develop a voice that makes Tom Waits sound like choirboy. Dark mahogany stretches from the porcelain tiled floor up to the cavernous ceiling–painted a matching shade that erases a century’s worth of tobacco smoke. Chili dogs and liverwurst sandwiches magically appear from a small door that conceals New York’s oldest dumbwaiter, a once-common element of restaurant design that ne to ne to come back on trend post-haste. The chandeliers are electric, but with their already dim bulbs suspended fourteen feet in the air, you can fully submit to your gaslit Gay Nineties fantasies.
Its physical location is a corner point of the historic district called “Ladies Mile”–a square mile which was the shopping district for well-heeled women in the early 1900s, meaning Old Town was the inebriated daycare center for our great-great-grandfathers. And when our great-great-grandpas had to whiz, they didn’t do it in a tin bucket like a bunch of filthy street urchin. They whizzed in a way befitting a distinguished old Knickerbocker: into a state-of-the-art Hinsdale, the Cadillac of urinals. Patented and installed in 1910, this was the urinal to which all others would be compared, the porcelain altar that would change the course of history.
These urinals have become so lauded that, in 2010, a centennial celebration was thrown at the bar that attracted press and history-obsessives from far and wide. They are the centerpiece of a virtually unmodified restroom, tucked into the back corner of a business so hallowed, it has stayed frozen in time as the entire city has changed around it. A mirror covers the wall above them, studded with small cracks and telltale signs of age, allowing a man to fully grasp the enormity of the moment. Saddling up to one of these high-walled behemoths, all men–whether a rummy, rabble rouser, a robber baron or a Roosevelt—were equal.
Those weathered Hinsdales in the men’s room at Old Town Bar.
There have been moments when I’ve considered my obsession with this particular forbidden fruit ridiculous, but conversations with my gentlemen friends have confirmed that this is one of the most essential experiences in New York City, one that we shall always covet no matter how many barriers womankind may shatter.
While their endorsments were enough for a local gal like me, I began to wonder about how Old Town fit into the ever changing world of bathroom technology. The past century has seen the advent of such marvels as self-flushing mechanisms, loos with a view, and the entire epic category of Japanese toiletry. For certain there are urinals out there designed solely for the 1 percent, ones that the average man shall never have the privilege of peeing into, ones that could possibly blow Old Town’s out of the swirling water. I began to question the men I felt were experts in the field: world travelers, hospitality writers, toilet aficionados.
I thought about who would have the breadth of knowledge to make a fair and accurate assessment on the urinal situation at the city’s most elite bars and restaurants, and there is but one man who is qualified enough to render the verdict: New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells. This is a man who spends nearly every night dining at the city’s finest establishments, and though he’s been to hundr of spectacular men’s rooms he still he believes that, after 117 years, the Hinsdale’s at Old Town are unparalleled. “I love all the old urinals of Manhattan–the ones at Old Town are probably the best. I love the depth of them. They’re so grand they turn the act of urinating into something sacramental. I’m fascinated by the way the top edge scoops in–I’m not sure if it’s so you can see what’s going on in there, or if it was meant to accommodate the jutting stomachs of Tammany Hall officials who ate steak three times a day”.
We don’t often appreciate the extraordinary qualities of the mundane objects that surround us. Perhaps what is most remarkable about Old Town Bar’s urinals isn’t their age, their quality, or the stories of revelry that they have washed away both though the passage of time and the New York City sewer system. It’s the fact that they are universally beloved; that in one-minute increments they are both cherished and revered; that they momentarily stop time for their patron. These urinals convey the urgency of living, reminding a man of his place in history and the inevitability of his own mortality. That he, like all the men who stood in his place before him, is capable of greatness. That he should sit down and have another beer with his friends, because there will never be enough hours to do that.
Allison Robicelli is an author, humorist, James Beard nominee, all around good time, and a few other things we had to cut for space. Follow her on Twitter @robicellis.