a musical education

Modern technology has done plenty for my work environment – advances in the microprocessor, for example, have helped me use the computer I am now typing on, and the replacement of small open fires with the heated electric plate has really brought the coffee break into the twenty-first century. In ancient times, coffee breaks used to take weeks, from the gathering of brush to the selection of a good rock for grinding the beans, and most of the employees would be dead of rickets by the time the water boiled.

One thing modern technology has not done for my workplace is put a bathroom in it. That’s right: lousy design trumps the best minds of the last thirty centuries. I’m certain that if I brought Socrates around on a tour of my offices, the first thing he would have said is, “Who’s the Einstein that forgot to put a bathroom in here?” That’s a Socratic question, by the way. So don’t answer it unless you enjoy the smugness of dead philosophers.

Actually, the first words out of his mouth would have been in ancient Greek, and they’d have been less words and more an unhinged scream at the sight of a photocopier in action. But that’s a story for another day. When one of us civilized twenty-first century types wants to go the bathroom – let’s use me as an example – I need to leave my office and enter the adjoining hotel lobby, where I can use the spacious men’s washroom on the mezzanine, which is well-lit, crawling with swine flu and populated by guys who clearly have nowhere better to hang out than a public toilet.

There’s the guy with the goatee and the little leather jacket who stands in front of the sinks like a washroom attendant in an old William Friedkin film. There’s the guy in the Tilly hat and navy knee socks who appears to have turned the end stall into an office. And then there are all the guests and conventioneers, the nametags resting on beer bellies, the occasional Shriner fez or rented tux passing through, the ones who wash their hands compulsively or don’t wash at all, the ones who grunt like wounded animals in the stalls, the ones who can’t work the hand towel dispenser, and worst of all, the ones who inexplicably choose the urinal right next to yours.

And then there’s me, the guy standing very still in the middle of it all holding up his cell phone. I must creep everyone the hell out.

Why am I doing it? I’m trying to catch the name of the song they’re piping in. The same music is unreeling in the lobby, but in that airy space it thins out to a kind of sonic puff of freshener. In the bathroom, the muzak is concentrated. You can feel the force of its intent: to force you into a state of mind where you just want to take it easy. And of course, Dan Fogelberg’s Jackson Browne's breeziest of breezy tunes, Take It Easy, is always in the rotation.

The songs I hear two or three times fit roughly into the subgenre of 1970s folk-rock, the kingdom that John Denver rules. They are songs that exist just to the left of my childhood, familiar but slightly distant (I grew up on bands like The Beatles until I jumped straight to Duran Duran and their ilk in the early eighties). I recognize the tunes but rarely know the lyrics, and the names of the artists call up vague recollections at best.

So: I figured I would acquaint myself with the easy listening gods and goddesses of the '70s, with the invaluable help of my iPhone and the Midomi app, which is capable of listening to a snippet of song and returning reams of information.

Next post then: I will tell you about the music of the hotel bathroom, which plays for everyone, whether it's me with my phone or the guy with the Tilly hat in the stall at the end of the row.