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Postmodern privy

The rest of the country is tearing down outhouses and shouting hallelujah. Stephen Henry, modern guy, has no complaints about indoor toilets either. On the other hand, he can tell you about his friend Ginger Brown.

Ginger Brown is an artist who paints, writes and performs music. She owns a little piece of remote woods, in the black bear country of Columbia County, about a mile as the swallowtail kite flies from the Ichetucknee River. A romantic woman, she envisioned an artist's retreat in North Florida, far from the nearest sewer.

Gainesville resident Stephen Henry is no carpenter. He's a painter and a sculptor mostly. But when Ginger Brown needs him, he is a good man with hammer and saw.

"Will you build me an outhouse?" she asked.

It was a strange request. Outhouses are a vanishing species all over North America. No exact figures are available, but the latest Census says fewer than a million households make do with what bureaucrats call "incomplete plumbing." That means they do without running water, flush toilets, or both. In Florida, about 30,000 households made claim to such rustic status in 2000.

Of course, it isn't hard to find places in the hinterlands that pump water from outdoor wells. But just try and find an outhouse anywhere. You can find a good crop of portable toilets in any city, and you might encounter a few old-fashioned outhouses at state parks that celebrate pioneer Florida. But you probably won't find a version whose seat has been warmed only by a 98.6-degree tush.

Good reason for that. When modern plumbing became available to most Floridians more than a half-century ago, few people fought to keep their outhouses. It's true that folks often become nostalgic about old times, but not many rue the day indoor plumbing arrived in their homes.

"A rattlesnake isn't good company when you're sitting on the john," declares 79-year-old Jim Parkhill, born in Louisiana and a longtime St. Petersburg resident. "But the main thing I don't miss is the spiders. They could bite you on a tender spot. Before you sat, it was always smart to light yourself a little old torch and wave it under the seat. That way you could scare away the black widows hid there."

Ginger Brown, who was born in Clearwater Beach, raised in the Mississippi Delta, and who spent much of her life in Gainesville, happens to be afraid of spiders. At the same time she is practical. What's a person to do when nature calls and a porcelain shrine is a long way off?

Pain is a common bond

Ginger Brown hasn't hit 70 yet, but it won't be long. She doesn't act her age or even look it. Brown curls cascade over eyes as dark and mysterious as the deepest pool in the Ichetucknee. She's no athlete, but she'll fool you. Every once in a while, she enlists her outhouse-builder friend Stephen Henry into making a trek to that tourist attraction at Silver Springs.

It's not the glass-bottom boat Brown enjoys. She loves the water slide. She climbs to the top with all the young 'uns, sits carefully, and flies down the ramp like an otter pup.

"Usually, I'm too afraid to go on the highest slides," Stephen Henry says. "But not Ginger."

He was born in Orlando 49 years ago but grew up in Washington, D.C. After serving in the Coast Guard, he made technical films for the military before moving to Gainesville. He wanted to live in an artsy town, where he could paint and sculpt, but he also was licking wounds from a broken marriage.

Pain is what he and Ginger Brown have in common. She grew up poor in an alcoholic family. Her husband passed away. She almost died after an auto accident. She moved to Florida and had to make a living to raise her children. She gave piano lessons and performed in symphonies playing the cello.

She's okay physically now, except for occasional back spasms. Emotionally, she is like many of us. She fights to stay on track. She reads self-help books, meditates and prays. She eats a vegetarian diet and takes all the right vitamins. She can tell you about Zuni fetishes and Zen chants. When she invites you into her house in Gainesville, take your shoes off first. Her house, after all, is her temple.

She hands you a Popsicle.

"It's a healthy snack," she says.

A few years ago, in a rage of emotion one night, she picked up a brush for the very first time and painted up a storm. Many of her paintings feature flowers, not as erotic as George O'Keeffe's storied art, but erotic just the same. She also paints Daliesque pictures. The piano in a recent painting isn't melting, but it threatens to fly off the canvas in a wind. The piano is as flat as a pancake.

"She's really a good painter," says her friend. Stephen Henry paints abstracts. Sometimes he works at the hospital and teaches art to patients.

"Lots of people are hurting," he says. "There's enough pain in this world."

He and Ginger met at a church service. He was enamored, though not in a romantic way. He was looking for a teacher and she seemed to be one.

Just about then, Ginger attended the annual Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Regional Writing Workshop in Gainesville. For a week, she got a crash course in everything from poetry to publishing. At the end, writers compete in a story contest. She won with her story about seeing the movie, The Yearling, for the first time.

Her good luck gave her an idea. Perhaps she could have a writing workshop of her own, in her woods, for hurting women who might find a way to heal their wounds by putting pen to paper. They could camp or they could go home. But if they had to go to the bathroom, they needed something more convenient than a thicket of poison ivy.

A throne of her own

Good luck finding a book about building an outhouse.

Stephen Henry and Ginger Brown drove out to her woods in his aging GMC pickup, a dusty vehicle with a Hindu prayer written on a piece of paper taped on the dash and a pair of temple bells hung just under the steering wheel.

When he corners, the bells peel frantically. "It's a way of staying tuned in to what's happening," he says. "They keep you living in the moment."

Ginger pointed to the spot where to begin.

As he labored, hoping for the best, Ginger interrupted. She wanted him to make the outhouse large enough to bring in a cot.

"You don't want to sleep in an outhouse, Ginger. Gross."

"Sure, I do."

Among the oaks and the cypress and the pines and the palmettos, he ended up building a big screened room. It has a couch and a little table and a loft for sleeping. But he refused to add an outhouse.

"Now I'll build you an outhouse."

What he built was based on a conversation with Ginger. She was making up fictional stories about the craft of building outhouses. In her story, the Widow Woman Brown negotiates the price of an outhouse with a wily carpenter. He'll give her a 25 percent discount, he says. She's delighted until she finds out the builder is going to short her a wall.

"That's when I decided I'd build a three-walled outhouse," Stephen Henry says. It's shaped like a triangle, with the narrow part in back.

Stephen Henry and Ginger Brown are New Age people. So of course they didn't just go to Home Depot and buy lumber. They shopped around and found a place that sold wood scraps.

But Henry had no intention of scrimping on creativity. The outhouse stands on a wooden deck. It has a fine tin roof. Outside and inside, it has places to hang lanterns. It has hooks for clothing. It has a fire alarm. The throne itself features arm rests. The builder's finishing touch was a fancy seat, the kind rich folks have in their estate bathrooms, solid oak.

Ginger approved.

"Now you put a lock on the toilet seat," she ordered. "When I'm not here I don't want hunters using my toilet seat. If they want to get out of the rain, fine. But no using."

Ginger Brown's toilet seat is locked.

Forever.

"Ginger is an unusual person," Stephen Henry says with a deep sigh."She decided the outhouse I built is too nice to actually use."

Her outhouse, her temple

A few weeks later he began another outhouse. This will be a basic compost outhouse, so there will be no chance Ginger will want it for something else.

"In a way, I understand Ginger," he says. "She's had a hard life. People haven't given her much. The outhouse I built, it was a gift. So it's become her temple."

When Ginger visits her property, she uses her outhouse just for sitting or as a place to get away. She prays in the outhouse and meditates. She likes to light the interior lantern. The light shines through the outhouse slats into her woods after dark.

"It's mystical," she says, dreamily.

Nature can be only so comforting. Sometimes, if she hears something in the underbrush, she hides in the outhouse.

"I'm in bear country," she says.

When she was a little, and when people were guzzling alcohol all around her, and acting crazy and all, she'd hide. Sometimes she'd hide in the attic and find a cardboard box to crawl into. It made her feel better, just like the outhouse does now.

One day, she would like Stephen Henry to build her an old-fashioned Florida house in the woods. He explains to her that he is an artist and not a carpenter. But he isn't sure she hears him.

"She's _ what? _ 67 or 68," Henry says. "And she's talking about starting over with her life in a new house in the woods? Is that going to happen? Maybe it will and maybe it won't. But the wonderful thing about Ginger, what makes her special, what I love about her, is she never stops dreaming."

And what dreams.

"A day has never went by when I haven't felt different from other people," she says. "I know I'm an eccentric. I know people think outhouses are funny. But listen. I'm very sensitive. When people make fun of me, I take it personally."

A woman's outhouse is her castle.

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