Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

My Water Closet Office

When someone asked me about my most humiliating experience that I enjoyed, I had a quick answer: My water closet office.


A little background is necessary.

Newly elected Oregon Congressman Ron Wyden hired me as his staff director. One of the first and not inconsequential responsibilities of a staff director for a congressional freshman is to select an office.

Like many other aspects of Congress, office assignments are based on seniority. Since freshmen Members of Congress have no seniority, there position in the queue is determined by lottery. A member with a last name that begins with “W” has bad odds.

So it was that I had nothing but the dregs to choose from on behalf of Congressman Wyden. All that was available were office suites located on separate floors in the Longworth House Office Building, the smallest of the three House office buildings.

Whatever glamor you associate with Capitol Hill, it can vaporize quickly if you have to run up four flights of stairs to ask an assistant to correct the spelling in a constituent letter. Constituents aren’t overjoyed when they show up at the reception desk, which is six floors away from the Congressman’s office.

I used my DC connections, such as they were, to beg for two office suites on the same floor at the feet of Speaker Tip O’Neill’s staff director, Gary Hymel. I can’t remember the arguments I used, but lots of groveling was involved. It succeeded.

The only unclaimed offices on the same floor in the Longworth Building both happened to be what are known as congressional suites – the slightly more glamorous office because it had a safe and its own bathroom. We had little choice.

The downside of congressional suites in the Longworth Building is that sometimes they are disconnected from their outer office, which is where the receptionist and perhaps one or two other staffers sit. Our second congressional suite fell into that category, forcing us to cram our 3-person legislative staff, a press secretary – and me – into its petite confines.

Allowing barely enough room for a desk, chair and a file cabinet, all that was left was a closet leading into the water closet. I took it because, in relative terms, it had the most privacy. The water closet had a door with a lock.

My “office” was narrow, so my desk wasn’t much wider than what you would find in an elementary school. My chair backed up to the door to the water closet.

Capitol Hill staff directors – in the House, they are technically called Administrative Assistants – have egos just a few inches short of their bosses. My tiny office barely a flush away from the Capitol sanitation system made me, so to speak, the butt of many jokes. Constituent visitors, especially ones who knew me, snickered, too.

But, curiously and coincidentally, I had the last laugh.

On the same floor was a second-term congressman from Mississippi. Jon Hinson had won re-election despite an arrest for exposing himself to an undercover police officer at the Iwo Jima Memorial.

Voters in Southwestern Mississippi overlooked the transgression, but Capitol Hill police didn’t. They installed hidden surveillance cameras in the main public restroom on our floor.If you went into the bathroom, you appeared on tape, viewed – and regaled or ridiculed – by untold numbers of police officers who drank too much coffee.

In early February, just a month into the new term, Hinson was arrested again for hooking up with a Library of Congress employee in the fourth floor restroom. Faced with a felony charge and after seeking treatment in a DC hospital, he resigned a couple months later.

The resignation prompted a steady stream of colleagues dropping by my “office” to congratulate me on being the only congressional aide on the fourth floor who hadn’t been videotaped while unzipped.

They were right. I never used the main restroom. All I had to do was swivel in my chair and I was in my own privy.

Was it humiliating when I worked late and the cleaning lady had to climb over my miniature desk to get to the water closet? Sure, until Hinson got caught. After that, I couldn’t have been happier.

[Hinson denied he was a homosexual until after he resigned. He became a gay rights activist and pushed for an end to the ban on gays serving in the U.S. military. He lived in the DC area and was one of only four survivors in a 1977 fire at the Cinema Follies. Hinson died at age 53 of respiratory failure attributed to AIDS. He never returned to Mississippi.]


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