The piddle riddle: Are you a gull or a buoy?

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

When my daughter and I were out for dinner at a restaurant on Grand Cayman, where she was living, we could not figure out which bathroom was meant for us. Usually, it’s obvious: the door signs say, “Men” and “Women,” or “Male” and “Female.” Often, there are just figures, one wearing pants and one wearing a skirt.

But in this case, the figures were hard to figure. Both seemed to be wearing pants. Megan and I waited to see who came out — guys or gals — before we headed in.

More than once, I have ended up in the men’s room, usually abroad, because I mistook one bathroom for the other. This happened to my sister, too, when she moved to England some years ago. In a national park, she hurried into what she thought was the ladies room.


“I remember thinking that the graffiti on the wall was quite uncivilized and did not seem like British women,” she says. When she walked out of the stall, she suddenly noticed the urinals — and a guy standing at one who said: “You can join me if you want to!”

In the Caymans, our bathroom bewilderment got my husband, daughter, and me talking about other toilet doors. Over the years, I’ve seen Cowboys and Cowgirls signs. Pictures of top hats and bonnets. “Chicks” and “Roosters.”

A few years ago, when she was living in Vietnam, Megan took us to Phu Quoc, an island off the southern coast. The beach bathrooms had a figure dressed in blue on one side of a divider, and a figure dressed in pink on the other. The blue guy was peeking over the top of the divider at the pink girl. Kind of funny, kind of creepy.

At Woodman’s of Essex, a great seafood-in-the-rough place on Boston’s North Shore, the bathrooms are labeled “gulls” and “buoys.” Though if you’ve had one too many beers with your fried clams, you might not get it.


The bathrooms on the beach on Phu Quoc, an island off the southern coast of Vietnam.
The bathrooms on the beach on Phu Quoc, an island off the southern coast of Vietnam. Megan Bailey

My personal favorite involves dogs. It was somewhere in the United States, and each bathroom door bore the likeness of a dog on it. One door said, “Pointers” and the other said, “Setters,” with the likeness of a German shorthaired pointer for the men’s room, and a Irish setter for the women’s.

My colleague Ty Burr and his wife were recently driving in Canada, when they came across public restrooms on Route 1 in New Brunswick. Though you could tell which bathroom was which, thanks to the man wearing pants and the woman a dress, the question was: Why were each covering their private parts with their hands? Did they have to go wicked bad, or were they merely modest?

My friend Charlie says that whenever he is baffled by a bathroom sign, he just waits outside to see if men or women come out. But inside one men’s room, he recalls, was this sign: “We aim to please. You aim too, please!”

Maybe we shouldn’t even start on graffiti inside the bathrooms. I remember one at the Yale Law School, written on the inside of a stall door: “My mother made me a lesbian.” Underneath, someone had scrawled: “If I gave her the material, would she make me one too?”

My cousin Jim, who has lived abroad for several years, has ended up in women’s bathrooms by mistake of language (Turkey) and illustration (United Arab Emirates). In Turkey, the word for men is “bay,” and for women it is “bayan.” As Jim was exiting the bathroom, a “covered” woman was entering, and screamed at the sight of him.


“Very embarrassing,” he says.

In Abu Dhabi, more recently, Jim was at a hotel where the silhouettes for men and women both had long, flowing headgear and dresses. He had to peer closely before he could figure out which door to enter. (The minuscule beard helped).

I guess we should be grateful there are still separate men’s and women’s rooms in public places. I cringe at the occasional sight of a “unisex” toilet. No offense, gents, but I’ve been in your bathrooms — by mistake — and I don’t want to go there again. Even if your lines are shorter.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.