Inter urinas et faeces nascimur.
We are born between urine and feces.
—Attributed to St. Augustine
I was birthed alongside a digested McMuffin evacuated from a parallel pipe—my mother’s last pre-labor meal. She opted for a natural birth, taking only an aspirin, never uttering a complaint.
* * *
Pipes snake underground, in walls, ceilings, on the ocean floor, in our bodies. Intestines, arteries, and veins are pulsing, bloody pipes. Pipes spread out like roots, made invisible by their barriers.
The body’s pipes host strange, hidden intimacies. There is baseness to our corporeality.
Freud’s theory of organic repression posits humankind’s adoption of an upright gait and thus the diminished importance of olfactory stimuli, taken over by visual stimuli, paved the way to civilization. The impulse of cleanliness derives from the desire to rid the body of unpleasant-smelling excretions. Freud notes excreta does not disgust children but in fact seems “precious to them”—an early bodily intimacy. As we age, we are confronted with the familiarity of the body’s natural processes alongside the aversion to them demanded by civilization.
As we age more yet, we are confronted with the gradual loss of control of our body and its functions: its pipes fail and betray us.
* * *
At Duke Writing Camp the summer I turned twelve, running across a field in the rain, I slipped and cut my knee on a broken metal pipe. Blood gushed from the gash, slicking my step as I walked—slipped—into the lacquered concrete foyer of our dorms.
A girl from camp rushed to my aid, pushed me into an elevator. She cupped her hand under my knee to catch the blood. Next, I remember, or think I remember, the blood overflowing from her cupped hand and her licking the blood off my leg and sucking it from my knee.
It must be a false memory. But if so, why did I make it up?
Mostly I just remember my discomfort, the over-intimacy: my blood, her hands; the bright lights, the elevator’s jolts; my wet body shivering, her loud, quick breaths; the pain, the electric thrill, and the simultaneous revulsion of a pretty girl touching my knee.
Years later, I am left with two distortions: a scar and a memory.
* * *
Pipe instruments like Paleolithic bone flutes are the earliest musical instruments in history.
A five-holed flute made from vulture bone discovered in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany is one of the oldest confirmed musical instruments in history at thirty-five thousand years old. The flute was found next to the Venus of Hohle Fels, hewn from an ivory woolly mammoth tusk, the oldest known confirmed human depiction in prehistoric art.
Scientists have argued that the presence of music and art among early humans may explain their survival over Neanderthals. Some theories suggest the shared intimacy of creating music encouraged tighter social bonds, leading early humans to build social networks that eventually aided in larger-scale social strategizing and organizing. Art drove our evolution.
The human voice itself, of course, may have been the earliest musical instrument, an intimately located system of pipes, pumps, and folds.
* * *
I lived in Texas for a decade in a house whose hoarded state so embarrassed my grandparents they didn’t call repairmen when a tree root struck through the house’s main plumbing pipe.
In lieu of repair, certain adjustments, like only turning on the water once a week, were made. I developed an uncomfortable over-intimacy with bodies’ excretions, their concentrated smells.
At sixteen, I moved to my grandfather’s doctor’s office so I could shower daily. I slept on the waiting room couch—a strange intimacy, sleeping where so many patients’ asses had sat. The empty office scared me at night, its quiet as alarming as its noises: I noted every tick in the plumbing, every squirrel in the attic. I grew intimate with its peculiar melodies.
* * *
In film, pipes gum up dystopian worlds. Pipes accent the industrial landscape in Metropolis. In Brazil, pipes (or ducts) haunt each scene, crowding rooms like a many-tentacled monster. The ducts function as the government’s communication system, hanging oppressively over a citizen’s every interaction. Pipes are not hidden by barriers but are visible, exposing these worlds’ ugly machines.
Pipes, especially ventilation ducts, also function as escape tunnels in Alien, Die Hard, and Dr. No. Pipes form nomadic interior spaces not subject to the usual constraints of finite space. Given their presence in the periphery, in hidden spaces, in the subterranean, pipes signify the subconscious and the repressed—things too intimate for public display. Pipes lead down to secret bunkers, underwater boats. They link our world to subterranean and submarine worlds.
* * *
The summer I turned eighteen, my cousin and her boyfriend helped me smoke weed for the first time out of an apple, a can, and finally, a bong. In their car in a wooded cul-de-sac, I first experienced that shared intimacy, the communal toke, passing a pipe, touching lips to the same opening. We drove a few miles to a beach in Nags Head. Lying in the sand, we watched the stars and fell into laughing fits. They made out while I wished I could teleport above, to evaporate into gas and dust, beyond the sidelines of my cousin and her boyfriend’s intimacy.
* * *
The world’s largest musical instrument is the Great Stalacpipe Organ, deep within the Luray Caverns in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. The pipes are stalactites covering three-and-a-half acres of the cave. Soft rubber-tipped mallets tap the stalactites, producing tones that reach the deepest recesses of the sixty-four acre cave, sound waves funneling through ear canals and ears’ tiny bones, tubes, and pipes, finally converting to electrical impulses sent to the brain as sound.
* * *
I once smoked salvia out of a glass pipe of my now ex-boyfriend’s mother, who watched as I, nineteen, sat on her bed in their trailer in Hickory, North Carolina. It hit me so fast and hard I couldn’t pass the pipe. I hallucinated a screen came loose from the periphery of my vision, and a blond pigtailed girl hastily tried to hide the set lights, the wires, the pipe grid.
“You’re not supposed to see this. No, no.” She kept shoving my head down so I couldn’t see.
Afterward, I was told I kept trying to stand and my boyfriend kept pulling me down. The trip was supposed to last fifteen minutes. I spent the final forty of sixty minutes in and out of a blanket, clammy, too hot and too cold—as if my body had outgrown its comforts as a vessel, my skin clinging and suffocating me. Then we drove two hours to see Radiohead, the strange mint’s flavor still bitter on my tongue, my mouth dry and gummy.
At the amphitheater, an awareness of my surroundings, absent during the hallucination, crept up on me like a sickness: people stumbled out of porta-potties vomiting; stinky tie-dyes puffed and passed pipes around us; the stage’s long light tubes and pyrotechnics dwarfed the band, tiny and garishly lit from our vantage point. The production of it all turned my stomach. Radiohead played “House of Cards” to end the first encore, Yorke singing “the infrastructure will collapse,” as I eyed the rafters, wires, lights, and pipe grids hanging over us, exposed, and wondered why I preferred them hidden.
* * *
Pipes abound in Moby-Dick, from the whale’s windpipe to Queequeg’s tomahawk pipe.
As the chase with the whale whiles on, Ishmael says, “The moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.”
* * *
In Istanbul, I once shared a pipe at a hookah bar with the middle-aged owner. We communicated in monosyllables, sipping raki. He offered me half of his grilled cheese, and I ate it. I assumed we were just sharing a friendly cultural exchange. But when I left, he threw his arms in the air, tipsy, and yelled after me, in English, “I love you.” I laughed, alcohol and anise roiling in my stomach. He was mostly joking, but I did wonder if sharing a pipe had led him to misunderstand our level of intimacy.
* * *
Harry Nilsson, famed for his voice and its three-and-half octave range, is said to have ruined his vocal cords during the recording of Pussy Cats with John Lennon during Lennon’s Lost Weekend period. Originally entitled Strange Pussies, the album features Nilsson’s raspy voice. Nilsson and Lennon engaged in a singing-turned-screaming match in which Nilsson hemorrhaged his vocal cords. Tender polyps grew. But every night, Nilsson continued drinking, re-rupturing the sore nodules, and singing, spattering his microphone with blood.
Nilsson wore his pipes down. I am struck by the way he betrayed his body, its special gifts, with abuse, as well as by the way the body eventually betrays its owners by deteriorating over time.
* * *
In Asheville, I once clogged a toilet in my apartment. After failing at plunging it, I called a plumber. He spent half an hour elbow deep in its pipes before coming out. I balked when he asked me if I had plans that night, moments after having my shit inches from his face. Although I’d called for his services, I felt somehow he was invading my home, my privacy, even, in a sense, my body.
* * *
In ancient Greece, the institution of pederasty sometimes had a pedagogical function, such as mentorship in music, art, and literature. In a marble statue from 100 BCE, Pan, the Greek god of the wild, shepherds, and more, acts as the erect erastes (lover), teaching Daphnis, his flaccid eromenos (beloved), a shepherd, how to play his reed pipe. In the statue Daphnis slouches, facing away, looking as if he is trying to shrug off Pan’s hands, uncomfortable with Pan’s over-intimate grips.
* * *
I was born on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a string of barrier islands tickling the Atlantic, which I still consider home. Scientists predict the Outer Banks, already eroded, will end up underwater as sea levels rise up to fifty-five inches by the end of this century.
I’ll be dead by then. Now I watch beach nourishment projects vainly try to keep up with shoreline erosion. Underwater pipes pump sand out to the beach, where trucks spread it. As a short-term fix, it’s the only viable one and necessary to sustain the area’s economy. But it’s only a temporary solution to an ongoing problem: people abuse the Earth, and the Earth displaces its inhabitants.
North Carolina Republicans responded to sea level concerns not by developing longer-term strategies but by outlawing climate change predictions beyond thirty years in a bizarrely reasoned ploy to save real estate. My same home state lost millions of dollars in revenue (and respect and humanity) with HB2, the “Bathroom Bill,” which bars transgender people from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. It’s a discrimination that derives from a creepy preoccupation with other people’s intimate parts and acts.
One irony of HB2 is the toilet is the great equalizer: No matter who it comes from, the same bodily liquid and matter ends up in the pipes.
HB2 has only been partially repealed, just as Outer Banks shorelines have only been partially repaired and protected. As my state keeps changing, I fear a loss of intimacy with my home. I’ll take it in its most intimate form—its waste, detritus, pipes, laid bare—and entertain the pipe dream that I won’t live to see us spiral further into a dystopia, that my home won’t vanish into the void.