By Tori Marlan
Janis Wagner cradles her head in her hands. She says she can't believe she's going to admit this on the record and probably she shouldn't, because, well, it might be a misdemeanor. But she can't help herself, she has to confess--she's a public urinator. And it's fun! She giggles wildly.
We're sitting in her north-side apartment talking about Whizzy, the product she invented so that women can "stand and urinate with ease." She unzips a plastic bag and pulls out a specially cut and folded piece of manila paper. It's a simple device, she explains. You just hold it between your legs and unfold it so that it forms a trough. It adjusts to each user's "contours and stance," according to the pink instructional pamphlet. "Relax, aim, and go."
"I love it, I love it," exults Wagner, a 50-year-old former dancer, choreographer, and social worker with a law degree. She has long wavy hair and soft features. She blushes easily. She bubbles with girlish enthusiasm. She wears skirts and dresses. She doesn't wish she were a man, she says--but it's a "hoot" to be able to piss like one.
With Whizzy, women finally can write their names in the snow or spray off the side of a sailboat--something Wagner has longed to do since childhood, when her younger brother got to have all the fun. Wagner insists that she isn't alone in this desire--that every woman, whether or not she admits it, has had the occasional stand-up-and-pee fantasy.
But penis envy didn't compel her to invent Whizzy. "Necessity," she says, growing serious, "truly was the mother of invention in this case."
In the late 80s, after Wagner developed muscular rheumatism, simple tasks became punishing chores. Sitting was excruciating unless she limbered up for at least an hour beforehand--which wasn't possible when she had a bursting bladder. A "midair squat" didn't make using the toilet easy. Neither did a raised seat. Wagner--what could she do?--began urinating upright into paper cups and paper-plate gutters that she pointed wishfully in the direction of the toilet. But the cups tended to run over, and the plates leaked or missed the target. So she took scissors to paper and toyed with her own designs.
One day in the early 90s, after watching a movie "about little miracles that change your life," Wagner realized that she was on to something: surely other disabled women would want to urinate comfortably too.
The real experimenting began. She bought various papers, cut them into various shapes, then tested them in her "lab," taking notes on effectiveness, ease, and comfort and ruling out models that caused irritation or seeped or were too cumbersome.
Eventually she found a "truly optimal" design. "This thing," she says, proudly holding up a Whizzy, "it's got trajectory. You will not go on your feet. You will not go on your clothes."
Wagner and a friend named the design between fits of sidesplitting laughter as they rejected names such as Urine Luck, Piss With This, Stand & Deliver, and E-Z-P. The jokes, of course, are endless. "My sister-in-law says it's a new way to stand by your man."
To Wagner's astonishment, a patent search revealed competition. She tried out the handful of existing models and was relieved to find them "unusable." They disintegrated or required intricate unfolding or straddling a toilet. One came with an unwieldy hose. "You can tell a man invented that one," she scoffs.
Satisfied that Whizzy was the best, she forged ahead. She now makes two models under the company name New Angle Products. The travel model fits into most purses and includes cutout handles for women whose arthritis prevents them from gripping the sides. The standard one, Wagner says, allows a longer trajectory. "I was in Sears one day, and it was a mess around the toilet. I stood back a good eight inches and made it in."
Initially Wagner planned to reach her target market through occupational therapists and arthritis foundations. Then able-bodied friends and relatives started raving about Whizzy. "It was a lifesaver," said a neighbor who took a sample pack camping--even her seven-year-old daughter, faced with the prospect of an outhouse, had had the sense to demand a Whizzy. Wagner's brother handed out Whizzys as party favors. Wagner says, "The women went into the bathroom and came out going, 'Wow this is great.' And one woman, much to her husband's chagrin, said, 'I've always wanted to do that. And I even shook it when I was done.'"
Wagner suddenly began noticing women everywhere carping about the pitfalls of peeing. A comedian on Jay Leno's Tonight Show regaled the audience with a tale of splashing her bellbottoms while squatting over a hole in Europe. Great, Wagner thought, I can sell it to travelers. TV Guide quoted a colleague of Barbara Walters saying Walters had divulged that her "fantasy was to be a man so she could pee standing." Great, Wagner thought, I can sell it to Barbara Walters. She even drafted an I-can-make-your-dream-come-true letter, promising Walters that she could use Whizzy and still retain her "full femininity."
As Wagner talked with other women about her invention, the list of potential customers grew and soon included airline passengers and stewardesses who squat unsteadily during turbulence, partyers who can't quite make it to the nearest rest room while stumbling home, overweight women who "crash" to the toilet, dominatrices who supply golden showers.
Wagner figures that once women start using Whizzy they won't want to stop. (A sample pack of three is available for $2 from New Angle Products, P.O. Box 25641, Chicago, IL 60625.) Though she's just starting to market the device, she's been using it herself for years. "I swear if I could, bam, sit today, the Whizzy is so easy I would still use it," she says. "Not in my own home--that would be silly." But certainly if she were outdoors and "didn't want my butt flapping in the wind."
Wagner has used Whizzys to relieve herself in alleys with her back to windows and near trees in parks. She wants to be clear though that she does this only when it's absolutely necessary--as when she's on her daily walk and no restaurant is in sight. She isn't an exhibitionist. Whizzy is quick and discreet, she says. "I once had people walk by me, and they did not know!" she gloats. That's because she "dresses for the occasion" in a buttoned skirt and poncho. She'll undo a couple of buttons, slide aside her clothing, and whip out a Whizzy. She gets the job done "as expeditiously as possible," looking up to "deflect attention." You don't need toilet paper, she says, because you can wipe forward with Whizzy. Though she admits, "You could have a drop or two that falls." Afterward she folds up the Whizzy, sticks it back in its plastic bag, and tucks it into her shirt pocket. "It air-dries very quickly" and can be reused, though "I wouldn't recommend it more than once."
When the task is complete, the thrill of public urination sinks in. She realizes she's overcome a limitation of her disability, defied nature, flouted convention, done something she never thought possible. Then, and only then, she says, raising an emphatic fist, "I go, 'Yes! Victory.'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gallerygreen C.M.C.