This is a touchy subject. I’ve noticed throughout a lifetime of reading, and now with an eye on writing, that what we do in toilets, eliminating bodily waste, is not represented particularly well, if at all, in literature or its contemporary new cousin blogging. I think I know why.
You can write about how well you’ve slept, go into great details about meals you’ve eaten, gain readers by your ability to write about sex, wax in great detail while describing diseases, injuries, blisters, sunburn, road rash, medical procedures, gunshot wounds, stabbings, what have you. But venture into the daily, if you’re lucky, human experience we all share known by many names but most acceptably as pooping, or sprinkle throughout your novel the number of times its main character urinates, and you cross the line of what readers will tolerate. They will put your book down and never pick it up again. They will click your writing off the screen of their device within seconds. You may be getting ready to bail at this very moment. Why?
Nobody wants to read about it. It’s a fact. You can write about ingesting, even digesting, but elimination is taboo. We’ve learned as writers that we can’t share everything about our lives because there are things humans just won’t stand for.
And let me assure you I’m not going to write about it today either. I’m going to write about where we carry out those activities when we’re not at home. It’s a blog about public toilets, offered in the manner of an advice column. Last summer I wrote a series of blogs about the best places to eat hot dogs. Today I’m writing a single blog about where you might choose to use a public facility for the most personal of functions when you’re away from home and you must leave your comfort zone.
Because in the world of where we poop and pee, I think we all agree that Dorothy said it best in the Wizard of Oz - “There’s no place like home.” Give me a bathroom in my own house, where my magazines are, where I know where everything is located, the air freshener, and the extra TP in the bottom drawer. Put me where no one is going to walk in on me, and if they do they’re someone I love. Give me familiarity, give me comfort, give me habit, frequency, and repetition. Give me my own toilet, the feel of my own seat or that spot on the wall where I put my hand while standing and letting loose. There’s nothing like it. It’s a joy to be at home when you need to go. But unless you’re a complete hermit it is virtually impossible to use your own crapper exclusively. You’ll be out somewhere in the world, you’ll need to go (you know you will) and you need a strategy. There are choices available. I’m writing this to help you create one. Let’s start with the least desirable toilets out there.
There are problems with rest rooms in grocery stores at nearly every level, but for me they begin and end by the question of who cleans them. Have you seen the signs in public bathrooms that ask you to please report to staff any unclean conditions? I’ve rarely if ever done that anywhere, but I’m telling you now I would never do so in a grocery store BECAUSE I DON’T WANT THE PEOPLE SELLING ME FOOD TO CLEAN TOILETS.
Who are you going to report that to? How about the person in produce unpacking and laying out an inviting display of unwrapped lettuce? My nightmare is that I inform the friendly woman arranging bright green heads of romaine of a big mess in the far stall in their men’s room, she thanks me, and rushes in to clean it. Not her, please, for God’s sake, nor the people in the deli who slice the turkey. Certainly not the butcher. And by all means spare the checkout clerks. Why, they have their hands on literally every food item that leaves the store. I know grocery stores are big facilities and we need rest rooms in them for our convenience but unless I absolutely have to use a grocery store bathroom I’m not doing it. Store designers put them up front, or otherwise try to separate them from the vast array of food as best they can, but still it’s off putting to me. At the store I shop most frequently the bathroom is located next to the floral section, which makes sense. We don’t eat the flowers after all. But by and large, as clean as they might be, there is something unseemly about grocery store public toilets and I don’t recommend them.
Gas stations are the closest thing we have to stand alone public rest rooms. It’s perfectly acceptable to stop at a gas station simply to use their rest room. None but the smallest and most provincial station owners expect you to make a purchase in order to use their facilities. You may have to ask for a key, which the person behind the counter usually offers gladly. They may even wish you a good day when you leave, sailing out the door immediately if you’re in a hurry. No problem. Gas stations usually have plenty of parking, they’re small buildings, the rest room is convenient, it is but one of the services they provide us. That’s the problem.
Gas station rest rooms are among the most heavily used in America, along with fast food and other roadside businesses. When you use a gas station toilet, especially one along an interstate highway, you’re using a toilet shared by thousands of people. I venture to guess that if there is a ranking of toilets most likely to be out of toilet paper, the gas station toilet would win hands down. Too many people use those bathrooms. If you must choose among gas station restrooms, choose a new place. They’re almost always better ventilated. They have those new high speed air hand dryers, which are a living hell for people with hearing aids by the way, but lots better than the old ones. I always wipe my hands on my pants anyway after using either. I prefer paper towels, assuming I wash my hands, but we’re getting off the subject. That is a whole other blog post, or at least a good joke. Gas station toilets may be unavoidable, but there are better choices. Let’s move on to those.
But before we do how about the terminology? I’ve interchangeably used the various names we use for these rooms in which we do our most private business, but they are not entirely accurate. We’re so repressed on this subject we can’t even be straightforward semantically. No bathing takes place in public bathrooms, just as little if any resting occurs in restrooms. Why don’t we call them all toilets? Because that’s somehow offensive? We have a long way to go in regard to this whole concept.
Hospitals and Medical facilities
While not entirely convenient, given the location and size of our hospitals today, the toilets in hospitals and most medical facilities are damn good. For one thing they are sparkly clean. These are after all nationally accredited institutions with the highest standards for cleanliness and sanitation. The toilets reflect that. They are generally Spartan when it comes to furniture and decoration which is a good thing when you’re talking public toilets. You won’t find bad floors or outmoded equipment in a hospital toilet. On the contrary, their toilets are usually made from Cadillac building materials; high quality ceramic tile, good institutional stools and sinks, mirrors flat to the wall, and always handicapped accessible with wide doors, grab bars, and good locks. I find there is usually plenty of soap and toilet paper in medical facilities, although the soap tends to be watery and antiseptic smelling and the toilet paper that flimsy but stiff one ply kind. Why is that? We don’t know do we? Bulk purchasing I’d guess. Despite that drawback most all toilets associated with medical joints are a good bet. If you’re near one, try it. You won’t be disappointed.
But the crème de la crème of public toilets, the star if you will of what can be a dreary sky of options when away from home, is found in a place you may well have overlooked. I feel a certain amount of pride in bringing this find to you. It is the fruit of personal research and just plain luck. And so I pass it on to you. If you are away from home and need to go, look no further than the nearest community institution whose deposits are insured by the federal government.
Banks are where it’s at when it comes to going away from home. There’s a reason for the development of this fairly recent phenomena. Here’s the story.
Back in the nineties when Bill Clinton was President and the federal budget was balanced the banking industry enjoyed a period of significant prosperity. Money was in ample supply, interest rates were low, loans were plentiful and construction was booming. As a result, banks across the country seized upon those factors to tear down, build new, remodel, expand, and otherwise upgrade banks everywhere. There was increased competition among banks and bankers turned to their facilities to create or keep an edge over the bank down the street. In my community of Ottawa virtually every bank in town reinvented itself. Savings and Loans became banks, old banks renamed themselves, banks and credit unions bought out smaller banks, and in the process lavish new bank buildings sprang up to take the place of tired old institutions.
Ironically during that same time computers changed the mechanics of banking in rapid and dramatic fashion. Not only were paper checks no longer cleared by armies of workers in the back office but banks that were designed for increased foot traffic began to see fewer and fewer people in their buildings. Customers were paying bills on line, getting their cash from the drive through ATM’s, buying checks on the internet. And then to compound things debit cards made checks largely passé. You rarely have to go into the bank now. And when you do the few remaining employees look up in surprise. You could shoot a cannon off in most bank lobbies and hurt no one, significantly lowering banks’ value as a targets for terrorists. There is that, I suppose. Cold comfort to laid off bank tellers.
But the other unintended but terrific result of the improvement of bank facilities along with the rapid disappearance of customers inside them is this: their toilet facilities are pristine, by far the best in town.
For weeks this past fall I had been driving around with my real estate tax bill in the visor of the Buick and decided suddenly one day to pay my taxes at an Ottawa bank where I have a savings account. I needed to pay my taxes, yes, but I also had to go to the bathroom and was driving past the bank.
This bank has a power assist door. You pull the handle only to get the door started and it opens itself. Classical music plays through hidden speakers. But for the music the place is very quiet. The floor is marble. Turning the corner into a spacious well lit lobby a single employee at a desk surrounded by wood panels smiles broadly as I approach. The rich dark wood around her looks to be walnut or mahogany, a swinging half door held on by shiny brass hinges.
“How can I help you today?”
I look past her to a marble counter with matching wood accoutrements. Standing there is a lone bank teller amidst at least eight teller stations. I hesitate. She fills the silence.
“Would you like a mint?”
This bank passes out individually wrapped mints, the soft buttery kind like you get at weddings or when kids sell vacuum packed cans of candy to support their school band. They’re great mints.
“Thank you.” I take a handful.
Her full attention is on me, as if she has nothing else to do but tend to my needs. Maybe she doesn’t.
“I’m just here to pay my real estate taxes.”
This woman has an exceptionally big and genuine smile on her face. I can’t imagine feeling so happy working at a bank.
“Amy can help you.”
As she says this she sweeps her hand towards the lone teller, who now is also looking at me. I can’t see into all the glass walled offices along the wall, but those within my view are all empty. I get the feeling it’s only the three of us in the entire building.
“Thank you. Uh…where are your rest rooms?”
You have to say rest rooms in situations like these, as phony as that term might be. It would be gauche to ask a woman for directions to the toilet. Not good form.
“Just around the corner sir.”
She used her other arm to gesture in the direction of the facilities. I’m not entirely sure but I think Amy, overhearing our conversation, pointed that way too. Both women are positively beaming with smiles. I make my way quickly in the direction of the crapper.
The door is solid wood, heavy, thick, and polished. When I open it a light came on by itself. The marble continues from the lobby floor into the bathroom. It is gorgeous and shiny. A granite counter with built in sink sits atop a vanity that is, I think, cherry. The grain of the wood is beautiful. The toilet itself is one of those which flushes almost silently. My wife would kill for a bathroom like this upstairs at our house. And unlike hospitals, on the wall full roll of thick high quality toilet paper.
Not only did this relatively small room not smell bad, it smelled wonderful. How often do you encounter a public toilet with a wonderful smell? You’re happy with the absence of smell right? This one smelled like a field of lavender, and it was immaculately clean. I felt as if I was the first person ever to use this toilet. I almost hated to leave. The water was I’m sure softened, and made softer by an aerator on the spout. Not one water spot on the faucet, knobs, or sink. The soap dispenser was full of that really thick and rich liquid soap, the kind that’s hard to rinse off. Thick paper towels. A waste basket with nothing, absolutely nothing in it till it cradled my one used paper towel.
Of course the bathroom in the bank is beautiful. They spared no expense when building it because it’s a bank which has plenty of money, or did when it was constructed. But the key advantage the bank has over the grocery store and the gas station is their bathrooms get perhaps the least use of any bathroom in town. Not only are there less employees there to use the toilets than when it was first built, there are far less customers in the banks than the facility was designed for. An abundance of great bathrooms with little use equals a great deal for you. I recommend that when you can’t go at home, drop into a bank.
On that particular day I used the bathroom, paid my taxes, and got mints and smiles both upon entering and leaving. Try getting that kind of service anywhere else. You don’t need an excuse to drop into a bank. Since I discovered this hidden gem of community service I’ve since gone to banks simply to use their bathroom. They’re fine with it. I genuinely believe they are glad someone shows up. Try it. You’ll be glad you did. You might even get candy. Don’t tell them I sent you but do tell me if you agree that those bathrooms are the best in town.
You’re welcome. You can thank me later.