As your resident small-bladder friend and user of more of the world’s public restrooms than the average person, public restrooms are a space I never take for granted. I always have an idea of where the nearest ones are. Although I don’t recommend that anyone do that unless they must, I do recommend that we give public bathrooms their proper due, and not disdain them, however dirty or disgusting—at least not the institution of them. Public bathrooms provide refuges from our hyper-speed, workaholic world at the same time that they collapse social and personal divides. As Ruth Barcan writes later in Toilet: “Our encounter with a public toilet is an encounter with a host of others . . . who may be quite different from us but who share at least some of our bodily needs . . . Public toilets are places where we meet members of the public and where we interact with, and continually reproduce, an idea of the public.”
The United States has an incredible number of bathrooms. That is, private bathrooms. “American exceptionalism takes on many forms,” Derek Thompsonwrites in The Atlantic. “But perhaps no part of life in the United States is more unambiguously exceptional than this: We have so many damn bathrooms.” In 2017, the American Housing Survey reported that over 121 million housing units had at least one complete bathroom, with around 14 million of these containing three bathrooms or more. In 1973, less than 500,000 newly built single-family homes had one and a half baths or less. In 2019, only 32,000 newly built single-family homes had that few restrooms, and, in contrast, almost 300,000 had three baths or more. (The number of new single-family homes with three baths or more in 1973 is not even available.) After World War II, the rise of suburbs and the development of cheaper materials for building bathrooms helped the count—and the size—of American private bathrooms proliferate, and over the past fifty years, the number of home bathrooms per American has doubled. The idea that bathrooms are linked to work and to subsequent reprieve also rears its head in the realm of private toilets—Thompson quotes a Chicago-based real-estate agent who says: “Bathrooms sell houses, period . . . We’re so connected, so overworked, running around like chickens with our heads cut off . . . that when you close that bathroom door, you want to say, ‘Ahhh!’”
But despite the sheer number of private bathrooms, the United States actually has a surprising dearth of public bathrooms, something especially felt in urban spaces. While many states in the US have laws requiring all commercial establishments to provide restrooms, these facilities are not always open to everyone. Even where there are laws, nonenforcement reigns, andsome people, such as Black men, can even get the police called on them for trying to go at Starbucks if they don’t meet the manager’s expectations or prejudices. Disability is another factor that marks the public toilet from the private one: The Restroom Access Act, also known as Ally’s Law and signed into law in 2005, was named for a teenage girl who experienced a flare-up of her Crohn’s disease while out shopping; she was denied access to the employee-only restroom and subsequently soiled herself. Ally’s Law now provides restroom access for those with particular medical conditions, but these individuals must show proof of their conditions. For years, too, gender-neutral public restrooms have been front and center in US policy debates and lie unresolved. Both visible and invisible realities cut away at full accessibility.
The divide between public and private bathrooms is further sharpened into irony upon realizing just how much Americans, in turn, take for granted that other countries should make toilets widely available—when our own lack of accessible public restrooms needs to be fixed. Ironic, too, that many travelers will hold international public bathrooms to the standards of private American residential ones. In Rose George’s book on public health and the public restroom, The Big Necessity, George, who is English, recalls an encounter with a Liberian waiter who assumed that she “thought a toilet was [her] right, when he knew it was a privilege.” George would not think that a clean, seated toilet with readily available tissue paper was anything but a privilege, but the waiter’s sarcastic reaction when he told George “This isn’t America” would not be far off the mark for many Western travelers abroad.
Like the American woman and her young son—the first people I talked to after my flight to Beijing. Fresh-faced and out of school, I was excited to be volunteering in China, and when the woman next to me in line for customs asked for information, I was eager to help. The questioning soon turned interrogative—“I saw that they use squat toilets here?” accompanied with a look of disgust—and then hateful, with her shooting glances my way and muttering that Asians were “not trustworthy” to her confused child.
After that first disarming encounter in the airport in Beijing, I kept tabs on all the toilets I encountered. The first to teach me about expectations was in my grandparents’ house in the city’s hutongs. My grandparents had only recently installed a private toilet. For decades, like their neighbors, they had used public bathrooms that served a section of their alleyway. One day, when for some reason the private bathroom in the house was not available, I dashed to the nearest public one—and only upon finishing did I realize that I had forgotten toilet paper.
Although I never again forgot to bring a pack of tissues with me after that—well, maybe not never—again and again I came upon new restrooms that shattered my notions of myself and of what constitutes rights vis-à-vis privileges. In schools around the outskirts of Beijing, I found myself rewinding to my own childhood memories, imagining myself standing on uneven wooden boards to do my business. How would it feel, I asked myself, to urinate or defecate or menstruate while squatting next to my classmates, with no stalls to speak of? To lack running water?
Returning to Barcan’s point about reproducing the idea of the public is important in at least two regards. First, that public bathrooms are where a cross-section of society interacts reminds us of the structural inequalities around us. This is hand-in-hand with Molotch’s reminder of what bathrooms can teach us: about the capacity to shape others’ life chances—and with what I felt so acutely in China. Public bathrooms reveal social ills across class, racial, gender, and disability divides, and others—but they also provide us with possibilities for what a more equitable future might look like.
Bathrooms remind us of the physical needs and limits of our bodies; public bathrooms remind us that these bodies are subject to social restrictions, too. There are things that a person might do in a home bathroom that they wouldn’t in a public one; there are things that might happen to a person in a public bathroom that wouldn’t in a private one. The reality of what someone looks like; their economic circumstances. Toilets are everywhere, and over and over they make us uncomfortable for a multitude of reasons. It is as though, in this constant discomfort, they ask us to ask ourselves: What about a world in which public toilets allow truly anyone to be safe, to feel comfortable?
Second, Barcan’s point is a reminder that the bathroom is not a public place that fosters true interactions or that brings about community. The bathroom is a place where we come in contact with the ideas, the traces or ghosts—literal and figurative—of other people. Using the restroom is a lonely act; the public restroom a lonely public place.
Using the restroom is a lonely act.
That loneliness is not the same as having privacy, as being alone—or being independent, as I would have described myself while traveling abroad—is significant. “There are kinds of solitude that provide a respite from loneliness, a holiday if not a cure,” critic Olivia Laing writes in The Lonely City. “Sometimes as I walked [in New York] . . . I could forget my sorry self, becoming instead as porous and borderless as the mist . . . In these situations, I felt liberated from the persistent weight of loneliness, the sensation of wrongness, the agitation around stigma and judgment and visibility.”
A wrong type of solitude—loneliness. One that is convergent with the shame of using the bathroom in public. I remember embarrassment when I remember going to the bathroom in Seoul. At a police station, after using an advanced-looking toilet, I pressed the largest button, which I thought was the flush function. When I stood to gather my things, I heard whirring. To my horror, I looked back and saw a sprayer-tube disengaging from wherever it’d been concealed—this was a bidet, I finally realized—like an insect’s hidden stinger. At that moment, the door to the bathroom at-large banged open and two female police officers entered. I could see flashes of their uniforms through the gaps around the door as I frantically pressed other buttons, cryptic in their symbols. A jet of water shot out and rained over my belongings, which were hanging on the wall opposite.
And it kept going; I could not get it to stop. I could hear the other women. In my humiliation, I wanted to call out to them—but how could I, how could I ask them to help me flush my own business? How could I even speak to them, when we did not share a language? I felt keenly that sense of isolation then—wreathed in shame; unable to take the private public.
When I finally pressed the correct button and the water stopped, the women were still at the sink, talking. I waited until they had left before emerging from my stall.
In The Lonely City, Laing also recites Virginia Woolf’s words—words that ring truest to me in wandering cities alone, as a woman. Words that tie together the two implications of social inequities and personal loneliness. “If I could catch the feeling, I would,” Woolf wrote in her diary in 1929. “The feeling of the signing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.”
The feeling, that feeling. Of a weightless selfhood. Of another possible world—perhaps even a better one. “Put bluntly”—Molotch, again—“peeing is political, and so is taking a shit and washing up.”
In Macerata, we had a hard time paying attention in our language classes. I wandered the city with two new friends, J and M. One afternoon, J walked past the city walls by himself, where he met two women who kindly invited him into their home. But we never saw any others like those two women—any of the African migrants coming to Italy by way of the Mediterranean—inside the city walls, near the university where we were.
When I think about how I miss traveling, perhaps what I am nostalgic for (there: that beaten-in, immaculate, Italian word, nostalgia) is that rare occasion where potential and introspection intersect. Where the possibilities for a better future and the gravity of solitude gather and integrate. Of course, I miss, too, the filigree sun shining through the train windows. The landscape flying by, gulping, like its passengers, for fresh air. Of walking until my feet ache and sing.
In just a few years after our study abroad program, a girl would be killed in a drug deal down the hill from Macerata, just outside the medieval walls. The case would shake the country. In retaliation, a right-wing white nationalist would attack several African migrants and climb up the Fascist monument that I had climbed, too, on my first day in Macerata, not knowing what it was, only that I could see the city better from up top. The shooter would wave and throw up a Mussolini salute before they caught up with him. This Italian town once welcomed migrants. Now, it’s a symbol for right-wing nationalism,The New York Times would write. Later, in Paris. Europe again, on the eve of more right-wing traction. In Paris, I would use an auto-washing Sanisette toilet on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais and it would be a revelation; that, in a world seemingly crumbling apart around me, here was this fully-sealed, full-service, free toilet in the middle of a capital city. Holding the world at bay and me to myself. As close to the bathroom of the future as I have yet used. Even though in a few years, we would halt travel and we would not touch our faces.
But, as I said, that all would not be for at least a few years. Instead, the feeling, it stays with me always. The signing of the real world. In Macerata, on the night of a televised international soccer match, I found myself in the bathroom at the top of the glass-walled bar on Piazza della Libertà. Down below: shouting, whenever there were goals or near-goals. Someone knocking at the door, wondering if I was finished. No toilet paper—or was it no paper towels? It was late June and the days were sticky with promise. And no wind. And the feeling, it stays with me. When the seasons change and daylight chases my heels at dusk, I remember: I have always loved that light. I have never taken it for granted.