As a kid, I was obsessed with public restrooms. I wanted to visit every one I could. My family joked that I was writing a book titled "Bathrooms I Have Known and Loved." I actually thought that might be a good idea.
I'm not sure why I liked visiting public restrooms so much. It wasn't because I actually had to go to the bathroom. In fact, I've always been something of a camel. I can hold it in for a really long time. I just liked seeing new places. Going to the bathroom broke up the monotony of waiting for a meal to come, or a dull shopping excursion. Going to the bathroom meant going on an adventure.
Take the bathroom at the old Grand Union grocery store in Larchmont, New York, the town I grew up in. After a long hour tagging along by my mother's side as she did her Friday "big shopping" for our family of six, I'd decide right around checkout time that I had to go, immediately. My mom would abandon the cart, grab me by the hand and off we'd rush through the bright aisles of the store and down to its dark underbelly, full of conveyer belts carrying boxes and employees in corners lurking about. We'd squeeze past the storage area, step over a few buckets of cleaning supplies and arrive at our destination: the lone employee toilet. I knew it well. It was kind of scuzzy and grimy, but that didn't matter to me (plus my mom taught me how to pee without sitting on the toilet seat early on—no easy feat for a 4-year-old). The Grand Union bathroom was all about the journey, not the destination.
I didn't only seek out crappy bathrooms (pun intended) though. I also enjoyed visiting the facilities of our nation's finest hotels. I remember shopping with my mother in downtown Chicago when I was about 12. As we passed by the Drake Hotel, my mother pointed and said, "That's where Dad and I spent our honeymoon. It was the most beautiful hotel I'd ever been in at the time."
"How are the restrooms there?" I inquired.
My mom sighed, "Simply lovely!"
"I gotta go," I said, grabbing her hand and pulling her into the lobby. All I remember about the Palm Court Powder Room (yes, it had a name) were palm trees—very exotic for Chicago—and porcelain. It was at the Palm Court Powder Room that I finally decided to throw caution to the wind and sit down on a public toilet seat. It looked clean—sparkling, even—and hovering inches above a toilet seat for extended periods of time demands quads of steel, which I didn't have. I decided at that point washing my hands thoroughly afterward would suffice. I remember a woman, dressed in a uniform, stood near the sinks and handed out towels for us to dry our hands. I felt very sorry for her because, although I liked to visit public restrooms, I wouldn't want to spend all day in them.
Bathrooms at rest stops along the highway were always an attraction, although my dad planned our stops to coincide with gas fill-ups. No impromptu stops to pee impeded our vacation journeys. My dad doled out chewing gum and lifesavers for snacks because he reasoned such snacks would not make us thirsty. Drinks were strictly forbidden. To this day, the smell of Wrigley spearmint gum makes me carsick. Blessed relief from my dad's constant chain-smoking and the arguing of four kids in a station wagon came in the form of the first rest stop along the New Jersey turnpike. We piled out of the car and hit the restrooms while my dad got gas. I tried to make it snappy in the bathroom so I could gaze with longing at the vending machines right outside it. If it was my luckiest day ever, I could convince my mother to buy me a set of those black-and-white magnetic Scotty dogs, which provided hours of entertainment once we squished back into the car.
As I got older, my interest in visiting public bathrooms briefly waned. I grew shyer about bodily functions and preferred the privacy of my own home. But nonetheless I still had to use them occasionally, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. My most disconcerting bathroom experience occurred one summer evening at a fraternity party out in the Virginia countryside. After downing several beers, I asked my friend to show me to the restroom. He pointed to a shack out in the field. When I opened the door of the shack, I saw—much to my horror—a bench with four toilet seats on it, each seat taken up by a smiling, chatting girl. "Hey y'all! This party is just a gas, isn't it?" one lipsticked girl shouted out to the other girls, patiently waiting their turn along the wall.
"Hurry up, Jane Elizabeth! I gotta pee so bad!" another girl squealed back. I walked back out and found a nice tree to squat behind. Four-seater outhouses definitely weren't my thing.
I don't eschew outhouses altogether, however. There's an outhouse above a lake in a national park on Washington's Olympic Peninsula you could almost sell tickets to. Yes, it's stinky and full of spiders, but you can sit there with the door open and feel the breeze wafting off the lake. You can stare at the giant rock outside shielding you from prying eyes and just take your time. You can wash your hands afterwards in the cool, sparkling water of Lake Crescent. In fact, you can wash your whole body off afterward, if you can take the refreshingly cold temperatures of the water. No, I don't mind that outhouse at all.
In fact, I consider my wide sampling of rest rooms across the country—indeed, the world—to have enriched my knowledge of the planet considerably. Did you know in Tokyo you can press a "fake" flush button just to mask any unpleasant sounds you might make? In Paris, you can push a button at certain public toilets to spray and disinfect the entire unit after you exit. In Switzerland, if you're really lucky, you can find a sidewalk bathroom made of one-way glass: You can see everyone passing by on the sidewalk but they can't see you.
I haven't been to that bathroom in Switzerland yet, but I can't wait. There are so many bathrooms still to see, evaluate and talk about afterward. Actually, I think I was onto something when I was a kid. Visiting a public restroom gives you a slice of life you really can't find anywhere else. I think I may have to write that book after all.