Public restrooms can either be done the right way or the wrong way. This isn't necessarily an issue of hygiene. Dirty is always wrong. Sometimes, as in the case of the Unabomber, an unknown assailant who for several days tormented a retail store I once worked at with certain things left in porcelain fixtures that were not meant to handle solid waste, dirty can even be a crime against humanity. But sometimes even clean bathrooms are "wrong".
It's a concept that's easier to illustrate by first giving an example of the "right way" to do a bathroom. I was once at a convention in a hotel that had exquisite public restrooms. I don't know about the men's facilities, but the women's room was exceptional. I walked in to subdued lighting and deep pile carpet. The anterior chamber was furnished with cushiony, upholstered chairs and inviting couches. Dishes of dried flowers gave a faintly pleasing scent to the air. Gilded mirrors alternated with Erte prints to give a sense of spaciousness and opulence. Gentle music was absorbed by the thick carpets and textured, fabric papered walls, casting a muted hush over everything. I half expected to see well oiled cabana boys handing out moist towelettes and giving foot massages. It was fabulous. I never wanted to leave.
When I finally came out and rejoined the rest of my party, I asked the guys if their facilities were as amazing as ours. One of the men described the paper towels in the men's room as being softer and thicker than most of his bath towels at home. When I described the interior of the women's room to them, the group decided that it was worth the male half of the party doing a little crossdressing so we could hold the rest of the meetings that weekend in the ladies' room.
That was the right way to do a bathroom.
It is possible, however, to spend a fair amount of money on a clean bathroom and still have it be a nasty place. I am thinking in particular of a restaurant not far from here that recently opened. Some friends recommended it as having excellent food, but I guess "Mrs. Friend" didn't use the restroom while she was there, because I walked out of there nearly scarred for life. All I could think of while I was in there were the tales I've heard about children whose potty training is set back years by some toilet trauma experienced at school. The bathrooms at this restaurant were clean, I'll give them that, but it's not hard to keep a bathroom clean when the facilities are too creepy to use.
How did a clean, fairly expensive bathroom go so wrong? Let's break it down.
To begin with, the facilities were all one spacious room, done completely in gleaming tile. A bit more expensive than stucco, but when your goal is acoustic excellence you can expect to pay a little extra. Every sound, from the clicking of a shoe heel to the buzz of a zipper, was amplified and echoed off the tile walls. This in and of itself is highly disturbing. When you can hear the heartbeat of the person three stalls down from you, it's a little difficult to relax and get your business accomplished. No music filtered in from speakers to provide distraction. Just concert-hall quality acoustics and a soundtrack you'd expect from a Leslie Nielsen film.
Now while we're talking "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" for public restrooms, I'd like to address the issue of music choice. Most restrooms will pipe in some smooth jazz or soft rock to provide a discreet cloak of sound to keep the patrons from being too self conscious. That's like using a tissue to plug a burst water main. What I'd really like to hear upon entering a restroom is heavy metal music blaring from the speakers at eardrum damaging decibels. Now that's freeing. The person in the stall next to you could be test-firing an Uzi and you'd never have to know. Likewise, they would never suspect that you ordered the bean dip and that it violently disagreed with you. The dignity that Rob Zombie took away from human culture with his sadly awful attempt at film directing, he could return in spades by masking our flatulent frailties with his unintelligible lyrics.
But back to what went wrong. The second major faux pas committed in this bathroom was what had to be the all-time worst manner of integrating the restaurant's overall decorating theme into this particular room. The motif of the establishment was "movies" and someone, somewhere decided that it would be a good idea to give the bathroom large tiles with pictures of famous film stars on them, set high on the wall. For the female customer, this means that you can look up from any given stall to see Sean Connery smirking at you, or Jimmy Dean averting his eyes with a disgusted expression. Keanu Reeves looks like what he has been forced to behold has given him permanent brain damage. Rock Hudson looks smug, like he just proved a point. So not only are your functions amplified for all to hear, but there is a panel of handsome male judges observing you from the walls.
Not my thing, folks.
Cute place. The food wasn't bad. We might go there again. But if we do, and the need to "go there again" arises, you'll be able to pick me out of a crowd of strangers. I will be the one walking across the street to use the bathroom somewhere else.
This article originally appeared in the newspaper, The Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin, and in the Piker Press 2004-09-25.