13 Issues with Modern Public Restrooms

This might seem like the most random List of 13 yet, but it’s not. (Okay, it kind of is, but hang with me.) Like Rage and Crystal, I’ve been traveling a lot this summer—alas, I was not on a rock-and-roll tour of the nation, as they were—but I have traveled the entire Eastern seaboard, from Miami to Boston, and then some. And now, one blown minivan transmission and three thousand exhausting miles later, I’ve realized that one of the unfortunate side effects of so much travel is that you become an unwitting expert on public restrooms, including all of their modern so-called “conveniences.” And so, in honor of my fellow road-weary travelers, I offer you 13 Issues with Modern Public Restrooms. Read at your own risk.

1. Dyson Hand Blades: If you haven’t encountered these sleek, cutting-edge contraptions yet, they are supposed to be the Porsche of hand-drying systems. The only problem is, they are a little too powerful. Using them feels like dipping your hands into a tornado, or placing your fingers beneath a rocket during blast-off. When you’re done drying your hands, you have to check to be sure that you still have fingerprints. And don’t use them anywhere near small children—they’re sure to run away shrieking in terror.

2. Overzealous automatic flush toilets: There is no sensation more unpleasant or unsettling than that of a toilet flushing vigorously while you are still sitting on it. Some of these toilets get so excited that they’ll flush two or three times in a row while you’re still doing your business—and then you nearly hurl, realizing that your poor innocent behind has just been thoroughly misted, and possibly splattered, with every germ in the toilet. Every time this happens to my kids (which is basically every time they use an automatic toilet), they jump off screaming. And can you blame them? Meanwhile, I’m weighing the pros and cons of dipping their bottom half in Clorox, to sanitize them.

3. Underzealous automatic flush toilets: On the flip side, it is a uniquely modern humiliation to find yourself dancing the polka in front of a toilet, trying to convince it to flush. And the automatic toilet engineers, who apparently share a perverse sense of humor, have conspired to camouflage the tiny do-it-yourself flush buttons so thoroughly that they are nearly impossible to find. In order to find the flush button, you end up bending your head precariously close to the toilet—at which time the toilet finally decides to flush . . . in your face. Coincidence? I think not.

4. Automatic faucets: I am beginning to believe that one must know a secret automatic faucet handshake—or perhaps be able to conduct electricity through one’s skin—in order to convince these faucets to work. Even when they do work, my kids’ hands can never reach the sensors, so I end up dashing between three or four sinks at a time, waving my hands like a maniac, trying to get all of our hands clean at once.

5. Automatic air fresheners: The people who invent these aromas clearly do not understand the meaning of the word fresh. All these “fresheners” do is exacerbate an already perilous—if not borderline toxic—olfactory situation. Public bathrooms—if you’re lucky—already smell like bleach, which is never strong enough to mask the ever-present undercurrent of eau de sewer. So when you add to that a syrupy, overdone floral aroma—possibly inspired by your Great Aunt Bessie’s Hibiscus Heaven Perfume, on steroids—it’s hard to believe you’re not inhaling poison.

6. Automatic soap dispensers: These also require a Jedi Mind Trick in order to work properly. You stand there, waving your hand around beneath the dispenser—no soap. So you try a new tactic, and hold your hand still—no soap. You raise and lower your hand slow, then fast, then slow—still no soap. The moment you finally give up and start to back away, they shoot out an aggressive stream of pink goo, coating your shirt sleeve in stinky slime.

After a while, you can’t help but wonder: Maybe there is a secret conspiracy behind all these “automatic” bathroom installations, and they’re not automatic at all. They’re run by a top-secret band of Public Restroom Officials, who watch us like Big Brother from behind the bathroom mirrors—which are really two-way mirrors like the ones in prison interrogation rooms and dystopian novels—and these powerful people control the water and soap and toilet flushes, deliberately releasing them at the worst possible moments. At best, they are videotaping our frustrated reactions for some twisted version of “Candid Camera”; at worst, this is a sorting test, designed to evaluate our intelligence and personality, and predetermine our role in an automated society that is planning to take over the world. (What? You think I’ve been reading too many dystopian novels? Get out of town . . . but take your own bathroom with you.)

7. Dual-flush toilets: What is the deal with these so-called “environmental” toilets? I am an obsessive recycler and closet environmentalist, and yet I find these toilets baffling. Does it really save that much water to flush differently, depending on the—er, materials—you put in? And I, being the ultimate rule-follower, end up standing in the stall for an extra five minutes, reading and re-reading the instructions to be sure I am flushing in the right direction. I feel that this five minutes presents a new hazard: three hundred more seconds spent ingesting the floral-sewer-bleach concoction that is surely causing cancerous tumors to grow in our nasal passages. I ask you, America: Is saving four ounces of water per flush really worth the health care costs of a drastic increase in nose tumors?

8. In-stall advertisements: I love good bathroom reading material as much as anyone, but these in-stall ads are just ridiculous. There are a few sacred places where we should be free from the ubiquitous arm of the advertising machine that claws its way into every crevice of our modern lives. Come on, people! Leave us to do our business in peace! And consider this, you advertising execs who think you’re so clever: We really don’t want to read about your weight-loss system while we’re trying to survive a few minutes in a smelly public restroom—we just want to get in, get out, and get it over with, without being flushed on. Public bathrooms don’t exactly put us in a “buying” frame of mind, and we definitely don’t want to scan your ad with our smart phone while we’re sitting on the john.

9. Trash cans the size of Kleenex boxes: I just don’t understand the downsizing of trash cans—this trend is especially popular in hotel bathrooms, and I can’t figure out the logic behind it. Is this on the advice of interior designers, who cry, “streamline, streamline”? Or have hotel managers been inspired by Apple products, and the way the iPod is now small enough to wear inside a contact lens? Or is this another case of environmentalism, hoping that smaller trash cans will encourage people to use fewer paper towels? I hate to break it to you, but small trash cans = large piles of trash on the floor. Please. If you’re not going to clean the restroom every fifteen minutes, buy the bigger trash can.

10. The fluorescent lighting in public bathrooms: Interior designers will tell you that lighting is a key element in creating ambience in a room. Is it just me, or do public restrooms have the worst possible lighting? And I’m not just talking about gas stations and fast food establishments here. I once attended a wonderful church whose bathroom lighting was so unflattering that it made me nearly lose my faith altogether. It turned my skin a demonic shade of puke green and managed to highlight every flaw on my face. Perhaps the lighting was intended as a moral test of some kind—one I failed every Sunday. Every time I used that restroom, the lighting drove all pious thoughts from my brain, replacing them with a sinful concoction of vanity, insecurity, and self-obsession. Instead of the preacher’s sermon, I found myself pondering the theological implications of either vandalizing the church mirror, or getting a face transplant.

11. Uber-thin toilet paper: Why do proprietors of public restrooms insist on buying toilet paper so thin it shreds into tatters when you try to grab some? I realize thinner is cheaper, so theoretically, they are making an economical decision—but I’m sorry to inform you, oh cheapskate toilet paper buyers, that your plan is backfiring. We end up using five times the amount of toilet paper we might otherwise use, because most of what we pull off the roll ends up in a pile of wet papier-mâché on the floor, and we have to assemble an enormous wad of shreds in order to get a usable handful. Please, dear restroom proprietors, I’m begging you: Buy decent toilet paper. Your bottom line will thank you . . . and so will ours.

12. Two-second water faucets: You know the kind I’m talking about—for some reason (possibly another government plot), they are especially popular in parks: You have to press down on the faucet in order to turn on the water, then it turns off automatically after two seconds, before you’ve even had time to get both of your hands under the stream, much less put any soap on your hands. So you have to press it again . . . and again . . . and again . . . and again . . . at least eighteen times. You end up holding down the faucet with one soapy wrist while awkwardly trying to wash your other hand, then swapping positions to wash the other hand, thereby wasting ridiculous amounts of water. Again, I applaud the idea of water conservation, but it’s backfiring. I promise, if you’ll just give us a regular faucet, the vast majority of us will remember to turn the water off.

13. Metal trash containers built in to the walls of bathroom stalls: Ladies, you are all too familiar with these torture devices: These metal boxes are built into the stall, and they’re almost impossible to open. They are shut so tightly that you have to stick your entire hand into the slot to open them, and then the durn things snap closed on you, trapping your fingers inside. And worst of all, some of these containers open two ways—they are shared between two stalls—so that, against your will, you are able to see into the next stall, and you risk actually touching fingers with the woman in the stall beside you. (Yes, you may join me in a horrified shudder here.) Afterward, you need some surgeon-level sterilization to get the germs off your hands. Huh. Maybe those skin-removing Dyson Hand Blades aren’t such a bad idea after all.