by | Aug 29, 1999 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Ihad to go.

Not leave. Go. As in, use the facilities? As in, find a bathroom? That kind of go.

Fortunately, I was in a bookstore, a major chain outlet, one that also had a coffee bar and muffins. These places usually have bathrooms, and I zoomed around the back until I found the door marked “men.” I gushed a silent thanks. I pushed.

Locked. “You need a key,” an employee mumbled.

“A key?”

“Front desk.”

I zoomed to the front desk. The clerk behind it looked eager to help. But when I asked for the bathroom key — as opposed to the latest John Grisham novel — he scowled and lazily handed it over. By this point, of course, I was running. As I reached the men’s room for the second time, I saw a little girl, maybe 6, pushing on the door marked “women.” “Mommy,” she whined, “it won’t ooo-pen

There are many ways to mark a city’s livability. Personally, I use the bathroom test. If I see a sign, “REST ROOMS FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY,” I get out the map and keep moving.

When did toilets become a privilege? It’s not like you want to steal one. Besides, if there is one thing that binds us together (sorry about the word
“bind”), one thing that flows between us all (sorry about “flow”), it is the fact that, big or small, rich or poor, white or black, yellow or brown, we all, at some time during the day, gotta go potty.

To which cities from New York to San Francisco are increasingly saying, “Not so fast . . .”

The need to purchase

The most common barrier to this most common need is “becoming a customer.” Particularly in a restaurant. They want you to buy something for the right to flush their toilet.

Unfortunately, becoming a customer in a restaurant means you have to eat something — the last thing you want to do if your knees are knocking in need of a bathroom.

Besides, what if the service is slow? You want to sit cross-legged for 15 minutes just to hear a waitress say, “Can I get you something to drink?”

This leads, inevitably, to the “fastest thing I can buy” theory. You stand at the front counter, looking in the glass case, where you frantically choose a cheese Danish, which they put in a brown paper bag, which you then grab in one sweeping motion as you yell “THANKSWHERE’SYOUR MEN’SROOM?”

Moments later, when you are finally relieved, you toss the cheese danish in the trash. Or worse, you eat it. And then you need to find a bathroom again.

Of course, restaurants are not the only places that lock you out. Gas stations. Convenience stores. Book shops. All of them can hang the dreaded
“CUSTOMERS ONLY” sign, which leads to an entire nation buying calendars, gum and motor oil that it doesn’t need.

One simple question:

What are they so afraid of?

The curse of the homeless

It’s not like a bathroom is a luxury hotel suite. People want to use the facilities, not move in. And it’s not as if there’s something valuable inside. What is someone going to steal from your bathroom? The sink?

Business will say, “We can’t have people traipsing through our store to use the bathroom!”

These are the same stores that eventually close down because they don’t have enough people traipsing through.

If we’re really honest, the biggest reason for this lavatory lockout is “the evil, smelly homeless person.” Businesses are convinced if they open their bathrooms, the “evil, smelly homeless person” will come in and never leave. Of course, maybe he got that way because no one would let him use the bathroom.

But the truth is, there aren’t that many evil, smelly homeless people seeking to make camp in your bathroom. And considering there is no barrier for potential shoplifters or robbers — all of whom, if they bought a pack of gum, could use the toilet before emptying your cash register — well, you have to wonder why we single out this group.

I think it’s the old class thing, a European attitude that most of our ancestors came to America to escape. “Us” versus “them.” The “upper” people versus the “lower” people. Those you would trust to use your bathroom versus those your wouldn’t.

But when I saw that 6-year-old girl pushing on the door, all I could think of is how, by adding the need for a key, businesses may have added the need for something else.

A mop.


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