The Hidden History of Gas Station Bathrooms, By a Man Who Cleans Them
May 22, 2017 3:41 PM   Subscribe

 
Though the author's contention that, "After World War II, garage bays were built into store designs, and gas stations hired mechanics. In neighborhoods across America, men gathered at gas stations to learn how to fix cars. The bond between gas station employees and customers continued through the 1960s, but the industry changed again in the 1970s," is a bit of a stretch - see the Green Book for details.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:08 PM on May 22, 2017 [4 favorites]


Obligatory Youtube link. Gaaaas station waaaaashroom...
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:09 PM on May 22, 2017


he thinks that's a mess? let me tell you about a mess ...

about 12.30 one evening a guy came up to the counter and informed me that the bathroom "was all fucked up" grinning from ear to ear like it was the funniest thing in the world

so i told my partner i would check it out and went to the back of the store to the men's bathroom

to this day, i do not understand how ONE human being could have possibly had so much shit in him - it was on the toilet seat - it was on the floor, it was on the sink, it was everywhere but in the goddamned toilet - someone, with malice and god knows how much exlax, had exploded copiously, 5 or 6 times - either that or he had managed to sneak in an elephant when we weren't looking - or it was 2 or 3 or 4 people - i mean ...

OH MY GOD!

on my way back behind the counter an angry woman started yelling at me because she'd seen a guy pissing against the wall and she wanted me to call the police about it

i told her i couldn't, i didn't see it and my partner could give her the phone

"you're not going to ..."

"ma'am i have bathroom to clean up that's in the worst shape you can imagine ..."

armed with a bucket and bleach and lots and lots of paper towels and garbage bags i spent the most disgusting unhungover half hour of my life cleaning that shit up - fortuntately, i have a very strong stomach

still, i'm not sure that's anything compared to the time i reached up in the paper towel dispenser and found a loaded .357 ...

this guy thinks he knows bathrooms - well, i guess he does, but not like i do ...
posted by pyramid termite at 4:25 PM on May 22, 2017 [48 favorites]


But in another era, the public took great pride in the glory of roadside restrooms.

nobody's going to touch that??
posted by indubitable at 4:37 PM on May 22, 2017 [34 favorites]


Involved more than just simple touching, usually?
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:40 PM on May 22, 2017 [1 favorite]




nobody's going to touch that??

Not without two layers of rubber gloves.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:00 PM on May 22, 2017 [5 favorites]


I once worked in a big box retail store in a downtown location. One of my coworkers walked into our washroom to find a guy squatting on the counter taking a shit in the sink. The toilets were perfectly clean. I have no idea why he was shitting in the sink.
posted by dazed_one at 5:15 PM on May 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


Yeah... beware of people who are drinking coffee after a colonoscopy. There are stories to be told by barista staff...
posted by jadepearl at 5:20 PM on May 22, 2017


The moral of the story is to never work at a gas station if you can help it.
posted by My Dad at 5:26 PM on May 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


it's better than working at a budget motel - having spent nearly 10 years at both, i know
posted by pyramid termite at 5:32 PM on May 22, 2017 [12 favorites]


For some reason my mind filled in 'hole' after glory. Pun intended.
posted by sibboleth at 5:47 PM on May 22, 2017


I once worked in a big box retail store in a downtown location. One of my coworkers walked into our washroom to find a guy squatting on the counter taking a shit in the sink. The toilets were perfectly clean. I have no idea why he was shitting in the sink.

Some people just want to watch the world burn.
posted by Beholder at 6:45 PM on May 22, 2017 [10 favorites]


What's with the people barging in on an obviously deliberately obstructed doorway? The mop bucket and cone are the universal sign for "someone is cleaning in here"; what kind of sociopath thinks it's okay to just ignore that and stomp on in? Christ.
posted by xedrik at 6:50 PM on May 22, 2017


I used to work at a Big Chain Bookstore fairly close to the downtown area of a mid-sized city. Once someone left a poop in the ladies' restroom that was the exact size & shape of a football. All we could do we flush repeatedly and pray.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 7:01 PM on May 22, 2017 [2 favorites]


Overall, humans have a complicated relationship with poop.

I worked at Burger King as a teenager, and I'll always remember being surprised that someone had smeared shit all over the women's bathroom. Call me a sexist adolescent, but I was like, "no way."
posted by rhizome at 7:03 PM on May 22, 2017 [3 favorites]


"There existed a time when our nation took pride in its service stations. They gleamed like a beacon of hope from coast to coast." Obligatory MST3K reference.
posted by stannate at 7:08 PM on May 22, 2017 [3 favorites]


People can and will literally paint publicly-accessible restrooms with their own shit. I speak from experience, having been a janitor a couple of times between college and grad school. The second time, my major quality-of-life improvement came not from getting more money or benefits, but from getting transferred from a Target cleaning crew to one that did a local insurance company.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:27 PM on May 22, 2017 [2 favorites]


I spent a couple summers cleaning men's restrooms at Disneyland so I feel eminently qualified to comment in this thread. But the only real WTF moment that comes to mind didn't even involve a restroom. It was a service call that came in one evening over the radio to my lead: human Code-H in the Penny Arcade.

Last I heard he was still a manager at the park and I'm sure he still regales the new hires with his enactment of how he imagined that unfolded.
posted by bunbury at 7:56 PM on May 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


I feel like this article is really more about how horrible and dehumanizing customer service jobs are than it is about public bathrooms.
posted by bracems at 8:05 PM on May 22, 2017 [4 favorites]


What's a Code-H?
posted by jjwiseman at 8:08 PM on May 22, 2017


Code-H is for feces.
posted by komara at 8:22 PM on May 22, 2017


I've cleaned bathrooms at a movie theatre, at a public baseball field, at a gas station, at an eye glasses place, at multiple fast food establishments and at an elementary school. Janitor is my usual role anywhere I go. There is no bathroom that is open to any number of human beings that are not responsible for cleaning it that will not be defiled in any number of ways. 8 year old kids smear shit on walls and piss on the floor, truck drivers leave horrid road-food messes behind, we had a phantom floor pooper at the diamonds, and we had a person in the lady's room at the theatre carefully wrap a turd in toilet paper and leave it on top of the very small garbage can, like a little mummy of old. If you allow people a private space where shitting is not only allowed but catered to, and they don't have to clean it, you will see all the horrors of the human condition. Gas stations mean nothing special in this context, little kids will shit on the floor, stomp it into the drain, and walk back out to class like nothing happened. Every bathroom is a pit to hell at some point, and every bathroom is equally likely to experience all manner of hell.
posted by neonrev at 8:44 PM on May 22, 2017 [15 favorites]


BROTHER DO YOU HAVE DIME!
posted by clavdivs at 9:23 PM on May 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


The elementary school comment reminds me of my wife's theory that the reason Japans public spaces (including bathrooms) are so much cleaner than the US is that Japanese children have to clean their own schools (including restrooms) and don't associate public space with "someone else will clean it."
posted by thefoxgod at 10:22 PM on May 22, 2017 [26 favorites]


I'll always remember being surprised that someone had smeared shit all over the women's bathroom. Call me a sexist adolescent, but I was like, "no way."

Women's washrooms are consistently worse than men's. Not saying that men's rooms never ever look like a GG Allin venue, but in my experience, men's rooms are consistently sloppy/careless dirty, whereas women's are like a crime scene where you can recreate the killer's actions and motives from the evidence. I don't like to brag, but in some circles I'm known as the Will Graham of Shit.

Every day I thank The Toilet God that I've never had to work a gas station.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:35 PM on May 22, 2017 [10 favorites]


Well howdy-ho!
posted by Meatbomb at 11:30 PM on May 22, 2017 [3 favorites]


Fantastic post. Thanks.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:21 AM on May 23, 2017


Well howdy-ho!
posted by Meatbomb


*koff*
posted by dlugoczaj at 6:31 AM on May 23, 2017 [2 favorites]


I worked the night shift at a gas station for a few years several years ago and had to clean up several poop disasters. One of the most annoying and unsettling incidents, though, which happened about once a week, was when someone would go in the restroom and then not come back out after a reasonable amount of time.

"Hey, you okay in there?"
posted by Agave at 6:57 AM on May 23, 2017


I don't like to brag, but in some circles I'm known as the Will Graham of Shit.

"This is my design."
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:07 AM on May 23, 2017


Japanese children have to clean their own schools (including restrooms) and don't associate public space with "someone else will clean it."

Universal adoption of this could fix about half of what is wrong in the world.
posted by srboisvert at 7:11 AM on May 23, 2017 [14 favorites]


In the eighties I was a projectionist at a porn shop. I had to clean the theatre every am. Mic drop...
posted by judson at 7:20 AM on May 23, 2017 [3 favorites]


That was a great article, thanks!

Hotel lobby bathrooms are my on-the-go gotta-go go-to now, since they're relatively disused (hey let's keep it that way, yeh?), usually spotless, and built with unquestioning hospitality in mind.

Anyway the bit in the article about people who can't make eye contact with their cashier when buying a bottle of water? Cuts like a knife.
posted by carsonb at 7:28 AM on May 23, 2017 [3 favorites]


I kind of wonder what the presence of a bathroom attendant does to these cases.

In my limited experience driving through Europe, most of the larger gas stations and rest stops had a full-time employee situated in the bathroom. Literally sitting in the bathroom and cleaning stalls, sinks, and floors nearly continuously. You'd tip the attendant in a small dish on the way out, maybe 50 cents or so.

In later years I've seen some places install a pay-turnstyle that takes 50 cents and then hands you a receipt/voucher that's good for the same amount in the convenience store/restaurant. I guess the attendants were getting stiffed too much, or maybe the voucher makes you stay longer and buy something at the c-store and that's enough to pay the attendant.

In either case, the bathrooms were always completely spotless. It never was a question of stopping at one when you were on the road.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:40 AM on May 23, 2017 [2 favorites]


Gas station attendants in each neighborhood were revered, not disrespected like today’s cashiers.

Is that true? Was there a time when gas station attendants were revered?
posted by layceepee at 7:43 AM on May 23, 2017


During college, my husband worked nights at a truck stop. The kind with showers and such. He doesn't talk about it much, but assures me that many bodily fluids were involved.

Our kid is 4 and I have really started to impress upon him that making a mess anywhere that someone else is responsible for cleaning it up is not fair to them, and if we do make a mess we should immediately apologize and offer to help clean it up. Service workers aren't our body servants, ffs. It's what my mom taught me, which is why it BLOWS MY EFFING MIND what people get up to in public bathrooms.

(Also, hotel bathrooms, ftw. When I lived in China, in dormitory situation with shared Asian-style in-ground toilets, every now and then I would take a special trip allll the way downtown, on the bus, just to take a dump in the bathrooms at the Peace Hotel. It was truly a pleasure.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:59 AM on May 23, 2017 [3 favorites]


From what some of you are describing, I wonder if perhaps we shouldn't simply establish a small unit of secret police whose sole job is to track down and "disappear" people who behave inappropriately in public restrooms. Whether they're truly disappeared, or just sentenced to a year of forced bathroom labor at a rest stop in Louisiana could perhaps be left up to a judge.
posted by aramaic at 8:04 AM on May 23, 2017


Hotel lobby bathrooms are my on-the-go gotta-go go-to now, since they're relatively disused (hey let's keep it that way, yeh?), usually spotless, and built with unquestioning hospitality in mind.

Uhh, I'm going to need you to stop giving away secrets like this. Please don't let the general public catch on. Please don't let them ruin the goodness that is a clean lobby bathroom and a little agua fresca and a few minutes of air-conditioning.
posted by witchen at 8:30 AM on May 23, 2017 [6 favorites]


we had a phantom floor pooper at the diamonds

Oh, we had one of these on staff when I worked at an ISP back in the late 1990s. Someone was going into the men's room and dropping a deuce right on the floor in the middle of the room, which was remarkable by itself due to the high amount of traffic in and out of there all the time... how'd they find the time to lay one down and get out without being spotted? To add to the mystery, sometimes the Mad Crapper would do something like stick a banana into the pile.

I wish I could remember if the Mad Crapper ever got caught, but we had so many other weird things going on in that building that this was probably low on management's list of problems to solve.
posted by palomar at 9:24 AM on May 23, 2017 [4 favorites]


You might be whining about shitty restrooms now, but just wait until you get a couple bus loads of tourists from somewhere where they're used to squat toilets...
posted by Trinity-Gehenna at 9:42 AM on May 23, 2017


Is that true? Was there a time when gas station attendants were revered?

People these days have no idea how bad cars were, how lost you could get, how lonely people on the road were and how friendly and chatty customer service people used to be. Gas station attendants could save your life/trip by letting you know about road problems up ahead, tip you off about pending car problems they detected, fill your wiper fluid and clean your windshield and let you know where the speed traps were. It was a different world.
posted by srboisvert at 10:57 AM on May 23, 2017 [2 favorites]




xedrik: "What's with the people barging in on an obviously deliberately obstructed doorway? The mop bucket and cone are the universal sign for "someone is cleaning in here"; what kind of sociopath thinks it's okay to just ignore that and stomp on in?"

I don't know but I was involved in renovating a public rest stop restroom once. I've experienced people wind their way around two sets of construction barricades; past one of those yellow sandwich board closed signs; past piles of construction debris; and then pound on the locked door trying to gain access. And I don't don't mean one or two total. We're talking several people every hour. One of the guys forgot to lock the door when he went to lunch and someone peed in a non functional toilet that was just sitting in the middle of the floor of the striped to the walls room.

Note that alternative facilities existed a 100m away across the quad.
posted by Mitheral at 12:00 PM on May 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


People these days have no idea how bad cars were, how lost you could get, how lonely people on the road were and how friendly and chatty customer service people used to be.

I understand how gas station attendants might be revered, but I'm wondering if there is any evidence that they were. Are there any contemporaneous books, movies, TV shows, magazine or newspaper articles or the like that feature gas station attendants as characters fit for adoration? Are Goober and Gomer Pyle the exceptions who prove the rule?
posted by layceepee at 12:03 PM on May 23, 2017


"What's with the people barging in on an obviously deliberately obstructed doorway? The mop bucket and cone are the universal sign for "someone is cleaning in here"; what kind of sociopath thinks it's okay to just ignore that and stomp on in?"

I think stupidity and being on autopilot are also factors. I know someone who installs and works on ATMs, and she's shared some hilarious stories about people ignoring out of order signs. The best one was the woman who kept trying to insert her card into a machine that was, at that very moment, being loaded onto a dolly and haulef away for repair.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:31 PM on May 23, 2017


People these days have no idea how bad cars were, how lost you could get, how lonely people on the road were and how friendly and chatty customer service people used to be. Gas station attendants could save your life/trip by letting you know about road problems up ahead, tip you off about pending car problems they detected, fill your wiper fluid and clean your windshield and let you know where the speed traps were. It was a different world.

Not to pile on too much, because I'm also not personally convinced that there was a long-term public love of gas station attendants (anymore than most service positions did. People used to love their butcher and grocer too.), but I do think it's interesting to point out exactly how different 'driving' and 'roads' and even 'cars' were when the first gas stations opened, especially outside the more developed east coast, and how that world and the perception of gas station attendants then echoed out. I'm mostly talking from the first cars to a little after WW2, depending on where you were, and almost entirely about intercity and rural driving.

First of all, driving anywhere, but especially outside of town, was an entirely more adventurous affair. Cars were fairly delicate and maintenance-heavy machines, and still fairly new. They broke down a lot, were pretty slow, and lacked basically any safety features.

In addition to that, roads outside of towns were, at this point, largely dirt paths for carts and horses, cattle trails and wherever people felt a need to walk in large enough numbers that stuff didn't grow there, and not only was there no central body keeping track of where roads were and what they consisted of, most places didn't have anything besides local common knowledge. Maps certainly existed, but they had to be either based on direct survey or on the word of others, and these roads were far more tenuous than modern roads, a single rainstorm and some of them shift dramatically or disappear. It wasn't until the mid 20's that there was a federal effort to create something like a managed system of roads between cities and states instead of just funding them locally, and even then many of those roads were not well built or maintained. If you wanted to go somewhere that wasn't directly connected to the highway, you were still limited to country roads, which were improving as vehicles became more common. It wasn't until the 50's that the modern interstate system was created, by which time modern car culture had really emerged in it's full form.

Also there were no police whatsoever on most roads outside the east coast until the 30's in most places, and the early forms of state police and highway patrol were very limited and mostly focused on providing emergency assistance to motorists in the form of repairs, towing and gas, and maybe a little light enforcement of road laws, and sometimes protection against highwaymen. Highwaymen, you ask? Yes, in the 20's and 30's, particularly on country roads, there were in fact highwaymen who would stick you up in your car, and there was a small market for self protection firearms for this exact purpose, fighting off literal highway robbery. This was more common then (though never, like, an epidemic) because there were, in many cases, literally no police to be found outside the cities, and vehicles were as valuable then as they are now, the people who owned them were more likely to be wealthy, and there was no such thing as a VIN or anything to prevent someone stealing your car and selling it as their own. One of the interesting relics of my family is a registered and legal sawn-off shotgun that belonged to my great-grandfather and grandfather for this purpose, cut sometime in the 20's, before the NFA, in part inspired by this exact kind of crime. It was the less sexy side of gangland bank robbers in the 20's.

So, in summation, roads were terrible and not well recorded, cars were risky and broke down all the time, there was no aid to be found on the roads in most places in case of breakdown or physical emergency, medical, criminal or accidental, and worst of all, for most of this time, most cars didn't even have radios.


To tie this into the original topic, how people thought about the people who worked at service stations, I think that when cars and driving between towns and going to the gas station before or during a trip was having it's culture created, the person who can fix your car or tell you which roads are out or which aren't safe or at least current knowledge of the conditions, that person is going to be like the Jesus of driving to you, and for a lot of the country, and especially the places people would be traveling across or going on trips to, that stayed true until classic car culture emerged after WW2 in a lot of rural places. Heck, it's still true in some places, anyone who's tried to rely on a GPS in a mountainous or hilly, rural area might have experienced this, and when I worked at a gas station (which was also a bulk fuel and bait depot in a tiny town) I was asked sometimes if I had heard how the roads were out to this lake or another after storms or if construction was still happening, because in a rural enough place, information can only be spread by word of mouth, and the person who knows the most about the local roads you're likely to meet is the person at the gas station.

Anyway, my thinking is this: In the early days of cars, Gas Station Attendants were culturally respected because automobiles and driving were still a tech people relied heavily on others to make workable. As cars became simpler and more reliable, the roads became easier to understand and navigate, and traveling became safer and more common with the addition of police and increasing numbers of drivers, the specific importance of that once culturally significant figure began to drop as their services became spread over more and more people you never see and thus can't mythologize. At the same time, cars become more and more ubiquitous, and the American middle class explodes, creating a lot more people who live and work on a socio-economic rung high enough above people who work at gas stations that when they are respected, it comes with the 'noble work' tinge that most blue collar jobs get.

So through the later period of when they were supposedly respected, I don't think that's actually the case. I think there was some carryover respect from the older generations who had lived in a world where gas station attendants were important, and that it, like the milkman and the green-grocer and the butcher slowly became less personal through better logistics and technology. I figure that the image of the gas station attendant as a respected figure might have existed in media, but I can't imagine that they experienced the same treatment as an early gas station attendant did in the 20's and 30's.

I think the character of Big Ed in the original Twin Peaks is a good case study in media portrayals of modern-ish gas station attendants that include a degree of respect. Set in a rural place, the gas station maintains some degree of public importance, there are not a many places to buy gas, and a place to buy gas and fix a tire is valuable in a place where roads are not great, it represents a lot of the reasons gas station attendants were respected to begin with.
At the same time, his portrayal exemplifies a lot of the reasons that modern gas station attendants are not respected, middle-class snobbery and stereotype. Big Ed is certainly a sympathetic character, but one portrayed as a big lovable galoot with strong morals, not a bright man, but a loyal and strong and generous one, and he and his work are shown to respected by some people, mostly other working class people, but also disrespected both by the other people in the town and by the show as being an underling in all of his doings. Pete gets the same treatment, as does Leo (outside of spousal abuse), so does everyone who isn't police, a doctor or a business person. Also, this is all true while he owns his business and looks to be doing okay for Twin Peaks. It's not him, it's his work.

Big Ed is portrayed as a good and noble man with a noble job, but not someone with a life to look up to. His job is still somewhat noble because the old cultural ideas about the job are still around, but he still has to be lesser because he works at a gas station, which is low class work and not to be respected.
I'd imagine the same was true in the 60's through the 80's in terms of media portrayal and public perception, but to a less developed degree. There is almost never any respect given to people who work at gas stations now, and in the 90's the media would include some. I imagine that media from the 70's has the same sort of bias, and so on. I figure that if people remember that gas station attendants were respected in the 60's and 70's, they are remembering media portrayals from the time of earlier times.
posted by neonrev at 6:34 PM on May 23, 2017 [8 favorites]


Also, we haven't talked about how much drugs gets done in a gas station bathroom. Only reason why I know what meth smoke smells like and only reason I've ever had to worry about hypodermic needles in the garbage. It's really amazing what people will get up too when you give them a door that locks and a socially acceptable excuse to be in there for a long time that makes the asker feel like a jerk.

Also, trucker jizz art on the walls. Either very abstract art, or the sort of thing where you see enough of it that you start seeing meaning where there is none.
posted by neonrev at 6:42 PM on May 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


trucker jizz art on the walls

"That doesn't look very naive to me."
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:40 AM on May 24, 2017 [1 favorite]


About people using out-of-order toilets, all I can say is, I can imagine people's qualms about the suitability of the commode deteriorate rapidly the greater the stress experienced by their lower-end digestive systems. If you're on the road and the Dread Need Hits, it's only a matter of time. Sometimes the first place you stop has to be It for necessity's sake.

Multiply the chance of those occasions by the number of people rolling by on a highway every day.
posted by JHarris at 3:45 PM on May 24, 2017


theory that the reason Japans public spaces (including bathrooms) are so much cleaner than the US is that Japanese children have to clean their own schools (including restrooms) and don't associate public space with "someone else will clean it."

I take some issue with this, as a resident of Japan.

In large part, most of the public restrooms that are in fact much cleaner than ones in the US are cleaner because someone else is cleaning them. Often, and vigorously. Many more places than in the US have a dedicated cleaning staff (not just a cashier who has to run and mop the bathroom a couple times a day) and that goes double for anything remotely nice (hotels, department stores, shopping malls, office buildings.) They scrub the life out of them quite frequently.

Yes, people in general are maybe a little more conscious of their impact, but if you've ever seen a publicly accessible restroom that doesn't have a dedicated cleaning staff or where it is cleaned less frequently or attentively compared to the amount of traffic it receives (for example public parks, and certain train stations) you quickly realize that, as Liz Lemon once said, "all of god's children are terrible."
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 12:44 AM on May 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


neonrev: "I worked at a gas station (which was also a bulk fuel and bait depot in a tiny town) I was asked sometimes if I had heard how the roads were out to this lake or another after storms or if construction was still happening, because in a rural enough place, information can only be spread by word of mouth, and the person who knows the most about the local roads you're likely to meet is the person at the gas station.
"

It's still like this here at a crossroads town where highways come in from 4/5 directions. Irregardless of traffic cams and the internet the people who best know the road condition of a highway (usually of a concern in winter) are the people talking to the people who just came over it. When the last gas station was 30-60 minutes drive time away that is going to be the gas station attendant.
posted by Mitheral at 6:12 AM on May 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


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