Aw poop (COVID-19 and public bathrooms)
May 7, 2020 8:23 AM   Subscribe

 
I'm glad this has shown up on here, I briefly thought about posting it earlier. I hadn't heard the term "bladder leash" before but I'm very familiar with the concept. I think a lot about the fact that we know exactly what kinds of physical needs humans have in terms of needing foods/liquids, needing rest, needing to go to the bathroom, and how utterly public space is not designed to meet those needs unless you're willing to hand over money to someone.

I'm the kind of person who keeps a mental inventory of places I know I could probably pee for free if I needed to, but I'm also the kind of person who could stride confidently into a hotel lobby without any connection to the hotel, do my business in peace and with success, and walk out again without anyone asking questions. Which is not an option for many of the more vulnerable members of society. I would love to see a world with public spaces that prioritise meeting human needs over making money out of them.
posted by terretu at 8:32 AM on May 7 [52 favorites]


I’ve been going for long walks with my camera – it’s really fun to photograph public spaces and architecture with so few people around. But yeah, there are no public washrooms in a pandemic. I almost peed under an overpass the other day.
posted by oulipian at 8:37 AM on May 7 [2 favorites]


One of the advantages of suburb living/car culture is that the services along commuter routes (mostly gas stations/convenience stores), at least in Texas, have pretty good bathrooms. Because after you buy gas, they want you to come in, use the facilities, and then buy some overpriced snacks. The QT chain, in particular, has become my favorite for this reason. Their bathrooms are nice, clean and their snack selection is pretty good. They are always busy, too, including during the pandemic. It's only when you get way off the main roads/highways in rural areas that you might have more trouble finding a nice/available bathroom.
posted by emjaybee at 8:57 AM on May 7 [2 favorites]


Many trans people have never been able to trust or access public toilets, even if they are present and unoccupied, and excluding trans people from bathroom use is currently a mainstream political stance. I was disappointed to see this not addressed in the article. I'll continue to hope (while also cynically doubting, I contain multitudes) that we will use the societal changes required by the pandemic to benefit everyone, rather than re-creating the previous dysfunction.
posted by zebra at 9:09 AM on May 7 [66 favorites]


That is a good point, zebra. I too am sorry it's not in the article and hope we can use this as an opportunity to make public toilets accessible to trans people.
posted by ferret branca at 9:13 AM on May 7 [8 favorites]


Hair, Sweat, Poop: How Much of Everything Your Body Produces in a Lifetime — Urine: 9,496.2 gallons, which could fill 50 hot tubs.
posted by cenoxo at 9:16 AM on May 7 [3 favorites]


I have a long-ish trip I have to take sometime this year. To take care of some property that's far away. I planned it out and realized I can make the entire trip without interacting with a single human soul. Fully self-service gas pumps with credit card slots. Packing food and drinks before I leave. Cell / internet available on the entire route. Destination is well-stocked. Don't need to buy anything there. Only problem is: bathrooms. Not sure what to do about that. I'm not so worried about myself, but I have an immuno-suppressed partner at home.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 9:19 AM on May 7 [1 favorite]


I thought some versions of the Portland Loo were self cleaning. I certainly thought that was supposed to be part of the deal when one was set up in my city. I was under the impression the whole inside of the unit got hosed down after each use or something. Perhaps I'm wrong.

However, if that's not how it is now, I certainly see self-cleaning situations for public toilets to arise very quickly.
posted by deadaluspark at 9:26 AM on May 7


The Seattle Public library re-opened some branches just for their bathrooms. On one hand: great, people need that! On the other hand: that shouldn't be a necessity, we should have stand-alone safe, clean public bathrooms open 24/7. It's the same as how school districts are coming up with ways to feed students even though the school buildings are closed; it's great that they're doing that, but it's sad that it's a necessity.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:25 AM on May 7 [5 favorites]


I'm surprised that the article doesn't mention the Green Book. I'm not really the person to speak to it in depth but a big part of it was directing African American travelers to safe places to use the bathroom. The wiki mentions keeping a bucket in the trunk, and I remember reading a recentish account somewhere where a black author connects her older relatives' "weird" travel quirks with habits formed growing up during the Jim Crow era. I can imagine a generation of kids wondering why grandma always insists on carrying a Shewee, just in case.

You could also draw connections with efforts to improve sanitation in developing countries, especially for women and girls. The article touches a little bit on people who are already impacted by unequal bathroom access, but taking it a few steps further, it's kinda terrifying to extrapolate what things might be like if we don't ever regain trust in public bathrooms.
posted by yeahlikethat at 10:53 AM on May 7 [17 favorites]


we should have stand-alone safe, clean public bathrooms open 24/7.

While acknowledging that I have thought way too much about this, I think "stand-alone" has always been a problem, partly because people use those unmonitored spaces for things like drugs and so eventually no one but drug users dares go in. The appeal of bathroom in a relatively safe place like a library is exactly that; there are people around, it's out of the weather, and the (overworked and undersupported) staff mostly try to keep it safe and clean.

In a city, if you could sell a license to a vendor to have a restroom stop, with public funds helping to pay for staff, security and wear and tear, and the vendor allowed to sell snacks or whatever at the front, you might get better results. You want people to be able to have access as a public health/safety issue. You also want to not create a different public health/safety issue.

If you were a society that actually gave a flip, that would also be an excellent place to connect with unhoused, mentally ill or addicted people to get them off the streets/into treatment.
posted by emjaybee at 10:58 AM on May 7 [11 favorites]


Many trans people have never been able to trust or access public toilets

Yeah, literally the first thought I had about this, which is taking up so much space in my head that I can't form any other thoughts about the topic, is "Oh so now that cis and/or white people have to deal with it too, now it's a problem?"

Like "We can’t have a functioning society again if we don’t trust public toilets" yeah I've been well aware of that, that's why bigots try to keep us out of public bathrooms and keep us afraid to use and trust them, so they can deliberately and intentionally force us out of functioning society.
posted by elsilnora at 11:29 AM on May 7 [23 favorites]


Urine: 9,496.2 gallons, which could fill 50 hot tubs.

Only?
posted by notsnot at 11:43 AM on May 7 [3 favorites]


As a person who has suffered from IBS and is now undergoing chemotherapy, I'll say that the lack of public restrooms in some places severely affects what I'm able to do. I still vividly remember the manager of a bagel place (who looked about 16 years old) not letting me use the restroom even though I told him it was absolutely an emergency (and I had made a purchase in the store). I get that he was probably afraid of dire repercussions for himself - but it was utterly horrible to leave that building not knowing if I could make it to someplace that would let me use the bathroom.
posted by FencingGal at 11:54 AM on May 7 [15 favorites]


we should have stand-alone safe, clean public bathrooms open 24/7

We should. But the reality of public restrooms in large American cities is so fraught with logistical and social difficulties related to so many other social problems that they are very expensive and unpopular.

There are ongoing expenses that tax payers, who maybe use them once and see them in a fifty state, or a junkie passed out in there, or hear about assaults, and those tax payers then just refuse to pay. Business near them usually hate them because they attract drug users.

It's a cycle you see repeat in almost every major city in the US. They install an expensive pilot program, there is an assault that makes the news — and it ends almost immediately after that.
posted by Everyone Expects The Spanish Influenza at 12:12 PM on May 7 [4 favorites]


Welcome to my world. As a wheelchair user, I'l tell you it's common to be in public places and there are no accessible bathrooms, i.e. no bathrooms, anywhere -- pandemic or not.
posted by thorny at 12:25 PM on May 7 [29 favorites]


You really, really don't want to have to use a bathroom while walking down the street in San Francisco. Period. Either you can't find one that's available, or you have to buy a beverage you DO NOT WANT and wait in line for 25 minutes to get the bathroom key,and then there's the junkie-was-in-the-bathroom issue either way. So now I guess that sort of experience will be everywhere now.

We have one person in my office who is permitted to go into the office once a week, and I guess she said something about not being able to get water there because the drinking fountains have been shut off. I pointed out that my HMO shut down the drinking fountains because of coronavirus. That's probably what happened there too.

More reasons to not leave the house.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:27 PM on May 7


Here's some forgotten history on public toilets in the United States.

I don't know what the answer is--but banning pay toilets seems to have not worked out great. Then again, the public toilet situation in Europe is pretty bad, too, where pay toilets are allowed. I don't know. Maybe we're just not good at toilets, as a species.
posted by Automocar at 1:18 PM on May 7 [1 favorite]


My (admittedly limited) memory of pay toilets was that places that had them had both pay stalls and free stalls.
posted by FencingGal at 1:40 PM on May 7


I was actually going to post an Ask about this today: How does everyone else get by now that public toilets are simply not an option? I got hit with the Urgent Need recently in a CVS and they wouldn't let me use their restroom, so I had to scuttle all my plans for running errands and hurry home just so I could use the bathroom there. As an IBS sufferer, do I need to buy some emergency porta-john thing for my car?
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:39 PM on May 7 [1 favorite]


Can’t say all of us us dehydrated-as-heck trans and queer and disabled folks didn’t warn you...
posted by this one sparks joy at 3:14 PM on May 7 [11 favorites]


"We are not going to spend the summer peeing outside."
You are not going to spend the summer peeing outside.
posted by shenkerism at 7:12 PM on May 7


My (admittedly limited) memory of pay toilets was that places that had them had both pay stalls and free stalls.

My memory of pay toilets was being sent by my parents to crawl under the partition and unlock it from the inside so they could use it for free. (I was too young to remember if this was because they were really that poor, just didn't have the right change, or if it was more of a philosophical objection to paying for a toilet. Either way, I can recall crawling on public bathroom floors more than a few times.)

I almost peed under an overpass the other day.

Because all the cafes and restaurants are shut around here (as well as many, but not all, of the public park bathrooms), I see people having to go off into the bushes in those ambiguously semi-public spaces like under overpasses and around utility substations all the time now. The other day there was an older gentleman who was having to pee just barely off the trail, only slightly hidden by the small tree he was standing behind. There is just nowhere else to go.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:25 PM on May 7 [3 favorites]


I have an 8-year-old daughter. Because of the paucity of public peeing and pooping places and her inability to give me anything other than an imminent emergency warning, I have been party to plenty of public pees (and poops!) in completely unsuitable places.

When you gotta go, you gotta go.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:14 PM on May 7


You really, really don't want to have to use a bathroom while walking down the street in San Francisco. Period. Either you can't find one that's available, or you have to buy a beverage you DO NOT WANT and wait in line for 25 minutes to get the bathroom key,and then there's the junkie-was-in-the-bathroom issue either way. So now I guess that sort of experience will be everywhere now.

Wait people actually use bathrooms in SF when they're out in public? I thought everyone could just piss or shit where ever?

(I kid but I saw more human excrement in public during my weekend in SF than the rest of my life combined)
posted by LizBoBiz at 4:17 AM on May 8


Not long ago I had a related situation arise which still vexes me as I’ve been unable to come up with an adequate solution. Maybe someone else can.

I was in line at the small post office in my village with one person ahead of me. The woman next in the line was muttering and appeared to be in distress. Just as I was called to the counter, she lurched forward and demanded to use the bathroom. The postal worker looked up and blinked, then explained that she was unable to do that by law. She pointed out the window to a nearby fast food restaurant, maybe 1/4 mile away. The woman, desperate now, insisted that she could not travel that far.

At that point, it became clear that it was already too late. The woman let out a moan and a pile of feces slid out of her pantleg onto the floor. The woman began to cry as her pants filled.The people in line behind her left.

At this point I seriously wanted to be helpful but was unable to think straight. With no way of cleaning up, the woman risked contaminating her car beyond cleaning. Helping her would have also meant contamination of some kind, potentially of my own car. (I’ve learned the hard way that there are some places that just cannot be adequately cleaned). I had nothing useful to offer and left, feeling terrible but also guilty on not offering aid.

The situation has haunted me ever since. What should I have done?
posted by kinnakeet at 5:49 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]


>>You really, really don't want to have to use a bathroom while walking down the street in San Francisco. Period. Either you can't find one that's available, or you have to buy a beverage you DO NOT WANT and wait in line for 25 minutes to get the bathroom key,and then there's the junkie-was-in-the-bathroom issue either way. So now I guess that sort of experience will be everywhere now.

>Wait people actually use bathrooms in SF when they're out in public? I thought everyone could just piss or shit where ever?


These are not unconnnected.
posted by Lexica at 9:07 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]


Urine: 9,496.2 gallons, which could fill 50 hot tubs

but probably shouldn't.
posted by flabdablet at 10:04 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]


What should I have done?

That's a rather less useful question than "what will I do if a similar situation arises again?" Because answering the original question tacitly assumes as much time available to think it through as you have for the second, and you didn't.

Were I ever to find myself in the position you describe, I like to think I'd do my best to spend a few seconds reassuring and comforting the unfortunate human being in the throes of the most embarrassing ordeal that any human being can ever endure, and then rush off to obtain, as quickly as humanly possible, two bath towels - one wet but wrung out - and some plastic shopping bags, shit and soiled clothing for the containment of; then help her get herself cleaned up enough to be mobile again, possibly wearing the dry towel as an improvised skirt, with as little fuss as possible.

But were it not for your recount, I'd never have had this opportunity to workshop that policy and I'm sure I'm not the only one. So thank you: you've made a genuine contribution to the general wellbeing by posting that story online, and with any luck, reflecting on that fact will help you let go of the haunting.
posted by flabdablet at 10:27 AM on May 8 [5 favorites]


do I need to buy some emergency porta-john thing for my car?

A bedpan, plus aforementioned towels and plastic bags, would certainly be kept in my car as a matter of course if had the same medical issue.

Big towels fix many problems. Plus, they're a much cleaner and comfier wipe than toilet paper, especially if speed is of the essence.
posted by flabdablet at 10:40 AM on May 8


Wow, thank YOU flabdablet for giving me a workable plan going forward. Big towels, bags, wipes and water are now stowed in my trunk and will be on hand should anything similar arise. On that day I was en route to an appointment or I’d’ve gotten something from my home—I tried to be reassuring but that poor soul clearly needed more.

What really haunts is knowing it could have been me. Bodies do not always behave.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:21 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]


I started thinking about this yesterday. I'm waaaay down the decision tree of determining how campus biomedical labs reopen, but in a meeting this week heard that the plan was to only have one person in each bathroom at a time. We have one per floor, with multiple stalls inside. "The plan I guess is that you're going to open the door and shout to see if anyone's in there, or they're going to buy an EMPTY/OCCUPIED sign that you flip when you go in or out," my advisor explained, sounding very skeptical. I stared into my webcam in astonishment. "So the last thing you do, after washing your hands, would be to flip the sign that EVERYONE TOUCHES?" Him: ".…" Me: "...Why don't we just prop the damn door?"

My suggestion has been passed along.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:57 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]


Once again, I implore you all to please reconsider using the word “junkie” so freely. In my professional life we refer to it as “the j word” and go to great lengths to avoid using it. It’s dehumanising language that borders on being a slur. Surely we can talk about people who use drugs without having to use hurtful language?
posted by Philby at 9:44 PM on May 8 [9 favorites]


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