To go, or not to go? That is the question.
To go, or not to go? That is the question. “Even if provided free of charge, the use of a toilet is understood to be the result of an agreement between the individual and a business. It is an awkward, grudging agreement, inflected by judgments of the individual’s social status.”—Peter C. Baldwin, “Public Privacy: Restrooms in American Cities, 1869–1932.”
According to Dr. Baldwin, a professor of urban and social history at the University of Connecticut who has extensively studied public spaces in America from 1776 to the present, the history of public toilets in America begins shortly after the end of the Civil War. In 1872, after years of planning, the New York City Department of Health commissioned two public restrooms for residents and tourists. Like many first attempts, they were unsuccessful: a combination of lack of privacy (no doors or screens for users) and exposure to the elements meant you could literally burn or freeze your buns off.
The first people to recognize the viability of offering public restrooms were saloonkeepers. Many bars in cities like NYC offered free lunches at a loss to entice customers; making restrooms readily available was seen as another way to keep butts on stools, sopping up suds. It also obviously helped patrons who needed to relieve themselves mid-debauch. Saloons began adding restroom access to the menu beginning in the 1880s. Other cities and municipalities were slow to follow suit, as saloons were plentiful, or the city fathers didn’t care about the hygiene issues resulting from homeless and inebriated people without access to plumbing.
That all changed during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, which sent medical authorities into a panic about the lack of hygiene in public restrooms, leading to many being closed. Public toilet facilities once again became paramount at the beginning of Prohibition, when most saloons closed due to a lack of business or went underground.
Since then, public restrooms have been off and on the priority list for local and state governments. For example, Jim Crow laws in the South meant that restaurants, bars, and other public places were required to offer twice as many bathrooms as Northern establishments. According to Dr. Baldwin, during the 1970s and 1980s, due to lack of funding, many cities’ public facilities were either inaccessible, unhygienic, or both. The most recent pandemic greatly affected and is still affecting the availability of accessible restrooms. And where the general population is concerned, the homeless population is trebly affected.
Finding open restrooms during regular business hours, much less after hours, is like playing chess blindfolded. Unless you have friends in the know who can guide you to facilities that don’t require purchases of goods or services before usage, you’re forced to find the most out-of-the-way locations you can to urinate and defecate. This is a challenge that every homeless person has had to deal with, and only the very lucky ones don’t get arrested for public urination and defecation.
As I noted in an earlier column, between midnight and 8 am are the worst times to need a comfort station. Stores are closed, colleges are locked up, as are so-called ”public facilities” in libraries, community centers, parks, and recreation areas. It’s even worse on weekends and holidays. And as much as I would love to offer a guide to available restrooms in the downtown Fullerton area, there are obvious reasons why that would be a very bad idea for everyone concerned. Suffice it to say, you can use a bathroom if you have a few bucks, a love of books, and/or an EBT card. Otherwise, Mother Nature must provide.
“If you don’t have public bathrooms, what you’re saying is, ‘We do not care about anyone who doesn’t have money,’ which I think encapsulates where American politics has been going since 1980,” says Dr. Baldwin. The solution seems obvious: Build public restrooms that can be accessed 24/7 and sterilized regularly by city employees or programmed self-cleaning toilets. The latter do exist. They are not cheap. But they are more affordable and sanitary than dealing with urine and feces on public and private properties.
The COVID pandemic was a wake-up call for the world: either clean up your act on public sanitation or be prepared for millions of preventable deaths due to inadequate public hygiene facilities and education. So robot bathrooms or old-fashioned hand-cleaned: those are the choices. Either way, cheaper than another pandemic.
Better days are coming… if we work for them.
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