Public bathrooms have long been my cold, dark, nemesis. They seep with discomfort, some more reminiscent of a Dark Ages torture chamber anything else.There are the usual misdemeanors: derogatory graffiti written in stolen Sharpie marker; phone numbers, names and dates etched into walls in pointy lettering; soggy toilet paper littering the corners waiting to get stuck to unsuspecting shoes; and of course the odd smells and stains that beg the question, “What happened here?”
Ah yes, the joys of public bathrooms, with all their lurking shadows, drips and creaks. Yet, surprisingly, none of these offenses have anything to do with my dislike and outright horror towards public restrooms: Until I went to college and discovered a few dorms and buildings with single-stall, unisex facilities, I thought all public restrooms were highly gendered and uncomfortable places wrought with hard feelings. From childhood to adulthood, exploring the intricacies of public restroom norms has been an exercise in tolerance, terror, and courage. In many ways, working in a public library has furthered my education of restroom etiquette (or lack thereof) in ways that are so grotesque you’ll probably think I’m making them up. If only that were the case...
As a child, I was terrified of the rest stop bathrooms on highways. Just think about it-- you’re 6 years old, 3 feet tall, and you walk into a giant maze of stalls with your adult monitor (aka parent or other legal guardian). It’s overwhelming! Inside the stall, there are rolls of toilet paper bigger than your head set inside giant plastic dispensers with jagged teeth that never tear the paper off correctly. On the opposite wall a little bit of tissue paper peaks out of the bottom of another strange-shaped dispenser (“That’s the seat cover,” mom later explains. You decide not to mention that you thought it was toilet paper). Plus, in the women’s bathrooms there are those darn metal boxes for disposing of feminine items, which as a child pose yet another mystery. When you ask about them, the best answer you get is, “You’ll find out when you’re older. Let’s go!”
And everything runs on sensors.
There you are, sitting on that cold seat in a mustard-yellow stall covered in phone numbers and obscene messages trying to squeeze your bladder dry before another three hours on the road. From beneath the door you catch a glimpse of what appear to be hundreds of feet right outside, waiting for you to finish. It takes a while for you to get over your ‘stage fright,’ but when you finally do and the satisfying sound of water-on-water begins, you shift your weight the slightest bit to get more comfortable and suddenly--
WHOORSSSHHHHHHHH GLUG GLUG GLUG SHHHHHHHHHHH
--so deafening that it sounds like a whirlpool has opened beneath you and you’re going to get sucked down into the depths of the sewer forever to live in the company of the alligators you heard about from the other kids at school! After the terror subsides (and after you’ve lurched off the toilet in an attempt to save yourself from the sewers), you realize that the whirlpool was, surprisingly, just the toilet flushing itself. But you didn’t even touch the handle! Ah, those pesky sensors that you are now beginning to be enlightened about. Such a strange, terrifying place! You continue to be amazed after you exit the stall and head over to the sinks where your public bathroom sensor education is fulfilled. The electronic sinks, soap and towel dispensers seem to possess a miraculous ability to wash and dry your hands with almost no personal effort. What a strange, terrifying place indeed!
Obviously I am no longer afraid of public bathrooms for the same reasons as a child. Unfortunately, with age bathrooms became even more horrific. There was middle school, when every girl would cram in front of the mirrors before school to apply make-up, and then cram in again at the end of the day to wash it off before going home. An innocent bystander like myself could get trampled to death in the stampede if they weren’t careful. And it was around those middle school years when kids first began finding it humorous to write scrawled messages like “there’s a BOMB in the TOILET” on the walls for the custodians to find, causing an immediate forced evacuation of the school. This would only become a more frequent event as school progressed.
Then there was high school when navigating the bathrooms required a degree in high school hierarchy systems: the potheads owned the second floor bathroom, the cheerleaders claimed the one by the front stairwell, the drama geeks used the cafeteria stalls to rehearse during lunch, and the one in the science wing always smelled like a noxious perfume of formaldehyde, lighter fluid and rotting potatoes. As an unsuspecting and rather unpopular “outsider,” I had the unpleasant experience of walking in on girly gossip in the “wrong bathroom,” and being given the angry eye until I left. On several occasions, I’d push open an unlocked stall door in the lady’s room and find a popular couple (the type waiting to be nominated “Prom King and Queen”) making out with such fierce passion you’d think the world was about to end. Add to that the fact that our school was so old that most of the stalls were missing their doors, and it just made infinitely more sense to hold it until school was out.
And then college changed everything.. Suddenly alcohol was a readily available addition to the public bathroom horrors. Girls would vomit their guts out while sobbing hysterically over the porcelain god about some boy and/or sociology paper due the next day; socially active students surveyed all bathrooms on campus and determined that handicap accessible and gender neutral bathrooms were discriminately few and far between; and bathrooms housed the perfect “hook-up” location for couples seeking solitude from their roommates. When I studied abroad I also had my first peek at pub and bar restrooms, and while I found the drunken mob of female strangers surprisingly supportive of one another, I still couldn’t help but notice that all of the gossip centered exclusively around boy troubles-- jealousy, resentment, cheating, lying. The supportive circle of female restroom users was a necessity to counter the excessive negative vibes loosened by liquor!
When I finally joined the working world, having experienced and dealt with many of my public bathroom demons, I suddenly found myself exposed to “the other side” of the restroom story: the side that deals with the complaints and maintenance of said restrooms. People frequently come up to the Reference Desk and make remarks about the condition of the bathroom:
“Just thought you might like to know that there’s some really offensive graffiti in there.”
“That bathroom’s flooded, someone stuffed paper towels down the sink and left the water on.”
“The smell in there is unreal! That bathroom should be out of order until you guys get some air freshener! I coulda passed out and hit my head on the sink, man.”
And so a maintenance report is filed and the offensive graffiti is painted over again, the young person who flooded the bathroom is suspended because of the extensive damage to books caused by the water leaking through the floor to the bookstacks below, and a canister of air freshener is replaced only to be stolen the following day. These acts become the routine.
What scares me most is when the routine is broken.
We’ve had some scandalous and almost unbelievable things happen in the restroom on the Reference Floor. Reverting back to one of the examples above, when the bathroom was flooded, I almost didn’t understand how such an incident could happen. Why would anyone plug the sink with paper towels, turn the water on and leave? Sure, maybe it gets a laugh from a few friends, but is it really worth the 6 month library suspension? Unfortunately, it is for many of our patrons. It’s also a routine occurrence for the elevator to be used as a urinal by mischievous youth looking for a laugh.
There was even one day when I was working on the Teen Banner project (described in a previous post) when an older youth tipped me off to the fact that amateur nose piercing was raging through the high school like wildfire. I didn’t think much of it until I looked around and realized that several girls who had just been working on the banner had disappeared rather suddenly, and after a quick sweep of the Reference floor they were nowhere to be found. It was about at that moment that I noticed several voices emanating from the public restroom and approached the door. I knocked and the voices fell silent instantaneously.
“Anyone in there?” I hollered, knocking again. “I’m coming in!”
At which point a young girl, only 12, opened the door and exited, turning the light off behind her. “Sorry, I was just washing my hands,” she said innocently. Unfortunately for her, she didn’t fool me for a second. I switched the light back on to find 5 teenage girls all huddled by the sink holding needles they had stolen from the sewing project they had been working on in the Teen Room. Two sported small gems in their reddened noses, painfully obvious new additions to their faces.
Being the teen-savvy librarian I am, I refrained from harsh scolding and instead focused on safety.
“Ladies, this really isn’t the place to be doing this, but since I caught you... are you disinfecting your needles? If you took them from the Teen Room--”
“No, we didn’t steal them!”
“--then they’re probably covered in germs from all the kids who have been touching them. I definitely saw someone’s little brother sneeze into his hands and then use some of those needles.”
“Ewwwwww, oh my god did you make sure you burned that before shoving it through my nose?? Who has the lighter??” A flurry of worried voices chimes in and some girl mutters something like, “I forgot the lighter, but I’m sure it’s ok. We wiped it off first...”
“And I don’t want you to get in trouble with your parents. If you’re reverting to piercing each other in the public library bathroom, I assume your family doesn’t know you are doing this. I’m not going to tell on you, don’t worry, you guys should think about this, ok? I know I’m not one to talk [since my nose is pierced] but I waited until I was 18 to get mine done, and did it at a piercing parlor where everything was sanitized.” I paused a second for effect while looking around the bathroom sketchily before continuing. “I’m sure you realize this already, but this is definitely not a sanitary place.” The girls glanced around too, and the young 12 year old mumbled, “Eww, is that poop on the wall??”
Mind you, we do have a fantastic cleaning crew that scrubs the place down thoroughly, but everyday wear-and-tear seems to be particularly rough. Just yesterday an older gentleman suffering from incontinence literally ran up to the desk and started shouting rather incoherently that he needed the bathroom NOW, GOD DAMN IT! and the poor librarian at the desk had to essentially evacuate the person who was in there to make way for this man, who was already peeing himself by the time he entered the restroom. In the afternoons, the bathroom gets particularly messy and slippery because many of the youth who attend homework help are Muslim, and they must wash their hands and feet in the sink (which is quite messy as you can imagine, leaving puddles of water on the floor) before the afternoon prayer. Yes, the everyday wear-and-tear is quite extensive!
There is one final anecdote that must be shared in order for you to fully understand my disgust of public restrooms, but which also merits a good amount of humor just in time for April Fool’s day. While I was not ‘blessed’ with the opportunity to see this first-hand, I heard a detailed description from my coworker who described it, laughingly, as “the most disgusting thing [he’d] ever seen.” It took a while to figure out who the culprit was, but thanks to our security cameras we managed to fill in many of the missing details. Here’s how events played out:
A patron approached the desk with a horrified look of shock on his face. He simply stated, “You need you place that bathroom out of order. It’s definitely unusable.”
My coworker thanked the patron and said to me, “I’ll go check it out before we put up the sign. A lot of the time it just needs to be plunged a bit.”
Less than a minute later, he emerged from the bathroom with a bemused but disgusted look on his face and remarked, “That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” He then proceeded to describe the state of the toilet-- a paperback book had been spread open in the toilet, cover-side up, so that all of the pages became saturated with toilet water. The culprit had then proceeded to take a shit (“the biggest dump I’ve ever seen!!” he said) on top of the book, and had flushed the toilet several times so that the saturated pages dissolved a bit and swirled around in the nearly-overflowing toilet bowl. The whole mess had completely blocked up the system and musked the air with a thick stench that rendered the bathroom unusable for the next two days.
The librarians colloquially referred to the culprit as “The Mad Crapper,” and set off on a mission to identify him. After reviewing several hours of video footage, we finally noticed a suspicious patron who entered the bathroom holding what appeared to be a book. When he exited, the item was no longer in his hands, and he had a maniacal grin on his face. A police report was filed for destruction of library property (the book) and a suspension put in place in response to the poor behavior.
The episode definitely solidified my negative opinion of public bathrooms; they abound with mischievous misdemeanors, poor etiquette, and repulsive acts. Yet I found myself realizing that I no longer was afraid of them. Sure, they are uncomfortable places that I try to avoid at all times, but I now have a new respect for the endless humor they provide to this unsuspecting, public-bathroom-hating librarian.
Yes, as sick as it was, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the Mad Crapper. His seemingly senseless behavior led to the disgusting and horrific destruction of a book, but he had a sense of humor (albeit a twisted one).
Admittedly, this was one of the most creative book reviews I’d ever heard of.