Shout out to Carol and Abby for making that happen, and special mention to my research partner (and girlfriend) Stephanie for the loads of help with the restroom mapping in the field. Also I’d like to thank my thesis committee for believing this to be a worthy research project: Drs. Block, Bouman and Mulugeta at Chicago State University.
I haven’t written here as much as I would have liked, especially considering the fact that I’ve been independently researching public restrooms for practically my whole life. Here I’d like to give you some history as to why I have this passion, urge, and necessity to better understand this ofttimes unmentionable topic.
A few years back, in what seems like another life, I was mapping utility lines. This involved driving around in a Jeep Wrangler, following various electrical, cable, telephone and fiber optics lines wherever they went, and marking them on a map using GIS software. The areas include: busy downtown city centers, remote rural landscapes, and people’s backyards. I did this for an amazing company called VentureSum, based out of North Carolina. Later on, I became a regional manager, and my territory was: West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Beautiful parts of the country, to be sure.
The problem with driving for a living is that there’s no bathroom in your office. Instead, you have to rely on public restrooms along the way.
The day starts with the hotel lobby restroom. Often I’d be sharing a hotel room with a coworker, whatever city/state we were working in that week, and the morning bathroom time is a special time that sometimes requires a bit of planning. Thus I discovered how underused hotel lobby restrooms were, and would usually plan my morning schedule based on its availability.
After this, I would drive to my work area, wherever I left off the day before, and keep in my mind the location of the nearest public restroom while I worked. I kept this mental restroom map in my head based on what I saw as I drove to my area, places like a Walmart or Target were the best, because you knew where in the store they were located (and where the back-up locations were, such as by the auto care area in Walmarts). Also, you didn’t have to talk to anybody. I was never a customer on a restroom break, so places like gas stations and fast-food restaurants were second in terms of priority, because usually you had to ask for a key, or at least felt watched as you walk in and out without buying anything. Sure, this isn’t a big deal for some people, but when you do this every day, sometimes several times a day, it becomes an issue. The two reasons I always knew where the closest restrooms were are: 1) not wanting to waste time driving around when I should be working, and 2) not wanting to waste time driving around when I really needed to go. In rural areas, this was less of an issue as I could find a spot to do number one (and rarely number two), but in a city you run the risk of getting into trouble, and that would be both awkward for me and my company.
The wildcard in public restrooms is of course the supermarket (or grocery store). They have restrooms, but they aren’t always in the same place. People rarely use supermarket restrooms, especially in smaller stores with poor signage, so it’s a safe place to be in once you get there (e.g. not crowded so you get immediate access). However, depending on the store and size, they can be found: near the front entrance, near the bakery, near the dairy, near a little café, or even back by the meat counter in what looks like an employees only area, but is actually a public restroom AND an employees only area, a bit of a grey zone. Walking the perimeter of the store will usually yield the restroom’s location, but sometimes you have to ask somebody, which can mean more time.
Overall, this constant keeping of restroom maps in my head ingrained the idea in me of how important public restroom access truly is. Sure, parents always say to use the bathroom before you leave the house, and from an early age people are obsessed with our various bodily outputs, but when you’re at home or school or work in an office, the restroom is just obvious. You know where it is, what to expect when you get in there, and worse case you have to wait a few minutes. This all changes when you’re out and about in public. Some places charge you to go to the bathroom, some places are unsafe or unsavory or do not have the amenities you require (e.g. baby changing stations). Some places lie to your face and say they have no restroom, or tell you the truth and say they do not want you to use it because you’ll probably poop everywhere.
If any of this strikes a chord with you, feel free to contact me with your own restroom story or ideology. Alright then, until next time.